Flight of fancy

February 1, 2012 12:13 pm

In an age when technology does more and more, the need for some human perspective has never been greater when it comes to providing online content. The Message talks to Lauren McLeod, founder of Flightfox, a human-powered flight-search start-up that’s making a big splash on the travel scene…

THE MESSAGE: Flightfox is the kind of concept that makes you wonder why you never thought of it yourself. Give us a quick rundown on how it works…

LAUREN McLEOD: If you need a flight, all you do is start a contest with your trip details and commit a $19-$39 finder’s fee. Then our flight hackers will get to work and compete against each other to find you the best possible flight. You can ask them any questions about airline safety, travelling with pets or even frequent flyer points. When you’re ready, you book your flight and award the hacker who gave you the best deal or best advice. You save both money and time.

TM: What gave you the idea to start Flightfox?

LM: [My partner Todd Sullivan, Flightfox’s co-founder, and I] were actually travelling through Bolivia at the time and trying to book a one-way flight out from Argentina to Canada. We were flexible with dates, airlines, even cities – but after a quick search, found that it was going to cost a whopping $1480 to go from Buenos Aires to Toronto.

After hours and hours of searching, we found that we could buy a flight from Buenos Aires to Ottawa for $950 and it stopped over in Toronto so we could just get off there (as we only travel with carry-on luggage). But then after more hours and hours searching the Internet, we found a different flight to Montreal that was just $585. And we could catch a six-hour bus for $17 from Montreal to Toronto, which we were happy to do for a saving of $350 each.

After travelling to six continents in the last 18 months, we now have a lot of experience finding cheap flights. And we understand the frustration that many people face when trying to book flights, especially to or from foreign countries.

As well as frequent flyers, there are also some large flight hacker communities that use all different strategies and tricks to find cheap airfares. Many of them are just regular people with full-time jobs, but they live and breathe this stuff every day. With Flightfox, we’re trying to help them profit from this passion by connecting them to travellers who will pay for their knowledge and advice.

TM: What do you think are some of the benefits of having a real human helping you find a flight, rather than an algorithm?

Lauren McLeod, Flightfox co-founder

LM: Algorithms are technical, but they’re also quite limited. They do not search all the possible routes to your destination. Plus, most search websites only include airlines where they receive commissions on bookings, so many low-cost carriers are ignored. Additionally, if you have a unique situation or a complex itinerary, algorithms just can’t handle this. There was a Flightfox contest recently where someone wanted to travel with three cats internationally – this is where the human perspective is needed. Multi-city searches also tend to break algorithms or give you a phenomenal price.

TM: How’s business?

LM: It’s going well. We’re still testing a lot of things out but the majority of feedback has been really positive, especially about the idea. I think a lot of people have had this problem before and can easily relate to getting frustrated over searching for flights. But it’s also tough because it doesn’t cost you anything to search for flights, just your time, and most people don’t put a value on their own time. Also, if you’re Net-savvy, it’s hard to believe that someone else can find a cheaper and better flight than you can, but it’s true.

We’re also getting new hackers on board every day. This is what I really love about the business: it’s a two-sided market and we’re creating a source of income for flight hackers, which anyone can become if they put the time and effort into learning it.

TM: Why does the travel industry foster such a love of human connection and interaction? We seem to rely on this far more in travel than anything else in terms of forums, review sites and the like.

LM: I think travel is relatively foreign to everyone, so we’re all looking for advice and experienced opinions. And most people only have a couple weeks for their yearly holiday and just want it all to go smoothly, so by going on others’ recommendations they don’t have to worry about rocking up to a hole in the ground.

Lauren’s own travel experiences led to her starting up Flightfox

TM: What are you doing as far as marketing Flightfox? Where/how are you advertising?

We haven’t done much marketing for Flightfox yet as we’re still trying to find that elusive product/market fit. We’re also waiting on a new design and building our community of flight hackers, as we need to scale both sides of the market at the same time otherwise it will fall apart.

Looking ahead, paid online advertising will be our main cost, but we believe our retention and referral rates will keep increasing. When users experience the value in their first flight contest with us, they won’t bother going to other sources when they need further flights.


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