Interview: Wayn’s Peter Ward on how the travel social network rediscovered its purpose

Interview: Wayn’s Peter Ward on how the travel social network rediscovered its purpose

New backing from the private equity firm behind Skyscanner is giving social networking site Wayn.com a new lease of life as it re-establishes its travel credentials, according to its founder.

The firm, which came to prominence before the rise of Facebook when it attracted investment from, among others, Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman, has recently unveiled a new look and feel.

Peter Ward, founder and chief executive, admits Wayn [Where Are You Now] lost its way after the financial crisis hit, putting paid to a $20 million at the eleventh hour in September 2008.

But he fought to retain control of the London-based company and six months after securing new investment from Scottish Equity Partners the website was re-launched.

“We managed to effectively go back to the market at the end of 2011 and started having conversations with investors again.

“We wanted to retain control of the company and we wanted to keep that sense of autonomy, but we also wanted someone who will back this transformation.

“We found a VC in year one of a 10-year fund, including Skyscanner, who brought with them an understanding of what worked for them. Six months later we had a new version of the site out.

“It was a complete re-launch of the platform, taking a combination of 10 years experience in the field of what worked and what did not and best in class of what’s happening in the marketplace.

“We saw the rise of Pinterest and we always wanted to be more aspirational for the travel industry – to inspire people to travel and to do things they really want to do.

“We wanted something versatile, not just for pictures so we can intersperse advertising and mix it up, like a jigsaw. It’s responsive in design and really scalable for us.”

Ward promised many more features were in the pipeline saying the site still only reflects 10% of the vision of where it needs to go.

One aspiration is for the site is to eventually enable individuals who post content about their affiliates to become affiliates in their own right and earn through a revenue share deal.

Where Ward believes Wayn can succeed in an area in which the likes of Simonseeks.com, for instance, failed is that the site has a sustainable engagement model not reliant on costly SEO or SEM.

He quotes the results of a South Africa campaign that delivered 400,000 friends for the destination and 160,000 survey responses – engagement, he says, that puts the likes of Facebook in the shade.

Wayn currently has 21 million registered users and drives six million unique visitors a month and 12 million visits.

Ward believes being Wayn’s advantage lies in the fact that it is a specialist in the travel sector that has social in its DNA rather than social being a build-on.

“People come to hang out, to meet people, to find out about experiences. If anything they do not come to transact so our challenge is how we fuse social with commerce.”

Wayn is in the process of integrating with various bookable capabilities for flight and hotel providers and all types of travel products.

On top of that the social layer will build advocacy, something Ward believes offers the biggest benefit to those travel firms that have already embraced the opportunity.

“The data we are collecting is like a gold mine. When your brand gets a friend on Wayn not only can you engage with them on the site but also communicate directly on email,” he said.

Wayn has integrated with Facebook, as well as the likes of Foursquare, and sees the world’s largest social network as a great enabler for its vision of social media in travel.

At the same time it is competing for business by offering a greater degree of reach to followers, claimed Ward.

“We are getting huge amount of business from companies wanting to try us out, give us 10% of their Facebook budget and see how effective it is.

“We love the Facebook platform. We think it’s a complement to our service. They could gobble everyone up but are they going to become an enabler or a monopoly?

“One would hope they would lose too much good faith if they were not open.”

Ward said firms expecting quick returns in terms of bookings from social are being unrealistic, but taking a more medium to long-term approach will reap rewards.

He advised firms to do test campaigns for relatively modest amounts – as little as £25,0000 over three to six months .

“To make social work you need time and to commit a certain amount of investment to get results.

“You can spend £2,000 on some basic advertising platform and get an offer out to a very segmented group of users. But you are just going to get leads.

“We always try to work with people to try to put as much firepower as then can in to their first campaign. We believe we can show the fruits of their labour. Invariably they come back for more.”

Social is a crest of a wave that will only gather momentum due to the diminishing returns on other platforms like Google, which is becoming a “walled garden” for the big brand, said Ward.

“What we understand is the overwhelming fact that people are less focused on where they want to go and are more interested in what they want to do.

“We did not know that at first and focussed on where rather than what. You are only going to go travelling once or twice a year so social proof or influence, the fact that someone you know has been there is what’s going to make it interesting.

“The future of our business is social commerce. Look at Airbnb. People think it’s just a distribution platform for guest houses and people with spare rooms.

“But what it is is a distribution platform with a social layer. Of its four-and-a-half million bookings two million have come in the last year.

“You may not find a Hilton on there but you can find all sorts of accommodation and hotels now. It’s a distribution platform for booking a place to stay.

“We will become a distribution platform for a tour operator or a travel expert. It’s about integration with those providers and adding a social layer.”

Ward said before its latest re-launch Wayn asked itself a fundamental question of what sort of site it wanted to be.

“This was a real challenge for us. We had two opportunities; to either be a travel dating service or a travel social network.

“The first – become like a Badoo for travel – was easier to do but we felt if we get this right it could be the next Tripadvisor. No one has cracked it yet because it’s hard.”

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