Viator founder Rod Cuthbert and SF travel veteran Christian Watts reveal more about Magpie Travel and how it can fix our content woes.

Magpie Travel talk to the Tourpreneur Podcast
Magpie Travel talk to the Tourpreneur Podcast

Watts is also the founder and CEO of City Sightseeing, San Francisco’s first operator of hop-on hop-off and day-tour sightseeing. He admits that the idea for Magpie came through his own frustration when it came to keeping his content fresh and current on the 100s of channels where he sold his tours.

Magpie Travel could cure your content headaches. We find out more!
Magpie Travel could cure your content headaches. We find out more!

On this episode of the Tourpreneur Podcast, host Shane Whaley asks:

  • What exactly is Magpie Travel and what problems does it fix?
  • Why Christian felt there was a need for this type of solution.
  • Why did Rod Cuthbert decide to back Christian and Magpie Travel?
  • How does the pricing work?
  • Where the name Magpie Travel came from?
  • What has the feedback been like from tourpreneurs at Arival in reaction to their launch?
  • What testing has been completed prior to launch
  • Why Shane should not miss trade show parties
  • and more!

Links and Resources

Full Transcription.

Christian:                               00:26                       … and it just drives me crazy to go to these trade shows and see these emails flying backwards and forwards. So there’s a better way and the better way as the platform, call it a marketplace, call it a platform, but it’s the efficient way to transfer information.

Shane:                                      00:39                       Those are the words of Christian Watts at Arrival in Berlin, he formally launched a company that he says will be a major help to the majority of us Tourpreneurs. He is backed by Rod Cuthbert who is the founder of Viator. Christian is well known in our industry.

If you’ve visited San Francisco, you’ve probably enjoyed a tour in one of his buses, as he set up city sightseeing in the bay area. Actually it was through running that business that he experienced the major headache of sharing all his tour content with all the resellers, OTAs, travel agents, and concierges. Sound familiar?

I was keen to find out more and very intrigued to hear why Rod Cuthbert has got involved as a Founder-Investor. They kindly gave us some of their time in Berlin to talk through their new offering and why they think Magpie is sorely needed in our industry. You can find the show notes for today’s episode at www.tourpreneur.com\Magpie. And don’t forget to sign up for our daily briefing whilst you’re there. Both Rod and Christian are readers of our daily brief. So, welcome to Tourpreneur, Christian-

Shane:                                      01:59                       We’ve just come back from Arival. The day after Arival. You guys are ready to get off to ITB and you caused something of a stir this week. You had a big announcement for us regarding Magpie Travel. You were the media darlings yesterday. I saw you in all my feeds, Travel Veterans Launching a New Service. So Christian, maybe you could start by sharing with us what exactly is magpie travel?

Christian:                               02:19                       Yeah, we’re really excited. We just launched this week, so it’s actually quite a simple solution. It’s for tours and activities sector, specifically, and it’s for product content. So I’ve been an operator for 20 years, running bus tours around San Francisco. So over the years we’ve just come across some problems with trying to sell our tours and activities to the market, to online travel agents, to standard travel agents, to concierges, and others. And typically what we do is we go to a trade show. We might have a dozen, 50, 100 meetings with these people and then the week after the trade show we follow up, we send them an email and we send them a Word doc as an attachment with all our descriptions about products.

Christian:                               03:02                       We send them an Excel file with prices, we send them a link to Dropbox with all our images. And on the other side of that they have to receive all that, open the attachment, find all these descriptions. So we’re just trying to get all that content in one place, so we have an online portal, an online platform, where any tours and activities operator can log in, upload that content, save it in one place, and then point everyone to that place to find it.

Shane:                                      03:26                       They find us attractive. This is not getting involved with pricing and inventory. This is purely content, correct?

Christian:                               03:32                       That’s right. There’s a lot of, I call them Res companies, Res-tech companies, people who provide that reservation service. They provide sort of the backend, the tools to run your tour company. That gets really complicated. There’s some great tools out there. There’s a lot of good companies doing that. They handle the pricing, they handle the availability. They handle the reservations and the customer lists and all that side of it, so we don’t need to touch that. These guys are doing a great job. We’re just trying to provide a little solution over on this side.

Shane:                                      03:57                       It’s great time to launch because at Arrival, got to meet lots of Tourpreneurs, lots of people in the industry. What was the reaction to the launch of Magpie yesterday?

Christian:                               04:05                       It’s great. I’ve spoken about this conceptually for a couple of years, throwing the idea out. Now that we’ve actually launched, it’s just great to hear the reaction. I go through and explain what we are and everyone says, yeah, we send Word docs, we struggle with this. We have a half or full-time person or three full time people just updating content. So everyone recognizes immediately, the problem. Our next job now is to execute and get people to actually use it. So that has been, the reaction has been amazing.

Shane:                                      04:31                       Rod, may I ask you how you got involved with this?

Rod:                                            04:34                       I went along to the Arrival Conference in Las Vegas last year and by chance I was coming down the escalator after a cocktail party on, I think it was the Monday night, and I looked across and there was Christian who I’d known for 20 odd years.

Shane:                                      04:51                       How’d you guys know each other? Previous-

Rod:                                            04:52                       Well, in the early days of Viator, we were based in San Francisco and we cared a lot about operators in San Francisco. Christian actually wasn’t one of our operators.

Christian:                               05:01                       Right.

Rod:                                            05:02                       He wasn’t one of the chosen ones. We had a curated model at that stage and we curated him out. But we remained friends and it wasn’t too long until he entered the fold and he became a Viator customer. So I’d known him briefly, but of him for a long time and we’d had a few drinks in the past. And so we caught up and he told me about Magpie, which wasn’t called Magpie. It had been called TourConnect, I think.

Christian:                               05:28                       TravelConnect, yeah.

Rod:                                            05:29                       TravelConnect was the name he had for it, which I immediately said was just a really lousy name. And from my experience, I realized that this was also a significant problem on the reseller side. To give you an example, and Christian used the example of going along to a trade show. I would go to the product team after a trade show and I’d say, “Gee, I liked such and such a product. when’s that going to be up?” And they’d shake their head and they’d say, “Come back in a month’s time or two.” Because they’ve got dozens and dozens or maybe even a hundred operators that they want to on-board. And they’re dealing with that, what I would call a dog’s breakfast, of Word files and Excel files, some of which were old versions of Word or the file was corrupt and they had to have a back and forth with the operator.

Rod:                                            06:16                       It is a thankless task dealing with product content in this very manual manner that the industry does it now. So I immediately saw that there was significant benefits for the reseller channel and I also understood, and I think this is a really important point, TripAdvisor’s move to go to a marketplace where they’re going to … Or they have been dramatically increasing their number of operators and products that are available online, is dragging along many of the others. Some are going in a different direction. GetYourGuide is curated but I think we’ll see an enormous amount of product being ingested by the reseller community and it can’t do it. It’s sort of a content crunch that’s happening because the operators need to manage the sending of all this data and the resellers need to on-board it. And it’s just … The manual process that’s in place now, it just can’t cope with that volume.

Rod:                                            07:16                       So I convinced Christian that we really should turn this into a classic sort of SAS startup that I could get together some investors fairly quickly and that I’d like to get involved because I thought I could add something in terms of perspective from the reseller channel. So I was very lucky to be on the escalator at the right moment.

Christian:                               07:36                       I think you’ve got to say you’re very lucky to be at a cocktail party. See, that’s the important bit isn’t it?

Rod:                                            07:40                       Well, I had looked at Viator we, the writing instructions we gave to anybody who went along to the conference was, be the last person at the bar because you can do a lot of good deals when the person on the other side of the deal has had a couple of drinks.

Shane:                                      07:54                       Impressive. And I have to say, I didn’t go to the Arrival party this week. You guys know I was on the panel the next day. So I thought, “You know, I’m going to go to bed early, I’m going to have a beer, a nice meal and go to bed early.” And my former boss Rachel House, who was my mentor at Booking.com was probably shaking her head. Because she taught me how to drink. You know, she taught me how to drink and do business at the same time. But a lost opportunity when you don’t go to the function.

Rod:                                            08:15                       Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Shane:                                      08:17                       So in terms of, sorry, I’m understanding how this is going to work on the commercial side. I’m curious on the technical side, because you were both entrepreneurs. How did you get the technology set up?

Rod:                                            08:27                       Look, this is not from a technology point of view. This is not rocket science. It’s more a matter of somebody deciding to do it. Essentially what we’re talking about, putting files into a central database and then disseminating those files to multiple points. It’s, frankly, relatively easy as a technical problem. We know what the data requirements are of each of the resellers. You can just go on their websites and see what they call fields. So that information is public. So we simply need to do this big mapping process where you figure out what all the fields are that everybody wants. And then when you output a file for, for instance, GetYourGuide or BeMyGuest or HotelBeds, you make sure that you’ve got the correct subset of fields for them.

Shane:                                      09:13                       And what’s the reaction been like from some of the OTAs tours, Magpie?

Rod:                                            09:17                       Well we’ve concentrated, so far, on the operators.

Christian:                               09:19                       Yes.

Rod:                                            09:21                       And it’s been universally positive because everybody has this problem and frankly they don’t like having to employ staff in what I would call administrative sort of revenue neutral roles. They would rather have them in marketing roles or sales roles where they can draw a line between that role and increased bookings. This is just something they have to do and they wish it was more efficient.

Shane:                                      09:47                       It’s complete pain in the ass, isn’t it? You know, and I worked on the OTA side both at Booking.com and GetYourGuide. That’s what I would hear. I don’t have time to update my content. Hey, my tours are changing, I’ve got a new tour. It was always frustrating on the OTA side that you wanted the latest photographs of the product, but you weren’t getting it because of the time involved in actually getting that from the operator.

Christian:                               10:09                       Yeah. That’s a huge, it’s a huge pain point and we hear that from the OTAs, that they set up extranets only because they struggled for years to get any content and the images are usually awful. And yeah, the updates, I mean we did a lot of product changes a year ago, just changing a few routes to the double-decker buses in San Francisco and just changing a few stops and we have to send 150 emails, look at this description, this change to this, this move to here. And it takes maybe six months to a year for that to get to these websites. And then customers aren’t happy. They’ve got the wrong description they missed a stop. All these things and it’s just a bad experience, sort of. And it’s unnecessary. So now we have the single place to do that. I’m upset with what Rod said about the dev. So now I’ve got to tell the devs team that what they did was really simple. I’m going to make Rod take that back in a minute.

Shane:                                      10:59                       In terms of the split bus, I want to go back to the technical aspect because you are both entrepreneurs. How did you go about getting the technical know-how that you needed?

Christian:                               11:07                       So I’ve always been more into the techs and probably then I know more about tech than about buses. I used to build websites and databases and that sort of thing. So I’m not really a coder, but I understand it. And I sort of got quite geeky about these, this product data and that sort of thing. So I’ve built systems and content management systems and that sort of thing before. And we’re using a team in Czech, in Czech Republic, we’ve actually built a lot of software for the bus company. So they built our ticketing system and they’ve built a point of sale system so they understand the problem. And we’ve used a lot of that technology and a lot of that know how to move over to what we’re doing.

Christian:                               11:45                       I mean, yeah, at heart, I’m an economist. That’s where I go. And economists are all about efficient markets. And it just drives me crazy to go to these trade shows and see these emails flying backwards and forwards. So there’s a better way. And the better way is the platform. Call it a marketplace, call it a platform, but it’s the efficient way to transfer information. So that’s what drives me, really.

Shane:                                      12:07                       See this is the good thing about Tourpreneur. I get to find out your story. I have known you from so many events but I didn’t know you were an economist. So we could have been talking about-

Christian:                               12:15                       Hey, we can move on to … There’s some economic issues around these days. We can move on to that.

Shane:                                      12:21                       Our probably won’t thank us for that. The name Magpie, where did that come from?

Christian:                               12:24                       Yeah. So, as Rod nicely pointed out, we’ve been out there in the market, sort of talking about TravelConnect and we discussed it in a meeting in the office and we came up with it and yet it was very generic and explained what we did, but it was very generic. Nobody was in love with it and we hadn’t launched yet, so we thought that’s fine. So after we had that meeting at Arrival with Rod and he wanted to get involved and yeah, he immediately said, “Your name sucks.” He didn’t say it kindly, your name’s awful, you need to change it. I said, “Fine.” So he sent a couple of suggestions and then one morning I wake up, Rod’s in Australia, I’m in San Francisco, so I get emails in the morning and he said, “I’ve thought of some names.” He said, “What do you think about an animal?” I said, “A magpie is a bird that collects things and we’re a platform that collects things.” So I said to Rod, I said, “Well, you know where I’m from, right?” And he said, “Well, no, you’re a Pom. It’s what Aussies call English people quite rudely. But I said “No, I’m from, I’m from New Castle, Rod. And my home football team are called the Magpies, wear black and white stripes.” He said, “Well, that’s really funny cause my Australian Rules football team are Collingwood,”

Rod:                                            13:27                       Collingwood.

Christian:                               13:28                       And they’re also the Magpies.” So, we both said that’s done then without thinking anything more about it.

Shane:                                      13:33                       That’s cool.

Rod:                                            13:34                       But I also liked the analogy of the Magpie collecting things cause that’s, it’s not just the, you know, the name of your teams.

Christian:                               13:40                       Oddly enough, though, it turns out that it’s ravens that can collect things.

Shane:                                      13:44                       Oh really?

Christian:                               13:45                       Magpies don’t. It’s an urban myth but never let the truth get in the way of the good story. We stuck with it.

Shane:                                      13:52                       I think it’s a good name, it’s distinct. And I like the logo that you have, that I saw on your press release yesterday. In terms of testing, so did you … I think Steven [Otto 00:14:02] from [Walks 00:14:02] was saying he tested out-

Rod:                                            14:03                       Yeah. Christian has been working with a bunch of operators in San Francisco that he’s close to and we’ve reached out to a number of operators that we’ve met here, European operators. So we’ve now got a really good collection of people. And what we’ve been looking for are operators who have a little bit of scale. So they got a dozen tours, say, and they’ve got 20 or 30 resellers at least so they, they fundamentally understand the problem. But more importantly what we’ve said to them is we’ve built a basic system here. It works and it’s got the base level of functionality. What we want to understand from you, now, we want to have a two-way dialogue where you say, I like this feature but what I really want to see is X. Because we’re in that early phase where the tech team can add functionality before we go to a full, you know, marketplace launch in a few months time.

Shane:                                      14:57                       So, if I’m listening to the show, now, can I work with Magpie as of today or is there that waiting period?

Rod:                                            15:03                       Look, go to the website and sign up for the Beta program. I suspect that in a week we’ll need to be going back to people and saying, you know, we’ve got enough Beta testers now. Because we’ve got, I think, over a dozen now.

Christian:                               15:16                       Get in quick.

Rod:                                            15:20                       Get in quick, or watch this space because we’ll continue to talk on the website about the sort of discussions we’re having with our Beta testers. And we’d love to hear from people who want to let us know, “Well I’m not in the Beta program, but here’s the problem I’ve got that I hope you’re solving.”

Speaker 1:                              15:36                       Did you know every weekday Shane curates the most interesting news articles in tours and activities and sends them out in a snappy daily digest. Grab your copy of the Tourpreneur Daily Briefing at www.tourpreneur.com.

Shane:                                      15:53                       Talk us through the price. Cause I know when you go to the full market launch, there’s three different pricing levels, correct?

Christian:                               16:00                       Yeah. There’s three different pricings. It’s a freemium model. So freemium meaning there’s a free version. The sort of base version is free, today, will remain free because we want this to be a basic service where you can list your product, show your product, so that will stay free for anyone. And then we have a $99 a month subscription level. And then above that is enterprise. So the $99 and the enterprise are basically additional functions, additional tools. Things like having a central place where you can actually go and check all your listings. So if you’re listed with 50 OTAs, typically you have to bounce around and search for those products and see what it looks like on one of these OTA sites. So just quick access to that. We can also do a check each night to see if that’s still live.

Christian:                               16:46                       Often things don’t get updated. Sometimes products drop off and you might not find out about it for a few weeks and your product’s not been for sale. So things like that. Image services, translation services, are going to be a big part of it. So we’re really at the stage now where we have these people testing the platform. We have the Beta flag on it. Beta means that it’s out there, usable. But if it’s broken, don’t blame us. Tell us. And when we take the Beta off, then we’re responsible for making sure everything works. But it’s there now, it works. It’s functional and it’s already a good tool, I think for people.

Shane:                                      17:19                       I was fascinated to see that you offer a, or you will offer copywriting services, as well, as part of the package. Can you share more about that with us?

Christian:                               17:26                       Yeah, absolutely. We have two of these services already lined up. One is the copywriting service. So, one of the things that, as a tour operator, there’s large tour operators, there’s small tour operators. When it comes to writing a description, I think a lot of people … You know, there’s a minimum, which is about 500 words, depending on where you’re sending it. And that it feels like writing an essay at school, for some people. You get to 501 words and you put your hands up and, I’m finished. And you submit it, let’s get it out and never think about it again.

Christian:                               17:53                       And you don’t take the time to do it right. But those words on that website are critical for you getting conversions. And it’s not difficult, really, but it’s not what these people do. It’s not what I do. It’s not what Rod does. So there are professional people that can quickly and, actually fairly cheaply, write great copy for you. And because we can scale out over thousands of operators, we can get companies that can come in and write hundreds of these things in a week, rather than go out there and find one specific copywriter, which is difficult.

Shane:                                      18:23                       It’s a real art, isn’t it? Copywriting?

Christian:                               18:24                       It is. Absolutely, yeah.

Shane:                                      18:25                       It’s a real art and I remember with my time both at Booking and GetYourGuide where they have their own house rules. In terms of copy and content, which are probably different from everyone else out there. So then you are seeing your content in different, presented differently. And a lot of the operators in hotels we work with, were very protective over their own copy as well, so there was always a clash on that front. And I think what I like about Magpie is, you’re right, a lot of entrepreneurs are not copywriters. They think they have the best copy, but to work with Magpie, they should get that expert. And then say, “Oh, it’s actually better if you word it this way.” Not just in terms of I guess, well, I guess … Well, I imagine there’s SEO copy as well, right? So that it’s written for good SEO as well as to convince people to buy.

Christian:                               19:10                       Yeah, absolutely. SEO is a critical piece of this right in the right structure and it’s not, again, it’s not that complicated, but there’s a few rules. The other critical thing, which some people know, some people don’t, but you can’t write the same description for everyone. So if you have a description on your own supplier website, owner operated website, and you send that to Expedia and Viator and get your guide in all these marketplaces, you’ll get dinged by Google on your own website. So you need to write different descriptions.

Shane:                                      19:38                       Let’s say for instance, I’m running a food tour in Montreal and something has changed so I’m not going to the famous Persian restaurant anymore. It’s not part of it and I change that in the content through Magpie, will that, then, be updated everywhere or-

Christian:                               19:51                       So today-

Rod:                                            19:52                       When we are fully operational.

Christian:                               19:54                       When we’re fully operational, that will go into the extranet, into the system. So you’ll update it in one place. And if Expedia, GetYourGuide, everyone, has allowed us to update their systems, it will automatically flow through. And I think everybody wants that. It gets a bit difficult because they have to give us access to update their systems and making sure the content remains reliable and accurate. But that’s the, that’s the end goal. So a tour of Montreal Food Tours. You can change the restaurant one place, submit, and it goes out to 50, 100, 200 websites and it’s done. Nobody has to touch it.

Shane:                                      20:28                       Brilliant. Is there anything we haven’t covered on this conversation that you’d like to share with Tourpreneurs that are listening in today?

Christian:                               20:33                       Well the, the other part of content I didn’t touch on was the translation services, which is very similar to copy services. And that we all understand that we should get our content translated. But where do you go? Do you trust them? Do you just use Google? Well, we’ve tested Google and sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes it’s not. And you don’t know when it’s not and you don’t know that this one tour description, maybe it worked in French and it looks fine, but the German version is awful and actually nobody’s ever going to buy it because you’ve made some critical mistakes. So we have human translators, an agency, ready to sit and translate. The same as the content. We can do it in scale so we can send them thousands of product descriptions and have professionals sit there, in as many languages as they need. So I think that’s a critical part of the platform as well.

Shane:                                      21:18                       Very impressive. And where can people find out more about Magpie?

Christian:                               21:22                       Well, magpie.travel is our website. We have the information up there with a style guide which helps them write these descriptions and understand how to do it. We’re going to keep updating that with useful information for them. And they can sign up right on the website, obviously, as well, for our Beta program. And come talk to us. We’re more than happy to … We love feedback. We love to talk to as many operators as possible, hear their ideas, hear their problems, anything we can help solve with this. We just love talking to people.

Shane:                                      21:50                       Fantastic. Well, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule, here in Berlin, to join us, Christian and Rod. Thanks very much.

Rod:                                            21:56                       Thanks, Shane.

Speaker 1:                              21:57                       Thanks for listening to the Tourpreneur Podcast. Be sure to visit tourpreneur.com to join the conversation and access the show notes including links to the resources mentioned on today’s episode. This is Tourpreneur.