Every Holy Week, these are the usual sights at bus terminals in Manila: long queues at ticket booths, bulky luggage and boxes, crowds waiting for their rides, and frustrated “chance passengers” on standby. Au Soriano had grown accustomed to this scene because she grew up taking provincial buses with her family to and from their hometown La Union. During Holy Week of 2012, however, she says she noticed something different: “people were fighting for bus seats like it was the 90s but they were holding smartphones and tablets.” She wondered how convenient it would be if one could just book a seat online.
Soriano’s lightbulb moment eventually led her to create PinoyTravel, the Philippines’ first online provincial bus booking system and among the first batch of startups funded by Philippine accelerator Ideaspace Foundation.
Since its commercial launch in 2013, PinoyTravel has expanded its services to include ferry and hotel bookings. It will soon launch a reseller portal, allowing even sari-sari stores or small neighborhood convenience stores to sell bus tickets.
A lot of catching up
PinoyTravel is a welcome innovation that’s helping modernize the country’s problematic bus industry.
Until the startup entered the picture, provincial buses had yet to catch up with airlines, which rolled out online booking services a long time ago. Passengers still needed to go to the bus stations to verify trip schedules and purchase tickets – all very time-consuming.
When they pitched their business idea to Ideaspace, Soriano and her team decided it was time that bus trips got smarter.
“We need efficiency. Bus terminals should be like airports where only people with booked seats show up. They go there to claim their seats, instead of hanging out for hours hoping to get seats,” she explains.
That scene at the bus terminal three years ago convinced her that “the market was ready” for something like PinoyTravel.
She says they’ve gotten the attention of the mid- to high-income markets, who are now encouraged to take buses instead of driving their cars to the provinces.
“We were lucky to have hit the Philippine market at the right time. We’re currently the biggest and we plan to keep it that way.”
Soriano can thank the stars for their perfect timing, but to be fair, her intuition and professional experience had a lot to do with it. Before Soriano took the proverbial plunge into the world of entrepreneurship, she had been in the telecommunications industry for over 20 years.
With the rise of the internet and fast-growing usage of smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets, Soriano knew that the future was digital.
More demand than supply
But some industries are late in adapting to the trend. Provincial buses are a case in point.
Even if the market was ready, Soriano says bus companies were reluctant to get on board and partner with them. “They were afraid of changing their processes.”
This eventually resulted in market demand growing “so much bigger than supply.” It presented PinoyTravel with both a challenge and an opportunity.
“Overall, we are only able to service about 30 percent of the online booking demands. It’s a good indicator that people are shifting to online booking, but we need to work closer with regulators and the bus industry in general to get this number higher and service the market. About half of our traffic comes from foreign tourists or OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) who are booking from outside the Philippines.”
PinoyTravel provides booking services for the country’s biggest bus companies, which are traveling to favorite destinations such as Baguio (Victory Liner and Genesis Transport), Tuguegarao (Victory Liner), Leyte, Iloilo, Davao (Philtranco), Iriga (DLTB and Philtranco), Aurora (Genesis Transport), and Manaoag and Dagupan (Five Star). It also got a few other, smaller bus companies on board such as Cherry Bus, Southwest, Jam Liner, Partas, and Ohayami.
Just this year, it signed up 2GoTravel for inter-island ferry trips aboard Negros Navigation, SuperFerry, Cebu Ferries, and Supercat.
PinoyTravel is now in talks with more bus and ferry companies. “The demand is so big we need to sign up as much as we can to fulfill those online requests,” Soriano says.
The startup is banking on government regulators to help convince the bus industry that digital is the way to go. After all, it does make a lot of sense for buses to outsource their booking services, which was never their core competency. “Many bus companies had attempted to create their own online presence and after spending huge sums of money, they realized it wasn’t working out for them.”
Soriano shares that in neighboring countries such as Malaysia, “bus companies do not sell tickets themselves. They engage online and physical resellers to sell for them. In turn, they are able to focus all their energy and resources in maintaining their buses and training their drivers.”
It would help if regulators could give the companies a nudge. “I think the regulatory body is focusing too much on apprehending erring bus companies instead of actively working with them in improving the overall service,” Soriano notes.
So what’s next for PinoyTravel? Soriano promises better service and more innovations. The startup is eyeing to raise US$300,000 from investors in February in line with these efforts.
The reseller portal is one feature they’ve been focusing on. “We’ve had many requests for this so we are finally launching it soon,” Soriano says.
PinoyTravel is still an experiment in progress, according to her. And they plan to approach it by being decisive. “The worst decision is indecision. When you have a startup and are doing something new in the market, it’s impossible to predict what would work anyway. Analysis paralysis is your worst enemy. So instead of wasting too much time thinking and analyzing, just go ahead and do what you have to at that moment. If you fail, then you’re one step closer to being right,” she says.
Written & Published by Judith Balea