Building a Bitcoin-based business - Travala's crypto-transactions journey

Profile picture for user kmarko By Kurt Marko February 24, 2021
Summary:
Travala is a travel site that is banking on Bitcoin, blockchain and an internally-developed token to create a system that can take on Sabre as the next-generation travel platform.

holidays
(Pixabay)

The travel industry suffered through its worst year on record in 2020, with the U.S. Travel Association calculating that the domestic travel sector lost $492 billion in revenue compared to 2019, “an unprecedented 42% decline.” Business travel bore the brunt of the damage, with losses of 60 to 70% in the US and more than 50% in Europe.

So, how is it possible for an online travel agent to be “growing rapidly,” booking more than $1 million a month and planning for “a lot of pent up demand” in less than four years?

As CFO Drew Currah tells it, Travala.com has managed to buck the ferocious economic headwinds by boldly betting on cryptocurrency to both attract tech-savvy customers looking for lower costs and reduce the friction of the travel booking and payment process.

kurt1
(Weekly Coronavirus Impact on Travel Expenditures in the US, January 22, 2021 update - US Travel Association. )

Banking on blockchain, crypto

Travala was founded in 2017 by a group that combined expertise in the travel industry, blockchain platforms and fintech intending to disrupting the online travel market via a decentralized platform that reduced the friction, cost and time required to book lodging and airline tickets. Last year it merged with TravelbyBit and attracted investment from Binance, one of the world’s largest crypto exchanges, creating a global agency with access to 2 million hotels and 600 airlines. 

Travala spells out the rationale for a crypto-centric travel site in a paper that also details the problems with existing travel sites and how it uses digital finance to solve them. The critical point is that cryptocurrency attracts millennials that haven’t developed set brand preferences and are in the peak of their travel years(emphasis added):

Blockchain and cryptocurrency enthusiasts are a consumer demographic which is perfectly pre-filtered for the travel market and whose make-up helps transcend many of the difficulties in consumer acquisition and marketing outreach. 

Research on cryptocurrency holders reveals that millennials are the primary demographic (Bogart, 2019). Research on the behavioral characteristics of millennials, meanwhile, demonstrates they are more open to new brands and services than older generations (“Millennials,” 2017) and more likely to travel (“Stats: Millennials To Travel,” 2017).

Travala’s ultimate goal is a decentralized platform that disintermediates the booking process via open APIs using blockchain technology and crypto transactions. As detailed in its white paper, the strategy targets centralized incumbents like Sabre (emphasis added):

The ‘Billion Dollar API’: Global travel technology companies like Amadeus and Sabre are ancient with low-level APIs used by basically all OTAs either directly or indirectly via third-party APIs that resell them. Their business value is that they access an enormous quantity of product across flights, hotels, rental cars, etc., and are integrated with all major stakeholders in the industry. These APIs are used because they are unified and reliable. Their purpose is to ensure everyone speaks the same language to each other, and to mediate contract disagreements.

Disrupting these entrenched APIs is extremely difficult. However, if it can be done at all, the most likely usurper will be one that is built on decentralised technology. If Travala.com can create a protocol that allows each industry stakeholder – airlines, hotels, car rentals, other travel-adjacent businesses, and consumers – to interact directly, and to do so using a unified protocol (API) that is enforceable directly on the blockchain, then there will no longer be a need for intermediaries like Amadeus and Sabre. 

With enough traction from the early-adopters who take advantage of the lower costs enabled by disintermediation, a tipping point would be reached where industry stakeholders switch en masse to the new platform. In this scenario, the value of a common cryptocurrency would increase along with its utility.

Minimizing risk while supporting multiple fiat, cryptocurrencies

Travala accepts payment in both fiat currencies, like US and Australian dollars, as well as 35 cryptocurrencies, including a native AVA token that is tied to Travala’s rewards and discount program.

Currah says that Travala is tapping the nascent market for crypto payments and using digital finance to make cross-border transactions in different fiat currencies efficiently. Since few, if any hotel or transportation vendors accept and price in crypto, by default. Travala shows pricing in a user’s local currency, showing conversions to various fiat and crypto prices. For example, if a hotel room in Brisbane, Australia lists for AUS$200 a night, customers in the U.S. would see a rate of $173, 0.00324 (324,000 SATS) or 65.4 AVA. 

Travala eliminates operational exposure to crypto volatility — the fiat price of Bitcoin can fluctuate ten percent in a day — by pricing in fiat in instructing its payment processor, Binance, to automatically and immediately convert crypto payments to a stablecoin like Tether or Dai. The majority of Travala’s internal crypto assets are in various stablecoins, although it recently started converting some excess cash to Bitcoin for long-term holdings.

Travala has found a growing niche with crypto-savvy travelers as 70% of its bookings are made in crypto, the majority in Bitcoin followed by its native AVA token. Travala encourages AVA usage by tying it to the company’s loyalty program, with discounts and rebates based on the amount of AVA a customer holds in their account. The highest rewards tier requires a 5,000 AVA balance (about $11,125 or 0.2313) and provides a five percent discount and five percent AVA reward for each booking plus two percent monthly interest (half in AVA, half on future travel credits) on the AVA balance.

Operational considerations for handling Bitcoin

As more companies investigate Bitcoin as a medium of exchange, store of value or both, Currah offers some advice for SMBs that might be overwhelmed by the detail and complexity of the MicroStrategy Bitcoin playbook I recently discussed. Aside from common sense about starting small while gaining experience using Bitcoin and its financial ecosystem, Currah says that aspiring crypto users should:

  • Develop a crypto strategy that covers their use cases, investment time horizon (if holding as an asset), allocation criteria (for example, a percentage of balance sheet reserves) and entry and exit trading rules; although, if convinced by Saylor’s (and others’) arguments about the Bitcoin’s long-term value (aka gold 2.0 thesis), the exit criteria might be “never.” Although they might be overkill for small organizations, MicroStrategy’s Bitcoin treasury reserve and trading policies provide a useful template for developing crypto policies.
  • Have an account with one or preferably more reputable crypto exchanges offering both hot (tradable accounts) and cold (long-term storage) wallets. Currah recommends considering one of the interest-bearing platforms like BlockFi, Celsius or Nexo as one of the options since these pay higher rates than conventional banks that accrue in either Bitcoin or stablecoin. Note that these generate interest by lending Bitcoin, so higher rates generally come with significantly greater risks. MicroStrategy offers a detailed checklist for evaluating and contracting with a crypto custodian. 
    • I would add that it is prudent to consider an offline hardware wallet for long-term storage as organizations gain experience and accumulate a significant amount of crypto.
  • Develop a process for logging crypto transactions and appropriately recording the accounting (FASB, GAAP, IFRS) and tax treatment in one’s home jurisdiction. MicroStrategy has a thorough discussion of Bitcoin accounting treatment which dictates it be held as an intangible asset.

My take 

The travel industry only accounts for 3.3% of the world’s economy, but adds another seven points when considering the indirect contributions of tourism. However, efficiencies and cost savings gleaned from using digital currencies and blockchain-based transactions are significant and represent a promising opportunity for an industry that will be struggling to recapture lost business. Indeed, Currah sees “a lot of pent-up demand” with  travel booking improving more quickly than expected, with projected revenue increasing ten percent per month through next year.

km2
(Travala white paper v 3.0)

Some might see accepting Bitcoin payments as gimmick, however, it’s a lure to get  younger, tech-savvy frequent travelers to first try the service and then convert to AVA tokens, which are the backbone of Travala’s decentralized strategy, backend processes and eventual AVA token economy. Indeed, Travala’s white paper bluntly explains the strategic significance of AVA (emphasis added):

AVA’s functionality makes it critical to the success of Travala.com. The interplay of AVA use cases is designed to encourage loyalty to the Travala.com platform while increasing distribution and liquidity of the token. …

AVA will be at the heart of all future use cases Travala.com is pursuing. As the Travala.com consumer base continues to grow, usage of AVA is integral to their experience on the platform. With its use incentivised by valuable rewards, demand for AVA can be expected to grow in line with platform adoption, leading to the establishment of a healthy internal token economy from which all stakeholders may benefit.

With a $100 million market cap, AVA is tiny compared to Bitcoin, but has already attracted a significant following.

There is always a risk of substitutionary platforms arising that provide better pricing, user experience or integration with other sites. However, as with social networks, Travala is banking on a first-mover advantage creating network effects and a competitive moat that protects it from imitators. It will be interesting to see the evolution and adoption of Travala and others trying to build crypto-based commerce platforms as Bitcoin’s recent corporate popularity makes the general public aware of crypto currency and its uses.