Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing


David Sifry announces beta of personalized travel guide

David Sifry, the founder and former CEO of Technorati, has announced a first public beta (test version) for a new personalized travel guide service called Offbeat Guides.

Offbeat Guides create personalized, up-to-date travel guides that cover over 30,000 travel destinations, using a combination of search technology and curation by both amateur and professional travel experts.  The Offbeat Guides website states that their guides scour the web to find the best, most up-to-date information about each destination.  Customers can personalize the information they want, based on their travel dates, preferences, and destination.  The guides come with local maps, festivals and events going on during the customer’s period of visiting, exchange rates, key phrases in the city’s language, weather forecasts and other relevant information.

The key selling point of Offbeat Guides is that standard guidebooks are often 12 to 18 months out of date as soon as they are available on bookshelves.  Offbeat Guides claims that its content is the most up-to-date because they have an enormous technology base of spiders and crawlers that find the best information out on the internet, and combine it with information from established authors and thousands of locals who are always updating the information about where they live.

Offbeat Guides is also a strong believer in Creative Commons, in which users can share, create and build information that is available for mixing and remixing into unique new applications. As well as Creative Commons licensed information, it also use proprietary content and professional authors, which it says makes for accurate and authoritative information in our guides. The customer can get their guide in electronic format for printing at home, or Offbeat Guides can create and ship a printed guide before the time of the customer’s trip, with all the latest information packed inside.

According to David Sifry, the company is run by obsessive technologists who happen to travel a lot, rather than being drawn from the travel industry. In order to create a personalized travel guide, they ask the customer just five questions:

  • Where are you going?
    When will you be there? – So that they can include information about local festivals, events, club meetings, sports teams, concerts, and other timely information
    Where are you coming from? – With this information, Offbeat Guides will give the customer contextual information, like timezone differences, embassies and consulates for their home country, language guides, exchange rates, electrical adapters needed, and so on.
    Where are you staying? – Offbeat Guides uses this to localize the maps that go into the personalized guide, and put the customer’s hotel right at the centre of things.
    The Traveler’s Name: – They can put the customer’s name ron the book cover, and this can be used for gift purposes.

The website indicates that the pdf version (for downloading and printing at home) of an Offbeat Guide costs US$9.95, and the print edition costs US$24.95 plus packaging and delivery.

In his blog post, David Sifry notes:

You get full control over your guide – so if you already know where you’re staying, you can click to deselect all of the information about hotels, for example. You can add customized chapters and fill them with information that you gather from your friends, or from around the internet.

This reflects an interesting point – that mass customization of products can also refer to the omission of elements that are not needed by the customer.  Mass customization is often described only in the context of a customer adding features or elements to a basic product.  However, there may also be the potential to develop opportunities in the area of allowing customers to omit elements or features from even the basic specification of a product, if these are not needed by the customer.  However, in the case of Offbeat Guides, it does not appear that omitting a chapter results in a lower price.

The personalization of information, whether on travel or any other topic, is normally viewed only in the context of delivery over the web.  If the Offbeat Guides proposal is successful, it will possibly generate a new level of interest in personalized book publishing.  Personalization in this context refers to the content of the book, rather than the more cosmetic types of personalization (such as putting someone’s name on the cover or at various places in the content).

I think that the Offbeat Guides idea could become a success, as there is still a lot to be said for a printed travel guide that is not dependent on an internet connection, or a suitable power supply to recharge a PDA.  Printed documents can be carried around a city stuffed in a jacket or backpack, do not need batteries, can be generally thrown about, and will still work afterwards.

One critical issue for Offbeat Guides is delivery times for printed versions – the company will need to carefully analyse actual delivery times, rather than the claimed delivery times of the various providers.  This will ensure that customers are correctly informed as to whether there is sufficient time to deliver a printed version of their Offbeat Guide before their planned departure date.  Getting this right could prevent a great deal of hassle for the company from disgruntled future customers.  The worst thing for the company would be having to deal with irate customers who do not receive their personalized printed travel guide on time.  Perhaps delivery times, though outside the direct control of Offbeat Guides, could form a useful part of the beta testing.

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