There are many travel sites that help travelers book flights and hotels in countries around the world. But for travelers looking to book ground travel, including buses and trains, it can often be a very offline process, and one that’s difficult if you don’t know the local language. New startup Pombai is looking to change that with their online marketplace that allows travelers to book local transportation, and gives local transportation merchants a way to bring their services online and support multiple languages and currencies. The company launched in private beta this week with a focus on travel within China, offering rides on buses, boats, private cars and planes.
Pombai is based in Beijing but was recently part of the StartupBootcamp startup accelerator in Dublin, and was started by CEO Joseph Finkenbinder after his experiences traveling and living in China. “I decided what we needed wasn’t a top-down approach, but more of a bottom-up approach to help the local merchants bring their business online,” he said. “That way, you knew who you were buying from and what you were paying in advance.”
He said that while the service can be used by residents looking to travel domestically, it’s mainly targeted at travelers who don’t speak the language and don’t know how to get around within a country. “It’s very easy to get to Beijing, China, but it is extremely difficult to get around the country and find means of transportation if you don’t speak Mandarin or have a translator,” Finkenbinder said in an interview. “Pombai breaks through the translation barriers and secures the transactions between sellers and travelers.”
Travelers using Pombai search the city they wish to travel to, choose a merchant that has rides available for that route, read peer views from people who have traveled with them previously, select and book a ride. Since some merchants prefer cash payments, users can pay a deposit on Pombai, and pay the rest of the amount in person, or they can pay the full amount online using credit card, PayPal, AliPay, or bank transfer. The site is free to use, but the company adds a 10 percent charge on top of each base fare.
Merchants using Pombai can list their ride schedules online, accept bookings, and process payments through the site. Right now merchants have to be approved to use the system, though the company will be opening up access down the road. It’s free for merchants to list their rides on Pombai, and the company only charges the merchant if a credit card is used to pay in order to cover the transaction fee.
One concern for travelers could be whether the bus they booked and paid for online will actually be there when they show up. Pombai requires all travelers to check in before the payment is remitted to a merchant – each email booking receipt has a six-digit code, which a merchant has to enter when they check the traveller in. If a merchant doesn’t enter that code, there’s a five-day waiting period which allows the company to investigate whether there was any wrongdoing.
In terms of other online travel companies, Finkenbinder doesn’t view larger sites like Kayak and Expedia as competition. “Kayak and Expedia aren’t competitors, they’re aggregators, and they just aggregate data that’s already out there. Maybe if things work out well our rides will be aggregated there,” he said. “Our rides aren’t available online yet, because we’re the first people giving these guys the software. The data isn’t available anywhere else at this point.” He said that while no partnerships with larger travel sites have come across the table yet, they would consider any that made sense.
Pombai has seed funding from several angel investors from various parts of the world, including Central America, which is one of the locations the company plans to launch in next, though Finkenbinder maintains that the company’s focus right now is China. The tool is web-based and optimized for desktops, but the company plans on introducing a mobile-friendly HTML5 version soon.
Since they’re dealing with regional transportation merchants in international markets, Finkenbinder said they often have to work with them to onboard their schedules into the system. This could prove to be Pombai’s biggest challenge – getting traditionally offline merchants (Finkenbinder said many of them had to be taught how to use email) to not only list their rides, but use the system on a daily basis to process travelers. The company can use China as a test market before expanding into other international locations, though its ultimate success will depend on the willingness (or even basic ability) of local merchants to go online, and getting in front of travelers who are looking to book local travel.