Break New Ground

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By Dirk Eschenbacher | It’s been seven years since we launched the first version of our zanadu.cn website. What originally started as a curation of the world’s finest and hippest hotels has become the leading luxury travel platform in China. From ski weekends in Niseko to luxury safaris in Kenya or cultural journeys through South America, Zanadu not only covers all aspects of luxury travel, but also inspires and informs Chinese travelers – the largest travel market in the world – with quality content on its social media, video channels and print publications.

As curious travellers and passionate entrepreneurs, we Founders have experimented all along with new technologies and creative product designs. We were one of the first teams globally to produce high-quality 360° VR travel content, we opened an experiential pop-up store in Shanghai to showcase the future of travel, and together with friends we make our annual journey to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, to be inspired and bring back fresh ideas.

Our latest idea, and this may be the biggest yet, is called Atlas. Admittedly, it took us some time to really understand the potential and possibilities of blockchain technology. But now we are convinced that blockchain technology – with all its advantages – has the potential to break new ground when it comes to building a new and more efficient travel ecosystem on a global level.

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Changing The Travel Industry

Travel is one of the most traditional verticals on this planet, and therefore the potential for disruption is big. Apart from a few stellar business ideas like Airbnb and Uber, not much true innovation has happened since Thomas Cook organized the first tour group in 1841.

The most significant development happened over the past two decades with the advent of the Internet, when online travel agents started to aggregate accommodation, transport and experiences to sell them to consumers online. Now through a series of mergers and acquisitions, a powerful few conglomerates control the majority of the market, control the data, the content and the traffic. As founders of the leading luxury agency in China, we know how hard it is to compete with these monopolies.

Blockchain, though still in its infancy, threatens to disrupt this status quo. It can give back to the user control over identity, control over transactions, and the intellectual rights on content created. It can give businesses a direct and transparent channel to conduct transactions, without the need for a middleman or agent, and in that way save substantial commissions. Also it can give power to a new generation of businesses and developers to create applications that are powered by a community that believes in the advantages of the blockchain and its token economy.

Getting Paid For Creating Content

A core component of the travel industry is the business of travel content and reviews of hotels, vacation rentals and travel experiences. Content is potent, more than 80% of travelers make booking decisions based on these reviews and ratings.

At the moment, the few big travel review and booking platforms take full ownership of this content, and then sell the data and traffic to advertisers. This centralised data ownership model is the core business for companies such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. (TripAdvisor, for example, has over 315 million registered users and hosts over 500 million reviews and opinions about hotels, restaurants, attractions and experiences, which are created by users, but owned and monetized by the platform.)

In a blockchain based ecosystem, content creators will have control over their content, information and transactions. The blockchain is an open and distributed ledger that records all transactions in a verifiable and permanent way. In that way it enables the attribution of digital content, with unique IDs and certificates of authenticity, to protect the authors. It will facilitate tracking of the content, author, timestamp, viewership, comments, as well as votes or likes in a public record that does not belong to anyone.

Now that content is owned by the author, who will get compensated if it delivers value within the travel ecosystem. For example, a hotel can offer bounty rewards to well-written content about the service. Through engaging with the content, by liking or commenting, the community will vote on its value. That way will determine how much the author will be rewarded for the value contribution.

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Zero Commission Marketplace 

One of the core benefits of blockchain technology is that it offers a secure and trusted way of recording transactions, agreements and contracts. Whereas traditionally a single organization (like a bank, or an agent) acted as middleman, now transactions are shared and authenticated every time they are written on the blockchain.

So called smart-contracts allow the automatic enforcement of rules and conditions to facilitate these transactions. This, in turn, enables a decentralized travel ecosystem that is self-regulating and transparent and doesn’t need the players to trust one central authority.

Without this middleman, there won’t be the need for businesses like hotels to pay commissions on bookings. Without having to pay the commission, hotels and other service providers can reinvest their savings, for example into upgrading their facilities with some much needed innovation.

The Future Of Travel

The world of blockchain is in a very early stage. It has been only a couple of years since a few enthusiastic programmers and entrepreneurs started to grasp fully the potential of this new technology. We are in the phase of building new infrastructure, blockchains like Ethereum, Neo and Steam that let us create powerful applications on the blockchain.

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Atlas will be such an infrastructure project. It aims to provide a robust blockchain-based travel environment, that incentivizes content creation, gives ownership of data back to the user, and provides the opportunity for businesses to conduct secure and trusted transactions without paying hefty commissions.

About The Author

Dirk is an award-winning Creative Director and tech entrepreneur based in Beijing who works in design, technology, filammaking, branding and digital marketing. He is a Co-founder of Atlas. In 2012, Dirk also co-founded Zanadu, China’s leading high-end travel agency and travel media channel. Before Atlas and Zanadu, Dirk held several senior creative positions with OgilvyOne, Ogilvy & Mather and DDB, across China and Asia. Last year, Dirk joined the team behind the NEU Future Festival – China’s first forum that links technology, art, culture, media and lifestyle with a focus on life in the future.