This weekend kicks off the official summer travel season, which means May to September is ripe for taking road trips. Instead of stopping at prosaic chain restaurants advertised along the interstate, let the Cincinnati-based startup Roadtrippers.com plan your ultimate expedition.
Newlyweds James Fisher and Tatiana Parent launched the seminal website/travel app last summer, and since then the site’s grown to about 300,000 monthly users. Fisher says it’s doing much better than they expected at such an early stage.
“First of all, I couldn’t believe that there was no way just to find independent places — that was crazy to me,” Fisher says. “There was no app — nothing. … But, I think having a strong, small business-driven economy is better for society and culture and the economy in general. I think all of this chain stuff is pretty shortsighted.”
The premise of the rapidly growing company allows globetrotters to use Google Maps to create itineraries and pinpoint destinations by checking filters such as offbeat attractions, film and TV sites, bed and breakfasts, breweries and healthy eateries. When a destination pops up on the map, users can click on it and read a brief description of the place. Once the itinerary is planned and saved, users can upload it to their iPhone and tell GPS to take them to the destinations. Staff-written travel blogs and travel guides are also imbedded into the site for more inspiration, including a national list of “Diners to Die For” and an “Indie Coffee Shops of Cincinnati” guide.
So, let’s say this summer you plan on driving from Cincy to the Outer Banks, N.C. Along the way, Roadtrippers suggests the idiosyncratic Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant, W.Va., which houses ephemera from the Richard Gere film The Mothman Prophecies — you don’t want to miss that!
Fisher and Parent met in Berlin, Germany — he was working for what would become a failed clean tech start up; she was studying Roman history. They moved to Savannah, Ga., a couple years ago with the hopes of purchasing an old, stately building and opening a B&B, but when they lost an auction, they started to think about other options.
“This was something we’d been playing with, we’d been just kind of doing this for fun — just collecting stuff and built a really basic kind of map and interface and it was really just for ourselves,” Fisher says about the origins of the project.
“As we were doing it, we thought this was kind of fun and maybe there is a bigger opportunity here.”
They eventually got the idea accepted into The Brandery’s four-month startup accelerator program.
“For me, it gave me insight into how business is done in America, because the dynamics are quite different than Germany where everything is much more formal,” Fisher says. “It’s much more researched-based and less dynamic, I guess. Here, things are done more on instinct and things happen faster, basically. I like that. I just needed to understand the culture, and The Brandery was really helpful.”
With investors in place, Fisher needed to find an office. His friend owned the old Schmidt Brothers Brewery in Over-the-Rhine, a building that hadn’t been inhabited for 15 years. The façade looks dilapidated, but inside features the amenities of what any cool startup should have: hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, a foosball table, a fancy coffee maker, people glued to their Mac computer screens and a large-scale map of North America hanging on the wall.
“It’s nice to be able to be doing a startup and creating jobs to having a chance to renovate a beautiful old building at the same time,” Fisher says.
As the company grows, the building will expand into the empty floors, and the expansion demonstrates Roadtrippers’ commitment to staying in Cincinnati for the long haul.
Fisher grew up in Suffolk, England, and as a child spent a lot of time in Africa doing tours with his family, which he says “gave me a taste for the road, as it were.”
He and Parent, an avid traveler from the East Coast, landed in Cincinnati in 2011, a city not quite as exotic as the African safaris from his youth.
“It’s different, obviously,” Fisher says about Cincy. “I particularly like the architecture. There’s so much space here that’s unused and so much interesting architectural stuff and a lot happening in the business community and in the design community. There’s a lot of new energy. It’s still very much in its infancy, but that’s good. I prefer the places where the rules aren’t yet written.”
In doing Roadtrippers full-time, it’s ironically become difficult for them to find time to travel, but they try to get away at least once a month and tie in trips with business meetings.
“Because I’m English, most of my stuff that I want to do in America relates to stuff that I’ve seen on TV. So when I was in Denver the other day, I was like the one thing I had to do in Denver was to go to places that I’ve seen on South Park, because that’s my reference, right?” Fisher says.
South Park’s Casa Bonita aside, Roadtrippers has an ambitious 10-year plan that entails eventually adding hotel bookings, time-lapse videos and travel guides into the maps and GPS.
“This year for us is about kind of putting the fundamentals in place for a product perspective, getting all the basic core features and things we need built for the product, really expanding the tech team,” Fischer says.
Their goal is to have a half a million users by the end of the summer and disseminate into Australia and other countries by next year.
With their unique business model (they renounce ads on the site) and plethora of travel knowledge, Roadtrippers is poised to meet Fisher’s objective of “the next kind of Trip Advisor-level site.”
“We wanna go big, why not?” he says.
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