Virtual travel agent Desti lengthens runway before global takeoff

A travel agent now seems like a funky, retro occupation, like a stenographer or a milk man. Yet, the need for services that help plan and personalize trips is just as strong.

Desti is a virtual travel agent for the iPad that was developed out of SRI International, the same prestigious research institute that spawned virtual personal assistant Siri. The technology combines Artificial Intelligence and natural language processing to understand and respond to specific travel-related search queries.

I covered Desti’s open beta launch in November when the service became available in Northern California. At the time, founder Nadav Gur explained that Desti’s database gets smarter and more comprehensive as more people use it. Now, the company has raised an additional $1 million in seed money from its original investors to widen its scope.

“This money will extend our runway to onboard more users,” Gur said in an interview with VentureBeat. “It is an application that learns from interaction and more users. The longer we have with each and every user, the more it understands and can provide. We are implementing all the things we learned from beta users to build the next generation of travel search and planning tools.”

With this investment, Desti will expand to all of California and Las Vegas, and continue across the nation. There are also product upgrades at work, such as the ability to see activities spatially on a map and smoothing out some of the kinks with spellcheck’s alteration of place names.

Travel startups are a provocative topic within the startup community. There are voices on one side proclaiming the impending doom of the travel tech sector, while others see tremendous potential in this space as mobile technology spreads across the world.

In an article in late November, Pando Daily writer Erin Griffith discussed the struggles and failures of companies like Dopplr, Tripl, Wanderfly, Gtrot, Trippy, and Gogobot. However, there are also success stories like AirBnB, Hipmunk, and Kayak, not to mention startups Peek and Vayable which are generating a lot for buzz for their approach to travel “experiences.”

Desti distinguishes itself with its advanced technology and focus on data, as opposed to being a social platform or a marketplace. Desti is about showing users what they are looking for, rather than providing a place for them to look themselves.

In the brief window since the New Year, two companies have already received hefty investments from venture firms- hotel search site Room 77 raised $30.3 million and GetYourGuide took $14 million. Gur said that while investors have approached him multiple times about raising a round of institutional funding, he prefers to wait until the product is more thoroughly developed and tested in the market. Also, he wants to manage the company’s valuation.

Gur’s intent is not to monetize the application just yet, but rather to build funnels to monetization for later down the road. Gur also revealed that a number of major travel distribution companies have contacted Desti about potential partnerships, private label implementations and technology licensing.

For now, however, the team is focused on using this money to make Desti smarter, more interactive, and more well-traveled, so to speak. This brings its total funding to over $2 million from Horizons Ventures, Carmel Ventures, and SRI International. Desti is based in Menlo Park, CA. Read more about Desti on VentureBeat.  

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