SIX MONTHS AGO, two Japanese companies Voyagin and Rakuten started talks of a possible acquisition — the latter of the former, of course. On June 8, the two signed an agreement, making it official. And on July 2, they announced it, with help from media outlets.
Voyagin, a four-year-old Japan-based travel activities marketplace, is now a Rakuten company for an undisclosed amount at an undisclosed valuation. It was also undisclosed how the two met, which begs questions from the curious, like oh, did you meet online, through a friend or at a bar? But, understandably, that’s not as important as to why Voyagin proposed or accepted the acquisition.
According to Tushar Khandelwal, COO, Voyagin, who visited the e27 office in Singapore on Monday, the travel technology company will stand to benefit from Rakuten’s understanding of the travel space, ability to drive more tourists to Japan and its connections for hiring and partnerships.
After all, Rakuten owns Japan’s largest marketplace and operates Rakuten Travel, an online travel agency and accommodation booking engine in the country that sees 3.8 million nights booked per month across 30,000 properties. Voyagin, on the other hand, has more than 1,800 ‘experiences’ on its platform, spanning 50 destinations in Asia and has facilitated bookings for more than 30,000 guests.
Going forward, Voyagin will work with Rakuten to acquire each other’s customers; Rakuten Travel can take advantage of the fact that Voyagin users may not have booked their hotels and flights yet, and Voyagin can sell its tours and activities to customers of Rakuten Travel. The exact details of said collaboration will be released in the next couple of months.
Furthermore, “it’s also beneficial that we don’t have the distraction of having to fundraise again,” says Khandelwal.
It all started seven or eight years ago, with Masashi Takahashi, CEO and Co-founder, Voyagin, listing his living room on popular short-term rental platform AirBnB. A fluent speaker of both English and Japanese, Takahashi received many guests from all over the globe, many visiting Japan for the very first time.
“I had over 100 or 200 guests in my living room within two years or something,” says Takahashi over a call. “I did it because it was very exciting and interesting. At that time, I was always asked questions like where they [should] go or where they [should] eat, so I always give them recommendations or sometimes I brought them to activities or parties,” he adds.
That led him to start FindJPN (pronounced ‘find Japan’) with Hiroyuki Hayashi in 2011, which later morphed into Voyagin, a more global approach to booking unique and authentic tours and activities. Khandelwal joined after FindJPN was founded and helped launch Voyagin in 2012.
“I was working on my own project in India. And my home is Japan — that’s the closest thing I have to a home. I wanted to meet other entrepreneurs in Japan — and since what I was working on previously is travel-related — and I was very interested when I found out about FindJPN. I was really excited to meet an entrepreneur in the travel space in Japan,” explains Khandelwal.
“When we talked, within 10 minutes, I decided to hire him (Khandelwal). I asked him when he can start, and he said tomorrow,” says Takahashi. Since then, the team has grown from three people to 13 full-time staffers based out of two offices — one in Bali, Indonesia and another in Tokyo, Japan.
Those suffering from severe bouts of wanderlust should avoid visiting Voyagin’s website because doing so will only aggravate the situation. From observing sumo wrestlers up close during their morning routine at the Sumo Stable in Tokyo, to exploring Vietnam’s picturesque Sapa Valley on a bicycle, there is always something for everyone looking to discover Asia without being labelled a ‘tourist’.
According to Takahashi, the typical Voyagin user is a 20- to 40-year-old English speaking person who is relatively affluent. He or she is not a solo traveller; often, users of Voyagin are travelling with their family or significant other. Given their busy schedules, and preference for a unique, authentic experience over something off a Time Out list, they would rather go with a website that touts verified hosts that are reliable and experienced in providing value than with agencies who, in the mission to get the most bang for the buck, might squeeze 20 to 30 people into one tour.
Of course, tour operators are also noting this particular “growing hunger” of preferring ‘authenticity’. Travel Weekly wrote in a piece dated 2014 that “for tour operators”, being able to identify such a shift in mindset is “key to staying alive in a marketplace where they compete with a combination of low-priced cruises and all-inclusive vacations and with the growing number of travellers who think they can do it alone.”
It should be noted that out of the 1,800 experiences on Voyagin, more than 1,000 can be traced to hosts in Japanese cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Okinawa. While home country Japan leads the way in terms of the number of experiences listed on Voyagin, Takahashi and his team are starting to see an increase in the number of experiences posted in other markets such as Indonesia.
Nyoman Gede Mahuyana, a 30-year-old host in Bali, has been using Voyagin since 2013. He tells e27 that he gets a lot of clients through the platform. “So far, I got 346 groups (from Voyagin),” he shares candidly, noting that these are groups and not individuals.
The best thing about Voyagin, says Mahuyana, is that providing a unique experience is a must. Having been a tour guide since 2010, he wanted to list a regular run-of-the-mill tour on the platform. “It wasn’t approved by Voyagin team. It’s not easy to be a host on Voyagin,” says Mahuyana.
Today, the tour guide is running one of the most popular ‘experiences’ on Voyagin; he hosts visits to see shamans, or better described as healers and fortune tellers, who were featured in the American film Eat Pray Love.
There, guests can ask healers or palm readers questions, visit a temple built in the ninth century, have lunch and visit a holy spring water temple for a spiritual cleansing ritual.
Vanessa Shibata tells e27 about her experience working with the online company. She, like Mahuyana, is a host and has been working with Voyagin for the last few years, having listed her dojo’s ninja class on the platform after being contacted by the team.
At the ninja class, guests — children and adults — can learn to meditate, wear ninja outfits, get an introduction to weapons like ninja star and blowgun, practice various techniques and take photographs with the ninjas at the studio.
What makes Shibata’s ninja class different from other studios is that her ancestors — who came to Tokyo with ninjas — served the government as “heads of Onmitsu ninjas”. Guests could interact with her and her family, and find out more about ninja histories over the last few centuries.
Like many of the guests who have participated in Voyagin-listed activities, Jonathan Guilfoile, a senior director at RGF Singapore (the global arm of Recruit), is a happy customer.
He had met Khandelwal at a school reunion and lamented that it is difficult to plan a company trip that fulfilled its purpose of helping employees bond. There and then, Khanelwal saw an opportunity to promote Voyagin, and also to help an old schoolmate out.
“It’s a very young company, so we had concerns and doubts about whether they can deliver,” he tells this author.
But, in April or May 2014, these doubts disappeared as Guilfoile and his colleagues saw the trip materialise. About 10 to 15 of them travelled to Bali, Indonesia — one of Voyagin’s key markets — and enjoyed an all-day Amazing Race event which saw them broken up into teams of five or six, accompanied by a local, independent guide. “It was pretty intense,” he shares, adding that teams were required to perform a local dance Balinese style, visit the market and pass tasks which also helped them to know more about the popular island.
Since then, RGF Singapore hasn’t used Voyagin yet. “We recently did a company trip to Pattaya. We were going to use Voyagin, but everything was organised by HQ (headquarters).”
According to a press release, early investors and advisors of Voyagin include Digital Garage, Jungle Ventures, Singapore’s National Research Foundation, and other private individuals, including Dan Neary, VP APAC, Facebook; Sachin Bhatia, Co-founder, MakeMyTrip; and Turochas Fuad and Prashant Kirtane, both Co-founders of Travelmob.
Fuad, who is an early advisor, says that his first impression of Voyagin and its founders is that “they are super enthusiastic and bright individuals, with a clear purpose and vision in what they want Voyagin to be.”
He adds that while many startups might see a change in vision over the years, as they go through ups and downs, Takahashi and Khandelwal have remained focussed and committed to their original game plan.
A few months ago, over a simple lunch featuring Singaporean dish Bak Kut Teh, the three of them drank from small cups of hot Chinese tea and talked about a possible investment from Rakuten. “My advice to them — If there are other options, try not to take “strategic” investment at an early stage of fund raising. It may minimise your exit options and potentially impact the exit valuation as well. It was a great position to be in, but maintain composure, and find out how bad they want this business,” recounts Fuad, who previously sold Travelmob to HomeAway.
Amit Anand, Founding Partner, Jungle Ventures, also sheds light on his journey with Voyagin. While he declined to disclose how much Jungle Ventures invested in Voyagin, he shares that the venture firm led the startup’s post-incubator and Seed-Plus round.
“I have personally used Voyagin and have been a big fan since,” he says. “Not only have they got one of the best curation of interesting activities in Asia, but they are obsessed with customer satisfaction, which is absolutely important for winning this market,” adds Anand.
Additionally, he calls Takahashi and Khandelwal “one of the most thoughtful and execution-savvy focussed founders” he has worked with, adding that the two founders were not only receptive to new ideas, but have executed the ideas exceptionally well.
“People often say that teams can’t function cross-border,” says Anand. “Tushar and M (Khandelwal and Takahashi) spread across Singapore and Japan have demonstrated that strong teams with deep ethics can win irrespective. In fact, I think their presence and deep understanding of both North Asia and Southeast Asia have made them such a prized target!”
Both Khandelwal and Takahashi note that there are no plans to head out of Asia when it comes to listing tours.
“We believe that there’s a lot of potential inside of Asia,” says Khandelwal, “and you know, when we started Voyagin, it is to help people to book the most unique experiences in Asia. We still believe we haven’t… we’re still starting on that mission. Rakuten will obviously help us, help us reach that vision faster, but there’s no change in the fundamental vision.”
Its biggest competitor, they said, is Viator, which was acquired by TripAdvisor and does not really have a presence in Asia.
However, as the middle class in various Asian countries expands and grows, more will turn their eyes to travel within the region itself. Over the last few years, there have been an increasing number of Asia-centric travel activities marketplaces like Singapore-based BeMyGuest, South Korea’s myRealTrip and Japan’s Locaruu.
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“But as Masashi (Takahashi) said, although we’re launched across eight countries, we’ve chosen to focus on Japan and Bali right now, and this acquisition and investment will help us expand to other parts of Asia too,” says Khandelwal.
“But just my thoughts on it are like, there will be consolidation, like in every other industry, and I think also that there is enough space to compete, for all of them, including us,” he concludes.