EM EXCLUSIVE – A Conversation with Tripwolf’s CEO

Now that I’m older, wiser, and actually have a little spare change my new thing is I like to travel when I can. I mean real travel and real vacation, not attending a convention. There’s an interesting new Social Network for travelers called Tripwolf. The site is your standard Web 2.0 style experience. You can upload your vacation pictures and videos, invite your friends, join discussion groups and the really neat feature is you can build your own custom itineraries. I’m going to be using the site over the next few days to plan out my upcoming weekend trip to London. I recently caught up with the CEO of Tripwolf Sebastian Heinzel.

Sebastian Heinzel (30) is the co-founder and CEO of tripwolf. He is a passionate globetrotter who has traveled to 65 countries and a former journalist who understands what producing good content is all about. After studying economics in the UK, Spain and Austria, he pursued a career in journalism, reporting from every corner of the earth for top German media outlets such as "profil", "Die Zeit" and "Spiegel Online", finally ending up in New York. He contributes not only eight years of experience with both “old” and “new” media to tripwolf, but also wide ranging managerial background – from managing a development project in the Peruvian Andes to serving on the board of one on Austria’s biggest pulp and paper companies. 

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EM: Can you tell us what Tripwolf is?

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Tripwolf (http://www.tripwolf.com) is a new social travel guide that covers the whole world and aims to be the leading Web 2.0 travel guide. It
combines professional editorial content with user-generated content from globetrotters worldwide. tripwolf is backed by MairDumont, Europe’s
largest publisher of travel guides including Baedeker, Dumont and Marco Polo. Through collaboration with tripwolf,  MairDumont has taken the
unprecedented step of putting all of its high-quality content – covering more than 200,000 destinations and points of interest – online for free.

EM: What distinguishes Tripwolf from other travel sites?

What makes tripwolf really unique is the integration with existing social networks – which makes it really easy for users to join and to get
benefits like personal travel recommendations from your friends. You can import your Facebook profile and your Facebook friends, and you can log in
with your Facebook account. Also, you can build and print your own 10-20 page travel guide to take along, with simple drag & drop  – based on your
individual preferences and recommendations from friends and local travel experts called “trip gurus”.

EM: What made you want to go the Social Network route?

It simply is the future, there is no going back. When traveling, you don’t want anonymous information from strangers. You want tips from people you
know and trust – your friends! A social network is the perfect tool for that.

EM: When starting a Social Network, how do you get traffic and then get people to start submitting material?

First of all, we have information on more than 200,000 destinations and points of interest already, so there is no "empty disco" effect, users
don’t have to start from zero. Just with PR and viral marketing we got our first 10,000 registered members already. And we are enticing them to
contribute by organizing competitions for example. Currently we are running a competition together with a photo community, lomography.org, to
find the best travel photo.

EM: At the moment you seemed focused on vacation photos, what made you start with that and not video?

Photo cameras are still more widespread than video cameras, and we wanted to make sure that we have user pictures for most destinations on Earth:
This is important for the first impression users get on tripwolf.com. We will put a focus on video later on.

EM: What is your financial model?

Mostly advertising, plus affiliate partnerships with booking partners, earning us a commission if a tripwolf user books a flight or hotel.

EM: What is your background with startups?

This is my first start-up, but Alex Trieb, the tripwolf co-founder, has ample experience with startups: He contributes over 10 years of internet
and software industry experience to the tripwolf team. During his bachelor studies at Boston University, he began his career by working for the
initial dot.com era in internet consulting and startup companies. His responsibilities ranged from business development to product and
technology development successfully building several companies from the ground up.

EM: Will you always be user generated content, or do you plan on hiring travel writers? Can I be one? (just kidding)

We actually have travel writers working for us already, some of them former Lonely Planet writers. When they write a text on tripwolf.com, it
is "locked", meaning it cannot be edited by other users anymore. We will actually have a meeting with 30 of them tonight in the Idlewild bookstore,
a travel bookstore near Manhattan’s Union Square.

EM: You recently sent out news that you’ve gained 10,000 users in the first month. How are you getting the word out?

We are working the blogosphere very hard. Also, the tripwolf seems to be running on his own already: We ended up in Canadian TV, in German radio
and on New York’s thrillist-newsletter without us even doing anything for it. People simply like tripwolf and like to speak about it – which makes
us very happy 🙂

EM: There’s been a lot of talk lately about the problems with monetizing Social Networks and that advertisers are scared to have their brands associated
with User Generated content, how do you see Trip Wolf solving that problem?

This problem is certainly much less pronounced in the travel space. The travel ad space is very established and well-monetized, and user
preferences are very clear which helps advertising: If you are a tripwolf user in NY surfing our Cairo pages, it is very straightforward to offer
you a flight New York-Cairo. Also, we are monitoring our user-generated content closely, and so far people are only contributing travel-related stuff.

EM: From a technical standpoint, what platform are you using and why?

We built it all ourselves, it’s a Perl-based Modeler-Viewer-Controller-Controller System Architecture designed for scalability and reliability.

EM: Where do you see Tripwolf in the next year and five years?

In one year we will be the leading online travel guide for Europe, and in 5 years for the whole world! 🙂 Generally speaking, I think the trend to social networking is here to stay, especially in travel. People don’t have much holidays, and travel is expensive, so people want really good recommendations because they don’t want to be disappointed. And surveys show that more than 70% of people get information from friends & family before they decide where they travel. that’s something that we reflect on tripwolf: you don’t get recommendations from anonymous users you don’t know (or from one travel
guide book writer, for that matter), but from your own trusted sources. I think online travel agents (from expedia downwards) will have a very
tough time over the next few years. It’s hard for them to build up a credible and trusted community, and they can only compete with even
cheaper prices. At the same time, customized, tailored offers for individual travelers will become more important.