Lee Hayhurst spoke to entrepreneur Akemi Tsunagawa, the founder of travel start-up Bespoke, who is taking her automated chatbot concierge and emergency information service into international markets
Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that establishing your business through reputation and word of mouth is one of the best ways to guarantee the survival of a travel start-up.
It’s also true that some of the most successful business ideas are born out of adversity because firms that solve people’s problems and make lives easier often tend to thrive.
No one knows this more than Akemi Tsunagawa, founder of Japanese chatbot firm Bespoke, which is now bringing its AI-driven Bebot into international markets.
A former investment banker, Tsunagawa’s vision for Bespoke, has its genesis in the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Tōhoku on Japan’s Pacific coast.
At the time she was working on the twenty fourth floor of an investment bank in Tokyo when the walls began to shake and plaster started to crack.
Employees were ordered to evacuate as ceilings began to fall and found themselves in a city with no public transportation and no way to communicate with friends and family.
Tsunagawa recalls how the only channels left open for people to tell family and friends they were okay was social; Facebook, Twitter, or WeChat.
In the days following the tsunami, Japan suffered the nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima, that saw an exclusion zone set up, and a stock market crash.
This confluence of disasters would help spawn the idea that Bespoke, which began life as a digital tourism information service, could be used as a critical visitor communications tool.
It was a concept that prompted a series of influential new customers to seek out Bespoke, and soon Tsunagawa found herself in demand among Japan’s business and political elite.
Having successfully implemented Bespoke at Tokyo’s main airport, Haneda, an email arrived from the operator of the city’s main railway station.
“They found us,” recalls Tsunagawa, “we were surprised. The next thing Kyoto City tourism board contacted us to say if you can do a station you can do a city.
“The next was the Japanese government who called us out of the blue in 2018 and said if you can do Kyoto you can do the whole country.”
Having established Bespoke with $200,000 raised as a 28-year-old, Tsunagawa has now attracted $4 million from VCs and investors, many of whom are “politically influential”.
As one of the most forward-thinking destinations on the planet, Japan has very much seized on the idea of providing visitors with an automated bot to answer their questions.
Not only is Bebot primed to communicate critical information during crises, it also provides visitors with relevant, real-time answers to the questions they need answering.
And destinations and transport hubs now see it as having an important role in managing visitor flows, addressing the challenges of overtourism and enhancing the visitor experience.
“All the clients we talk to have different problems, but I think emergency communications is the number one because there is no other digital solution in the market,” said Tsunagawa.
“Then it’s destinations like cities that are trying to attract more people and get them to spend more money. We have a solution to help them.
“Destinations do not have control over where people are going, but you can study visitor behaviour and you can know these are the five things people tend to ask about.
“It’s basically FAQs [Frequently Asked Questions] but at a city or attraction level. It allows destinations to be better prepared for visitors.”
Today, Bespoke’s automated bot technology is a far cry from the travel concierge and insider tips service Tsunagawa originally established.
She has family in Canada and realised whenever they visited her they struggled to find the information they needed because they do not speak Japanese.
From this insight, Bebot was built quickly and tested with real visitors but the problem it encountered early on was finding those customers.
Because it was aimed exclusively for foreign visitors to use, Tsunagawa worked out that the best way to find them was on Tinder, because only foreigners were using the dating app.
This helped it grow to over 2,000 users but the process was “very manual” says Tsunagawa. “They all seemed to have some kind of problem, so we added a concierge feature.
“They were very happy, but the next thing they said was, we appreciate your help but we don’t need it tomorrow we need it today, we need it now.
“We were about to run out of our first funding, so we thought what about instant messaging?
“However, we were not able to build a sophisticated chat interface so we decided to use my personal SMS.
“All of a sudden I was getting so many messages from complete strangers it was impossible to reply to all of them, so we thought can we automate this.”
Bespoke works by offering the Bebot service for free on the home page of public wifi systems.
Visitors are encouraged to sign up when they log in to airport, hotel, rail station or other attraction operators’ networks.
Behind the simple user interface lie a number of individual specialist chatbot platforms, including those of partner destinations and attractions.
These chatbot services kick in depending on circumstances, ensuring the user has a seameless experiences and does not have to switch between providers.
Tsunagawa said the technology has been built specifically on an open tech architecture to maximise its ability to integrate with partners.
And she said the interfaces are designed for real-life situations with relevant buttons and suggestions users are likely to need as they travel around and experience destinations.
International expansion plans have seen Bespoke take on former ADARA senior vice president of corporate strategy Tobias Wessels as chief commercial officer based in the US.
The firm, which was profitable last year, is also establishing a European base in London and is actively seeking partners and potential acquisitions to drive overseas expansion.
The service today is available in four languages and there are plans to add hotel booking functionality as well as a service to guide people to emergency evacuation points.