“Bangladesh has the potential to create not just local, but also regional and global companies,” said GoZayaan CEO Ridwan Hafiz after it acquired Pakistani startup FindMyAdventure. Although Ridwan didn’t mention GoZayaan’s regional ambition before, it has always been there. With its footing in a new regional market, he now shows relative confidence in the ambition. “We’re going to try exactly that. This (referring to the acquisition) unlocks a total addressable market for us which is massive because together, Bangladesh and Pakistan constitute 5% of the world’s total population. We said we were going to create the future of travel; well the future starts now.”
Ridwan clearly isn’t the only person who feels this way. Travel-tech company GoZayaan was oversubscribed when it was raising seed investment last year. Its $2.6M seed investment was one of the largest seed rounds by a Bangladeshi travel-tech company. It eventually extended the round when it acquired FindMyAdventure.
More importantly, its seed round was led by marquee investors like Wavemaker Partners and joined by VCs such as Ratio Venture, 1982 VC, Iterative, Century Oak Capital along with current and former Airbnb Execs. That is a stellar list of investors and for many of the investors, GoZayaan was their first investment in Bangladesh.
Founded in 2017, GoZayaan has shown what is possible when tenacity meets resilience. The company has built a business practically amid the coronavirus pandemic in an industry which the pandemic literally decimated. Investors saw it as the resilience of the GoZayaan team.
Wavemaker managing partner in Southeast Asia Paul Santos said it well: the GoZayaan team managed to showcase their resilience during the pandemic when tourism practically came to a halt. “They partnered with local airlines, inter-city bus firms, and hundreds of hotels that had no digital presence and brought them online. This enabled the company to grow over the last 12 months and positions it to capture even more growth in the days ahead.”
While GoZayaan’s recent wins and expansion into a new market are significant events, in many ways, it’s impressive that GoZayaan has even survived this long. The last 5 years have seen scores of travel-tech companies launch and then fall by the wayside as the sector evolved. The pandemic killed many remaining ones.
GoZayaan has endured a series of near mortal challenges. Getting to where it is now needed cockroach survival skills— doggedly clinging to life despite the universe conspiring to render it extinct.
Instead, it has found an opportunity to leverage the challenges. GoZayaan always wanted to be at least a regional travel player if not global but the company was not sure about how to do it. Then came the pandemic that changed the travel industry forever and GoZayaan’s trajectory on the way.
Finding opportunity in challenges
The final blow for GoZayaan came when the coronavirus pandemic almost decimated the $9 trillion global travel and tourism sector and shook the entire industry, creating unprecedented domino effects across the travel ecosystem. International travel plunged. The effect of the pandemic has been devastating for the local travel industry in Bangladesh. Industry insiders reported over 50% drop in business. TOAB predicted a 30% job loss in the sector in 2020. Navigating the pandemic was like sailing into a hurricane for most travel companies.
GoZayaan was getting ready for accelerated growth when the pandemic hit Bangladesh in March 2020. The company was predominantly focused on international travel at the time. It just launched several interesting products and was seeing increased demand. But every strategic decision went out the window when global travel plunged under the pressure of pandemic restrictions. For the next year, it was a tango of strict lockdowns and brief reopening. The uncertainty of the events made it hard to plan anything long-term.
The destruction however came as a blessing in disguise for GoZayaan. Initially, GoZayaan focused on survival. It tried a few different products in the periphery of travel and transportation. At the same time, the company took a more nuanced approach to long-term growth. Since international travel — its main service at the time — was practically shut down, it slowly made a move to build a domestic travel operation.
It was an appropriate strategic response to what’s happening in the global tourism ecology — a shift to local travel under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic. In those early days, the shift was not clearly visible yet. But as the pandemic deepened, the local future of travel became manifest across markets.
This was common sense but amid a global crisis, common sense rarely remains common. With the uncertainty of the pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions, naturally, people began to prefer local travel. People wanted to travel. But they wanted to do so closer to home.
GoZayaan saw the writing on the wall, aligned its strategic ambition accordingly, and started building for the domestic travel market in Bangladesh. In the following months, it launched several products addressing the need for domestic travel.
The move paid off. When the pandemic slowed down in Bangladesh towards the end of 2020, the travel demand returned in full swing. The company experienced an immediate surge in orders.
The future of travel not far from home
Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, GoZayaan reorients itself with domestic tourism in Bangladesh. It has invested in understanding the domestic travel market and launched several products to bring its business partners online, reduce costs, improve offerings, and realize economies of scale.
GoZayaan started with domestic hotel acquisitions. Within a short time, in two subsequent lockdowns, GoZayaan onboarded some 150 hotels and resorts across tourist destinations in Bangladesh. It partnered with resorts in and around Dhaka to serve families, business travelers with weekend getaways and short trips, and day outs. Today, GoZayaan has over 400 hotels and resorts, of different categories from 2-5 stars, on its platform. Bangladesh has some 6000 hotels and resorts.
GoZayaan provides hotels a dedicated admin panel to update their inventory in real-time.
Hotel listings on GoZayaan come with detailed information about the amenities and policies of each hotel. Detailed photos of the rooms, beds, features, give customers a clear view of the room and facilities. Customers can see and book hotels in real-time on its website.
On the transportation end, the company has all the domestic airlines on its platform and covers all the popular domestic flight routes. Customers can choose flights based on their needs such as cost, speed/time, and so on.
This year, it has added buses allowing users to book bus tickets and hire buses without leaving the GoZayaan platform.
Once it covered the basic services, GoZayaan innovated for local travels and launched several interesting products such as tours and travel loans. GoZayaan Tours offers new ways to book local day tours, experiences, and activities in different destinations across Bangladesh.
Travelers face rampant challenges in Bangladesh. Booking through offline agents is time-consuming, and requires a lot of handholding. Travelers end up paying more for the same service. GoZayaan has attempted to make travel services easier to access with round-the-clock customer support, an omnichannel travel booking solution, and by making reservations possible at any time, from anywhere via the website, hotline, and messenger. Customers can speak with human agents and book over the phone and are provided with a payment link to sign up and complete the payment.
GoZayaan has built an ecosystem of travel services. It introduced a travel advisory feature called GoSafe to provide safety verification for accommodations and destinations. A newly launched fare trend feature helps customers see flight fare trends and choose the cheapest fare.
The travel industry in Bangladesh was reported at $5.3 billion in 2017. The industry is expected to grow by 6.8 percent annually to $7 billion by 2023.
Using a combination of innovation and service, GoZayaan has gained popularity and trust with travelers within a short time. The company says it now has over 500,000 monthly active users with 40% repeat customers. It claims to have 10X growth in 12 months despite the pandemic. The growth has only been possible because of its strategic foresight to see the rise of local travel.
On the back of that growth, GoZayaan went on to raise one of the largest seed rounds by a Bangladeshi travel-tech startup and expand into a regional market in South Asia.
More importantly, the success gave GoZayaan the ultimate strategic thesis to execute on its regional ambition that “the future of travel is local.” The local-first strategy provides a lasting competitive advantage. GoZayaan seeks to play on that unique strategic insight. More on that in a moment, first GoZyaan’s new identity.
A new identity for a new journey
GoZayaan announced a new brand look for the company on 27th January 2022.
Explaining the context for the rebranding, GoZayaan said: “a traveler is always on the lookout for new experiences and adventures. Bringing the convenience of an entirely automated travel booking experience on a single platform for travelers was the first mission of GoZayaan. However, in an ever-changing industry, one cannot remain stagnant. We’ve been working tirelessly to bring innovation to the constantly changing travel scene, ensuring utmost convenience for travelers in every step. With this in mind, rebranding has taken place.”
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, GoZayaan consistently adapted itself to the constantly changing tourism ecosystem. The new identity was inspired by efforts to continuously explore and innovate the world of travel.
GoZayaan says it understands the potential the travel industry holds and aims to reinvent how travel is seen by embracing technology in an increasingly connected world. That it strives to improve every day in order to fulfill this narrative.
However, the rebranding was an ado for a further adventure — a regional expansion. GoZayaan announced its rebranding on 27th January and in the following month, on 16th February, it announced the acquisition of FindMyAdventure in a move to expand into Pakistan.
A local travel thesis to go regional
GoZayaan announced its acquisition of Pakistani travel-tech company. FindMyAdventure on 16th February. Several media reports said that the deal valued FindMyAdventure at $3.5 million.
The deal makes GoZayaan the first Bangladeshi travel-tech platform to acquire a company beyond its borders and operate regionally. The move meaningfully expands the total addressable market for GoZayaan and is likely to open new doors of opportunities.
GoZayaan has been looking to expand regionally after its stellar year in the local market. But it was not clear until its acquisition announcement how the company would eventually execute its expansion strategy.
The move to acquire a domestic travel-focused startup in Pakistan gives an insight into GoZayaan’s new global travel business thesis — the future of travel is local. It is far more effective to serve local customers with market-specific solutions than building a blanket global platform that rarely takes local context with sufficient seriousness.
The thesis apparently gets the backing of its investors including new ones in its undisclosed seed extension round that include Nordstar Partners, Saurabh Gupta, Partner at DST Global, and Alexander Rittweger, Founder of PAYBACK.
The thesis has a real basis. The pandemic has made it clear that the travel market can undergo abrupt change. It has also made it clear that human longing for exploring unknown places and experiences will always remain. We’ve seen the manifestation of this longing in the immediate market response to the lifting of lockdown mid this year with a massive increase in domestic travel booking.
While international travel can be unpredictable owing to uncertainties like pandemics and war, local travel is a relatively predictable terrain. Pandemic has shown that local travel is far more resilient in response to uncertainties.
Moreover, when you operate locally, it allows opportunities for more nuanced understanding and leverage to pay greater attention. More importantly, it offers excellent learning opportunities than launching in multiple markets at once.
GoZayaan has been building digital solutions to travel problems by building an end-to-end automated travel booking system. Building it for a local audience one country at a time makes perfect sense. At the same time, when the local understanding of two companies comes together, it amplifies everything.
GoZayaan says it plans to cater to more customers with better user experience, technological support and offer further digital solutions to make travel more convenient. Mixing local context into all of those “building efforts” will not only produce better results but also lasting competitive moats.
GoZayaan has so far raised US$3.5 million in disclosed investment from several big-name global venture capital firms. The company says “it plans to bring more travel services online and aims to build the travel infrastructure and revolutionize the travel industry”. The FindMyAdventure acquisition offers an insight into how GoZayaan plans to go about it — the company looks to shape the future of travel in the South Asian region by using a local travel playbook.