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Startups

Travel startup Klook plots growth by personalizing trips

Hong Kong unicorn aims to beat back rivals with better tech

A newlywed Chinese couple vacations in the Philippines. Klook plans to provide trip recommendations based on the purpose, such as romantic getaways.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- As Asian tech startups face a tougher fundraising climate after the WeWork debacle, Hong Kong-based Klook Travel Technology will lean in on its experience-oriented approach to online travel booking.

Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Eric Gnock Fah sees no worries about achieving growth, thanks to the sizable travel market. "Difficulties faced by startups are case by case," he told Nikkei in an interview.

The market "is definitely there," Gnock Fah said. "The only challenge is how we move it online."

Klook, short for "Keep Looking," has grown into one of Hong Kong's top three unicorns -- unlisted startups valued at more than $1 billion. It has attracted more than $500 million in funding so far.

Unlike booking sites focusing on hotel reservations and plane tickets, Klook serves up more than 100,000 travel activities and services, including sightseeing tours as well as theme park and restaurant bookings.

Klook COO Eric Gnock Fah

Offerings are grouped into such categories as "Attractions & Shows" and "Tours & Sightseeing." Specific activity pages include photos and even video. The traveler can reserve an activity while in transit or at the destination.

Klook has especially taken off among young people, who tend to initially decide only where to go -- such as a particular city -- and then figure what to do there after arriving. QR codes for accessing services are displayed on the user's smartphone.

Purchasing via Klook can offer savings over paying on location, such as dollars off admission to Hong Kong Disneyland.

While conventional booking portals often get caught up in price wars, Klook offers a different take. Gnock Fah said opportunities are still rosy for 2020, including the Tokyo Olympics, which are expected to boost Asia-Pacific travel demand.

But big-name direct competitors have emerged since Klook's 2014 founding. Airbnb now offers tour packages, as does Booking.com.

Klook plans to enhance its own services. "Travel is occasion-oriented," Gnock Fah said, so the service's artificial intelligence will provide better recommendations based on type of trip, such as romantic getaway or family travel with kids.

The company will expand technology hubs in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It will also set up a data science and analytics team in Singapore to work on search optimization and improving recommendations.

Klook will continue to prioritize global expansion, Gnock Fah said. It has 29 offices worldwide, mainly in the U.S., Europe and Asia. The five European offices will double in number this year.

Travel habits vary greatly by country, so Klook will tailor its platform to specific markets. For Japan, whose natives do not travel abroad much, Klook will work with merchants in Hawaii and Guam -- popular destinations for Japanese who do go overseas -- to lure tourists.

All this will take money. Klook raised $225 million in an April 2019 round led by Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank Group's Vision Fund.

Will Klook pursue an initial public offering? Gnock Fah did not say, but he did note that the company will always be open to partnering with investors.

SoftBank has an amazing portfolio of tech companies in AI and consumer technology, and Klook is constantly communicating with SoftBank on strategies and potential collaborations, he said.

Klook is very excited about SoftBank's business network in Japan, which will be a focus in 2020, Gnock Fah said.

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