Lee Hayhurst speaks to founder Dr Kris Naudts ahead of his keynote at next month’s Travolution summit to find out what is driving the strategy behind one of travel’s most-talked-about new entrants
Since Bill Gates declared ‘content is king’ in 1996 constant repetition has stripped the mantra of a fundamental truth about the internet the Microsoft founder had hit upon.
As the ‘World Wide Web’ emerged, Gates predicted it would be content where the real money is made online, in exactly the same way as it was in traditional broadcasting.
And this insight is precisely what is driving London-based global start-up Culture Trip as it strives to establish itself as the next great disruptive force in the sector.
Founder Dr Kris Naudts, a former psychiatrist, believes Culture Trip has created a model capable of cracking two great challenges relating to content online.
The first is finding a way to generate quality content consistently and at mass scale, and the second is driving and attributing direct commercial value as users consume that content.
A golden age
He says this is not something that has been achieved to date despite the internet representing what should have been a golden age for content creators.
“In an online world the traditional boundaries between content formats and industries no longer really hold,” he says.
“And yet very few online content providers have capitalised on that. That’s one thing we do that others may be do not do as successfully.
“Today we create written content, photographic, illustration and animation, and we treat each of these formats as equals. Historically the more pictorial formats were subservient.
“With us that’s not so, it’s distinctly not so. Even if there are industry boundaries between these formats, for the user they are not relevant.
“The user doesn’t care if a videographer went to a different school to learn their trade than a journalist.
“And our audience of millennials is a very visual generation looking for visual stimulation, so having visual formats on a par with written formats caters for that.”
Culture Trip has a core team of in-house content producers, but increasingly it is becoming a distributor of content for freelance writers, videographers, illustrators and animators.
Content at scale
And this is how the firm achieves the sort of volume others cannot match, by establishing itself as a new gateway for these professionals to a potentially global audience.
As well as in-house staff, a community of graduates turned local content creators based all over the world are commissioned and paid to produce Culture Trip’s content.
In addition, it now has around 20 in-house illustrators and animators but as the site grows it is finding it can succeed applying exactly the same approach to generating visual content.
“At first it was hard to do at scale because illustrators could not see what our platform offered them,” says Naudts. “That’s changed, we’re now a big platform.
“Most illustrators do not have our kind of reach. This is a real art and they have a stronger sense of calling for their craft than the average writer.
“In a digital world this should be have been a golden time for these guys to live in but it’s only now that it is coming to be so.
“The crux of the model has always been we have an in-house workforce that commissions that content and that’s where the community of creators comes in.
“To my surprise, it turns out to be scalable for every format. Everyone knew there were opportunities for writers and journalists but for visual producers it was an open question.
“We have found it was even better because they have an even more freelance mindset than, perhaps, writers have so it allows us to produce quality content at scale.”
Animated by animation
An example of the kind of bespoke content Culture Trip is producing is a three-minute video charting Elspeth Beard’s round-the-world trip on her 1974 BWM R60/06 bike.
Naudts was speaking ahead of his keynote address at the Travolution European Summit on September 26 having relocated Culture Trip to new offices near Bond Street, London.
As a company still imbued with a start-up ethos that battled for years with no funding, he is a little sheepish about the impression the firm’s swanky new address gives.
But an $80 million funding round secured in April that came after plans were revealed to create a travel division has put Culture Trip firmly on most industry watchers’ radars.
Spearheading this is experienced industry professional Andy Washington, who has a background in both traditional tour operating and OTAs with Cosmos, lastminute.com, Expedia and, most recently, Travel Republic parent dnata Travel.
Naudts says it was vital Culture Trip brought in some travel industry experience and adds he is enjoying discovering more about the sector.
“Having some travel nous in the team is even more important than I thought it was. Travel is a really grown up industry with people who go into the trade and tend to stay there.
“They hold a wealth of knowledge that’s hard to come by from outside. As a scientist I can look at the data, but I’m not a fountain of knowledge on the travel industry.
“No matter what your role, this is a real industry with real people and if you do not know those people you can get it wrong.”
Naudts said Culture Trip’s journey to link the retailing of travel to inspiration was still at an early stage, but the team is now in place and it will take its time to get it right.
He believes its advantage over rivals centres on its rich content as opposed to the more functional deals, product descriptions and reviews OTAs have traded on for decades.
Naudts refers to old-fashioned travel guidebooks to explain Culture Trip’s mission is to take the sort of content that inspired generations of travellers and successfully apply it online.
He says the deals, recommendations and booking aspects of travel have been successfully migrated online, but little time or investment has been committed to longer form content.
“We have the edge of being new,” he says. “Everyone has an expectation about what they will find on an Expedia or a booking.com.
“For us that expectation is not there yet so we have the freedom to experiment and offer something that was perhaps not there six months ago.
“It’s a lot harder for our rivals to go the other way and start adding that inspirational content.”
Naudts concedes there is always the risk users consume Culture Trip’s content and then disappear off to book on an agent website having had their fill of free inspiration.
World in your pocket
But he believes by offering comprehensive, engaging content Culture Trip can become a ‘world in your pocket’, like how the ipod offered an entire world of music in your pocket.
“People knock on our door all the time for content that helps them travel and explore the world around them, and they knock very hard. The question is what’s behind that door.
“That’s why being innovative with illustration and other formats creates an element of delight and surprise that will only further increase that demand to come back.”
When Gates made his ‘content is king’ comment he based it on the observation that the web would give everyone with a PC and a modem the power to become publishers.
But what he cannot have foreseen was that the sheer scale of content on the web would require producers to be given a stage on which to perform and an audience to perform to.
Content’s crown is secure, but if Culture Trip can give the king a new palace expect its name to rank alongside the very biggest in online travel.