Social travel sites start to rethink their tactics

In November Twigmore, a New York City start-up launched a Facebook-based social travel service into a crowded field — helping people plan trips by turning to their friends. One of the site’s key features was the ability for people to reach out to friends of friends around the world to get on-the-ground tips from locals.
But after a recent update that included the release of a global friend map, the company realized its fortunes didn’t lie in simply spurring on more travel. Why? Because as much as people like to travel, they only do it a few times a year — and that’s not enough to support a business.
Now, the company is pivoting away from pure social travel to more of an international friend-finding service as it builds off the success of the friend map, which has become Twigmore’s most popular feature. Co-founder and CEO Stephen Smyth told me the service grew 220 percent after the map launched in March, with users responding well to the idea of finding a global friend — not just for travel but for all kinds of uses. He said it’s helping people discover pen pals, conduct language exchanges or find business opportunities as well.

Not enough travel

“People simple don’t travel enough and one of the common pieces of feedback was that they loved the (Twigmore) concept but they didn’t have a trip coming up,” Smyth said. “We decided we needed to create a core functionality that didn’t focus on the creation and management of trips. That’s why we hit on helping people generate a friend map and using that to explore their world. They can use that without having to actually travel.”
The friend map highlights where friends are around the world, as well as friends of friends who are on the Twigmore service. Users can message a person and become friends via Facebook. Twigmore — which gets its name from the Gaelic “twig”, to learn or understand — has 4.5 million profiles in its system through its connection of friends of friends. Facebook has the ability to search for friends by city, but most people don’t know about the feature, said Smyth. He added that social travel services are having to adapt to the fact that travel planning is not an everyday activity.
Other services are adjusting in different ways. Trippy and Wanderfly seem to be pursuing a Pinterest for travel approach with more of a graphic, picture-based look that let people get ideas about where to travel to. Gtrot, meanwhile, is shifting to more of local discovery with a Pinterest-style look as well. Gtrot’s co-founder Zachary Smith told TechCrunch earlier this month that almost half of its users were already turning to Gtrot to plan local outings.
“Local discovery as a space makes a lot more sense than some travel specific application that you can only use a couple of times a year,” he said.

New features to keep users coming back

It’s still too early to tell which approach will work. But the fact that so many social travel apps are changing direction seems to bolster Smyth’s point that there is not enough regular travel to power a social travel service. The key will be in what other features and tools these services can provide for users that keeps them coming back on a regular basis.
Twigmore, for its part, is betting that people want to branch more internationally and are interested in finding friends around the world. While that might not sound that interesting to many users, Smyth said younger demographics are more open to finding new friends abroad.
Twigmore, which is backed by $275,000 in angel funding, is still tiny, with only about 10,000 installations of its Facebook app. But if it can grow with its new friend-finding direction, it will further the argument that social travel services will need to expand to survive.