Travel startups: Disruption from within?

Startups play an essential role in spearheading innovation that benefits consumers, businesses, and industries. But travel startups have been underfunded when compared to startups in other sectors. Looking back over the past 15 years, the travel and tourism industry received around 1 percent of funding for startups across all industries.1 This relatively low level of investment stands out in contrast to the industry’s size: Travel and tourism contributed to over 10 percent of global GDP in 2019.2 These factors suggest that it’s a tough industry in which to raise money.

Despite these funding challenges, and unprecedented industry uncertainties, over $27 billion worth of investments were poured into travel companies from 2020 to 2022. In fact, in 2021, investment set a new record of just under $11 billion—indicating that investor appetite has not only returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, but even surpassed it.

Analysis is based on information obtained from the Phocuswright startup database. Funding was analyzed from 2005 to 2022 YTD (including November 2022), based on a sample of 3,865 startups. This included 6,395 funding rounds, accounting for $76 billion in funding (exhibit).

Given this context, a new report Travel startups: Disruption from within–or not? presents an overview of the travel startup environment, and how the funding landscape has evolved across geographies, and across the different types of travel startups. Analysis is based on information obtained from the Phocuswright startup database and draws on insights from industry executives (see sidebar, “About this research”).

The report examines the kinds of investors that are funding these startups—and the types of businesses they choose for investment. It also puts forward possible future scenarios that would have implications for travel companies and stakeholders in the startup space. This article presents some of the key findings.

Fewer travel startups are attracting funding, but when they do, they secure a substantial amount

Even though funding may be hard to come by, compared to other sectors, investors are interested in travel and tourism. Investment in travel startups has returned to pre-pandemic levels and has even surpassed record-breaking years in the past, such as 2015 and 2019. These peaks were achieved through significant acquisitions that may have consolidated the market. For instance the online travel agency Expedia acquired HomeAway for $3.9 billion in 2015.3

Furthermore, funding per round has increased over the past decade from an average of around $4 million in 2010 to $20 million in 2022, with the steepest increase seen during the pandemic (Exhibit 1). This indicates that fewer travel startups could be attracting funding, but when they do, they secure a substantial amount. In essence, the relatively small amount of funding that exists is shifting toward fewer startups.

Funding has shifted toward more mature startups

Johannes Reck is CEO of GetYourGuide, a Berlin-based online travel agency and online marketplace for tours, attractions, and excursions. The company’s website and app connects travelers with activity providers around the world, offering thousands of products in more than 20 languages, and 40 currencies. He shares his views on the investment landscape for travel startups:

What patterns have you noticed regarding investment in travel startups?

At a high level I would say that too little VC money flows into travel altogether, probably due to the market cap that has been realized, and that startups in the scaling phase still have to demonstrate profitability to attract funding. It’s also important not to generalize the way we think about startups—they range in size and maturity from two employees to major disruptors. Essentially, if innovation is not yet proven, then there is little or no money coming in, and this is especially true in Europe.

Are certain types of startups attracting more investor interest than others?

There are category leaders emerging in many areas, such as flights, accommodation, and experiences. I think investors have no appetite to pour money into a number three or four in any given category. And because of the global network effect in travel, it’s really difficult to design a new category. For instance, the chance that a new company could fundamentally disrupt an established concept such as Airbnb, or, is limited because of the network effect that locks in global supply and demand—and that’s what makes category leaders so defensible.

Furthermore, there is a perception that as large firms are so big, they can do everything, and that may scare away a lot of investors from betting on a smaller innovative company. The presence of large incumbents may stifle innovation—but startups have a central role to play in this regard and can benefit the entire industry.

What role do you think travel companies could play in the startup landscape?

I think travel companies have to invest in innovation now, otherwise they could be worse positioned in a future crisis. Essentially, travel companies could look at how investing in startups could strengthen all areas of their value chain. They could also focus on the value that innovation will bring to the industry, instead of investing only with profit in mind.

That said, there may be room for travel companies to look at M&A. There is much less competition, compared to pre-COVID-19, and acquisition is now much more efficient. This means that companies could be in a position to grow—much faster and with less effort.

Across industries, later-stage funding (i.e., Series B, C, D) has made up the majority of startup investment (Exhibit 2). Between 2020 and 2022, more acquisitions (e.g., and On Location Experiences) and public financing rounds (e.g., Sonder and Vacasa) took place than in previous years. This could be symptomatic of a trend: Investors may want to back category leaders that have reached scale (See sidebar, “Q&A with Johannes Reck, CEO of GetYourGuide”).

Hospitality startups remain the leading category for investment

Most recent funding has been channeled to hospitality startups, making up 49 percent of investment between 2015 and 2019, and 41 percent between 2020 and 2022. This is likely due to the rising popularity of short-term rentals. Startups providing services for short-term rentals, such as Airbnb or AvantStay, accounted for 55 percent of hospitality startup funding in 2021.

Business travel startups doubled their share of investment during the pandemic, and within this category, startups in the corporate segment, such as the expense-management software provider Divvy, secured 98 percent of funding between 2020 and 2022. The MICE segment received the remaining 2 percent, likely due to the decrease in events during the pandemic.

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In the same period, booking and transport startups lost some share of funding as investor priorities may have shifted during the crisis. In the booking category, online travel agency businesses secured 90 percent of funding.

Overall, the pre-trip category remains the least funded, having attracted 1 percent of total funding in the past seven years. Within this category, startups in insurance attracted 84 percent of funding in 2021 (Exhibit 3).

Travel companies account for a relatively small percentage of travel startup funding

Since 2015, five categories of investors have funded travel startups:

Overall, VCs have been the leading investor category, and spent nine times more than travel companies in 2021. Since 2015, travel companies accounted for a relatively small percentage of startup funding, and this has decreased in recent years, dropping from 18 percent in 2020 to 5 percent in 2021.

Between 2015 and 2019, VCs and PEs invested at least twice as much per funding round compared to travel companies. Average funding size was roughly $37 million for VCs and PEs, compared to $17 million for travel companies. This leveled out between 2020 and 2022 where both groups invested approximately $30 million on average per funding round.

In 2021, banks greatly increased their investment share and matched VC investments, likely driven by increases in debt funding (Exhibit 4).

The travel industry could benefit from supporting startups

To date, travel companies have played a very small role in investing in the industry. As startups generally spearhead innovation, travel companies could take up opportunities to support startups—and reap the benefits. Furthermore, by not supporting, or finding ways to engage other players in the industry, travel companies may be missing an opportunity to shape the next generation of travel businesses. And as the investment landscape becomes tougher, travel companies are well placed to ensure that the innovation pipeline continues to flourish, even if VCs and larger players withdraw.

Travel companies could become more involved in investing in the industry and bring their expertise to bear on innovation and the sorts of capabilities and technologies that may be needed. And they stand to gain from leveraging startup capabilities in-house. Research into collaboration between corporates and startups in other industries shows that both parties stand to benefit. Startups can benefit from corporate funding, resources, and customer access, while corporates may need the innovation that startups offer to stay ahead of competitors and disruption, and also to access new technology.4

Three possible future scenarios could materialize in light of the trends in travel startup funding.

However the future pans out, support for startups can boost innovation and strengthen the travel and tourism value chain, for all participants.

This content was originally published here.