Marty Wilson's excellent adventure
Boulder entrepreneur has the world online
By Karen Mitchell
Camera Staff Writer
It's the kind of voyage Magellan would have envied: Marty Wilson is circumnavigating the globe from the comfort of a second-story office suite in downtown Boulder.
Co-founder and Chief Adventures Officer of the Internet startup WorldAdventures.com, the 34-year old traveler/entrepreneur wants to make it easier travel the world.
WorldAdventures.com differs vastly from other adventure travel Web sites, Wilson says, in that it caters to independent travelers, those who design their own travel plans.
Rather than merely allowing readers to select and book tour packages, WorldAdventures.com generates personalized itineraries based on the reader's interests. The itineraries may then be booked, altered or further customized at any time even after the traveler has left home.
"Consumers will spend more than $32 billion on vacation travel bookings on the Web in 2004," says Henry Harteveldt, senior analyst, Forrester Research. "Nearly three-quarters of online households have used the Web to plan a trip, making travel the most researched product online."
The itinerary-driven engine at WorldAdventures.com will provide entree into market segments comprising the bulk of this business, Wilson says. "We will focus initially on intermediaries serving the adventure traveler market, whom research suggests accounts for 1 out of 10 leisure travelers, or approximately 20 million Americans. These consumers travel more often, stay longer, and are more likely to use the Internet to plan and purchase their travel."
WorldAdventures.com will license its software to other off-line and online travel intermediaries via a centralized ASP (Application Service Provider) model.
"Until now," Wilson says, "travel companies have used the Internet as a new distribution media for existing travel products and services. This is not revolutionary. The real power of the Internet is to connect people and enable them to plan trips anywhere in the world using current, firsthand information. It's like talking with a friend who just returned from a trip, except we take better notes."
The first country on the WorldAdventures.com site is Vietnam. Sites for Laos and Cambodia will be added at the end of May, Thailand in June.
"We're negotiating with some strategic partners to help us expand more rapidly," Wilson says. "We hope to go global overnight."
The Vietnam site did about $250,000 in bookings to that country in 1999. "We're getting about 25,000 user visits a month," Wilson says. "Our audience reflects the Internet audience overall which is about 75-percent U.S. based. WorldAdvcentures.com will do about $3 million in bookings in 2000."
Most WorldAdventures.com customers are female, ages 25-54, and they are experienced travelers who spend more money and travel frequently.
Through its AdventurePlanner feature, WorldAdventures enables individuals to create customized itineraries based on personal interests and length of stay.
"We list recommended hotels, and we'll make guaranteed accommodation and transportation reservations at discounted rates, but we don't require you to book anything," Wilson says. "You can print the information out and take it with you. We think this opportunity will bring you back to our site because we really know what we're talking about."
An individual who wants to plan a seven-day kayak trip, for example, can go online to create a customized package, one that is highly personalized.
"Through the WorldAdventures network, you can communicate directly with people living in the destinations you're interested in," Wilson says. "We provide local people, living in countries where the Internet is not readily or affordably accessible, an opportunity to use the Internet for free in exchange for answering questions from our readers."
One criteria is that these foreign network correspondents speak English. "It's the language of the Internet, like it or not," Wilson says. "It gives these people a chance to communicate with others around the world. It brings people closer together."
Where the value for the travel industry previously was in the transaction, such as that performed by a paid travel agent, value now is in personalized services and products.
"Now, anyone can make their own travel transaction," Wilson says. "Services such as providing a customized itinerary are what will drive the future of the travel industry."
WorldAdventures.com currently has six employees, including "chief imagineer" Rob Martin, who worked with Wilson in other business ventures and created graphics for the Vietnam site, gratis.
"With our next round of financing we anticipate rapid growth," Wilson says.
Wilson, who grew up in Hatboro, a Philadelphia suburb, was initiated into the lure of travel through Wilson family vacations, including car trips up and down the East Coast. After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he studied photography and communications, he spent two months backpacking in Europe.
A job with Kodak followed, in which Wilson staged feature-length, multimedia travelogues in "every town and city" in Canada and the United States.
"I did a show on China at Macky Auditorium in 1988," Wilson says. "That was my first time in Boulder. It was winter I hated winter but there was a warm spell. We spent three weeks in the Front Range area and I loved it."
Wilson moved to Boulder in 1990, and with two business partners, started Meetings By Design Inc., a special events production company.
"What got me going to Asia was burnout," he says. "I went to Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam for three weeks in 1995, and that opened my eyes to what I wanted to do with my life. When I came back to Boulder, I bought out my partner and started doing Web sites."
The Vietnam site was originally created as a capabilities demo to show prospective clients," he says. "I really didn't have a business plan per se, but within a few months we had had thousands of visitors a month and people kept asking about travel itineraries. I realized the opportunity to create a new travel site."
Wilson had started Meetings By Design with a bank deposit of $150 and grew it to $500,000 in revenue in five years.
"That's fine if you're a small business, but growing takes capital," he says. "For WorldAdventures.com, we drafted a business plan, started networking and soon raised six-figures in seed money from friends, family and local investors."
The recent deluge of media coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon brought the country into millions of American homes, and hopefully will attract potential adventure travelers to WorldAdventures.com, Wilson says.
"The media attention was largely focused on veterans, but there have been a lot of stories giving background information," Wilson says. "I think people who might not know very much about Vietnam at all might get interested and add it to their travel itineraries."
Wilson's second trip to Vietnam, in April 1996, convinced him to concentrate on the Vietnam site.
"I hooked up with a guy named 'Johnny' Do Trong Tu, who had worked for the U.S. Embassy in Saigon," Wilson says. "He offered to take me to the Mekong Delta to visit his family, so I hired a car and four hours later we were there, after stopping along the way to pick up an electric fan."
Johnny's village, which has electricity but no running water, consists of dirt-floor huts occupied by subsistence farmers, Wilson says. "After a walk down a dirt path and a canoe ride on a canal, we spent the night. The next morning we went to Can Tho, to the Phong Diem market, an authentic floating market the real thing. We hired a boat and went out onto the river."
The river guide told the party that a local bigwig had insisted they stop by.
"By 8 a.m. we were drinking beer and eating baguettes and pate," Wilson says. "I was thinking 'This is real life,' and I was seeing a culture as it really is. That's what makes travel worthwhile. The reality is that those experiences are difficult to come by, but for those who want them, that's the dream."
May 14, 2000