Voyager HQ plays matchmaker and more for travel startups

Using a combination of digital and physical spaces, New York-based Voyager HQ is providing startups, corporations and investors a place to connect and foster innovation in the travel industry, a hub serving a sector in which technological advances historically have been underfunded and overlooked.

Managing director John Matson calls it a "startup club. ... kind of an incubator, without a timeline. What we are building toward is an open network and marketplace of sorts where larger corporate players can be sitting right next to the smaller players, these new startup founders, in multiple stages. And the same thing for the investors on that same level. We consider ourselves the hub for that environment."

Michael Coletta, manager of research and innovation at Phocuswright, said Voyager HQ is part of a larger trend of organizations fostering innovation in the industry. He attributed that trend to the success of startups like Airbnb and investors taking notice of major acquisitions like Expedia's HomeAway grab.

New technology, such as artificial intelligence, is also "fertile ground" for startups.

"I think Voyager's in a great spot, given that New York is a hotbed for startups, Coletta said. "And certainly there's a lot in travel going on here. They're just doing a nice job of giving startups discounted space to work and to meet each other ... connecting them with each other, with the wider ecosystem," such as potential investors and partners. "And it's needed because it's a very difficult industry to break through in."

Voyager HQ launched almost a year ago. Its partners include CheapOair (CEO Sam Jain is also heavily involved and helped launch Voyager HQ), Fareportal (CheapOair's parent company), Amadeus for Startups, the Aruba Technology Conference, Telluride Venture Accelerator and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

Today, Voyager HQ has more than 500 members representing about 300 startups.

Potential members apply to Voyager HQ through an online application process, and current members represent startups in all stages. There is no time limit on how long they remain members, Matson said, "as long as they're working on a project that is entrenched in the future of travel or they have some knowledge set that they want to provide to that community."

Digital membership is free. It enables startups to connect with corporate partners and investors and includes invitations to industry events, a newsletter, access to postings on the Voyager Job Board and space in Voyager HQ's Clubhouse co-working space (three days every three months), located in Manhattan's Flatiron district.

Paid memberships that include additional space at the Clubhouse and other amenities, such as private meetings space, are also available.

Matson said the Clubhouse enables digital members to have a physical space to work out of when necessary. Members who want a more permanent space can pay $225 per month for a desk.

"We wanted to make sure that it was a price point that made sense to entrepreneurs," Matson said, noting that the rental price is less than half the market rate.

Voyager HQ makes connections between its members, corporations and investors in a variety of ways. First, Matson said, are introductions via roundtables, Voyager HQ's signature events. Once startup members have been accepted to Voyager HQ, they fill out a profile describing what they do and their business model.

Then, when corporate partners approach Voyager HQ with an objective they are hoping to meet, it narrows its members based on areas of expertise and capabilities, then puts forth the members it believes can best help the partner corporation realize its goals.

The corporate partner will then meet with the five startup founders, have a "mini-pitch session" followed by a candid conversation, Matson said.

"It's a great business development opportunity for the startup founders, and it's kind of like a filtering function for vendors and partners for the larger entity," Matson said. "And it really gives them kind of a technical advantage when they have these nimble teams working on products outside of their larger-scale core competencies."

Matson said investors are connecting with startups mostly through one-on-one meetings at this point as well as through Voyager HQ's newsletter. The newsletter includes "startup seeking" and "investors seeking" sections, and it has grown in popularity.

Matson admitted that travel innovation has historically not been well-funded, but he said there has been increased interest in the space in the past three or so years.

"Our pipeline with investors is still very in motion," Matson said, but corporations have been working with Voyager HQ for some time. Amadeus, for example, has participated in roundtables that have connected it with startups like Bus Bot, a company that uses artificial intelligence to improve operations of transportation companies.

Voyager HQ's relationship with Fareportal has also been strong, connecting the company with startup founders to "create an ecosystem of innovation there," Matson said.

"Our members are voyagers, and wherever they are, we want to be able to provide them with resources, [whether] that's useful business development contacts of if that's fundraising elsewhere ... or if it's even just [providing services] like discounted rates or things like that," he said. "That's a lot of the stuff we're working toward. So we're the headquarters for them in that way."