A team of ex-Amazon employees, who honed their skills around recommendations on the tech giant’s personalization team, have set out on a new work adventure together with Wanderlust Society, a software company dedicated to making travel planning better.
Wanderlust Society, which is currently in beta, aims to help people find inspiration for trips from friends, save ideas from anywhere on the web, view potential destinations on a map and more.
Jana Kleitsch, who spent nine years at Amazon as a user experience designer before leaving in 2009, is a co-founder and the startup’s CEO. She previously founded Bridalnet, the leading internet wedding website which was sold and became WeddingChannel.
Kleitsch has been developing the vision for Wanderlust Society for about two years along with Jeff Topham, who is serving as CTO and was previously a senior mobile development manager for the Amazon Go retail store concept. Andrej Gregov is the head of product and he spent more than eight years at Amazon and another four at IMDb.com where he launched that site’s first mobile apps.
“I had been doing some searches on Google and wound up on TripAdvisor and I couldn’t tell if I should stay at a place or not,” Kleitsch said of the early inspiration for Wanderlust Society. “I really couldn’t trust the online reviews. I felt like there’s too much of a glut of information out there.”
As she was planning to see the Washington coast, one particular part of the trip seemed kind of out of the way. But a neighbor told her to go — a decision she would not have made based simply on a random online recommendation.
“Because my friend recommended it and I trusted her, I made the extra hour drive out of my way to go check out this place, and I was so glad I did,” Kleitsch said. “And that was the thought of, ‘How can you mimic that real-world experience of the recommendations online?'”
The goal is to find trips taken by other people who are like you. With a design aesthetic that is sort of Pinterest-like, ideas and inspiration are collected for certain destinations and tagged with labels such as eat, drink, sleep, shop, etc.
With about 200 users in beta, Wanderlust Society is currently a travel planning tool to help people track where they want to go, where they’ve been, and see ideas on a map visually. The design is responsive, so it works on desktop, tablets and mobile, with the reasoning being that most people do their trip planning on desktop.
As they collect more data, the product will evolve.
“If we can track your real travel planning we can use collaborative filtering to discover other trips that are similar to yours and make recommendations,” Kleitsch said. “Once we start getting people in the trip-planning tool, the next stage is we can start making recommendations and finding inspiration.”
A chrome extension allows ideas from other sites to be dropped directly into Wanderlust Society, and it will scrape images from those URLs. The site also uses a combination of Google and Flickr images.
“It’s a really good visual way to plan a trip,” Kleitsch said. “I was going to take a road trip from Seattle to California over winter break about a year and a half ago and once I started using this I realized, ‘Oh, I better just fly.’ Because I could see visually, ‘Oh, I’m going to have to find places to stay here, here and here and might hit some snow here … .'”
When asked how it differs from just dropping a line on Facebook and asking friends for recommendations before taking a trip, Kleitsch said Facebook friends can only take you so far.
“It’s possible that your Facebook friends have not been to Siberia. So then you need to go further than your own social network,” she said. “On Facebook you can kind of get a glimpse of where they went, and maybe see one picture that looks cool, but you really have to fill in the blanks yourself. Then you’d have to go plan all the other things: Where am I going to go eat? Where should I stay? You don’t really get enough details from Facebook or Instagram.”
Mike Anderson, another former Amazon employee, is also on the team and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. He’s helping to develop machine learning models that will recommend locations for trips based on traveler personas, society member recommendations, travel distances, and more.
“We want our machine learning results to reflect the special insight we envision our society members to have, so we need to gather more of that data before we can build our most effective models,” Anderson said. “We do currently use member recommendations to weight our search results, though — which if you squint a bit, is machine learning.”
Wanderlust Society is currently bootstrapping and is pre-revenue. The plan, like most travel-oriented sites, is to eventually make money on bookings. And if they get big enough, through advertising. They might also be able to charge someday for premium features.
The team member who is perhaps taking the coolest trips is WanderLlama, a stuffed llama that travels the world and shows up in Instagram posts.
“Llamas are kind of like guide animals,” Kleitsch said. “If you see a llama, you’re probably off the beaten path. They can be helpful, but they have a lot of personality, too.”