Competing and Goulash: My time in Budapest for World Tourism Day
This year, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) hosted the official celebrations for World Tourism Day in the historical city of Budapest, alongside the Hungarian Government. The event explored the topic of digital transformation, which has now become a priority for the UNWTO, as they focus on priming the tourism sector for innovation opportunities by investing in new technologies.
The rallying call was uttered worldwide by the UNWTO looking for the change makers ready and willing to help in this digital transformation. Tourism startups were attracted in their thousands to pitch their businesses to leading experts, investors, and organisations in the travel and tourism sectors. After 2,770 applications from 132 countries, and 3 rounds of judging, the top 20 startups were selected and announced. KOMPAS was one of those top-20 semi-finalists that would be invited to take part in the competition, pitching alongside other top tourism startups spanning the globe (here’s a full list of the semi-finalists https://bit.ly/2P2bgdx).
After touching down at Budapest airport, I shared the journey to the hotel with a diplomat based in Barcelona, and she gave me a few great tips on what to do with the small nuggets of spare time I had to enjoy the city, and we shared our views on global tourism, from Brexit, to the Middle East and everything in-between. But when we arrived into the centre of Budapest, I was blown away by how beautiful it was. It felt like I’d just been driven through the streets of a storybook city, with the buildings remaining perfectly intact since their building in the 1800’s. The real icing on the cake was the breathtaking view from the hotel, rewarding me with a beautiful panoramic of Parliament, the Jewish Quarter, and the River Danube.
The first day was a pitching masterclass and a chance to meet the competition. I was incredibly impressed by the calibre of everyone involved, with some of the companies not only growing rapidly, but also being surprisingly profitable. After final presentation tweaks, we were invited to the opening dinner which gave VIPs the opportunity to meet, network and understand some of the pitching startups. Needless to say, the food did not disappoint. Plenty of traditional Hungarian food made the menu (stuffed cabbage, foie gras, and plenty more which I’m not going to try and pronounce), which I happily gorged on. The only thing missing, that sat at the top of my list, was goulash soup but that would come later in the trip from a local favourite, and a place I’d highly recommend for anyone visiting.
The conference was opened by Mr. Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of the UNWTO, who outlined some of the key areas that the organisation would be focusing on, as well as an introductory teaser on the startups that would be pitching later in the day. The agenda was packed with panel discussions on raising capital, sustainability, music and big data in the tourism industry with the pitches woven in-between. Ears stood to attention, ministers of tourism boards, top executives at companies including TripAdvisor, Airbnb and Booking, were all there for a fleeting window into the innovation taking place in the tourism sector.
The panel of particular interest to me, was the one discussing VC funding in tourism, and how we make it more accessible to the startups building their companies. A flurry of statistics validated the topic including, tourism contributing 10.4% of global GDP, which is expected to increase to 11.6% over the next few years, so it’s no surprise that we’ve seen a boom in the number of startups seizing the opportunity. The space is also growing 50% faster than the general increase in global GDP, showing no signs of slowing down. With tourism being fairly cyclical, the companies working in the space are going above and beyond to build sustainable business models that can support the troughs in sales in the quieter months. So with all this said, why is it so difficult to raise capital as a startup, and what’s caused VCs to hold off from investing in the space? Naturally one argument is uncertainty, but another, is that many have already invested in the space, only to see their investments fail to keep the growth they need to succeed. However, since this initial wave of investment we have seen a significant shift in technological progress warranting a renewed focus on the space and helping VCs identify some of the world’s best startups with innovative solutions.
In my five minutes of limelight, I tried to introduce the room to the problems businesses within the tourism and city exploration sectors face. Why is it that so many small businesses fail? How do we make sure that brick and mortar stores have the support that they need to survive in a climate where almost everything seems to be trying to remove them? I talked about how KOMPAS started as a travel application for discovery, but was now evolving into something much bigger, focusing on making sure that small businesses can understand their customers, and the way that they shop, and explore the city, with the long-term vision being to really understand people, and their movements offline. In a world where everything seems to be moving increasingly online, I wanted to highlight the importance of supporting the businesses that do still have an offline presence, and help people understand just how important it is that we continue to support independent businesses that don’t have the same tools, time or knowledge to take actions on insights created through data science. Naturally, the pitch provoked lots of questions in the break out area, from scaling, to partnering with businesses and of course, how we make sure that our data is GDPR compliant.
The conference was winding down to a close, so all that was left before the evening activities, was a flash of the camera capturing a group photo of the startups and organisers. I’m going to be honest, and say I was quite surprised by the lack of female founders in the competition, with Sophie being the only female founder, but I secretly hoped that like myself, co-founders back at home helped even out the numbers. Hopefully in future events, the UNWTO will make a greater effort to strike a better gender balance.
After we left the conference, it was time to loosen the top button and enjoy a cruise up and down the Danube. It was a chance to catch a glimpse of the city at night and enjoy one last bit of networking to the backdrop of the twinkling river banks. An imposing building which enchanted many, was the parliament building brightly lit to accentuate the architectural detail and right on cue the buffet of food was rolled out to everyone’s delight. With bellies full, we were ready for the entertainment – a spectacle of traditional folk dancing from the world famous Fricska Dance Group who hold the record for the fastest folk group in the world (click here for inspiration if you fancy practising a bit of thigh slapping at home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxwAvxMLXyU). Finally as evening swirled into night, some of the other competing startups and I moved on to one of the famous ruin bars of Budapest, Szimpla Kert, recognised as the first one in Budapest.
The next day was an early start, to make the most of Budapest, and search out my long-anticipated goulash soup before flying home. I made my way to the Budavári Sikló, or Budapest Castle Hill Funicular, that would transport me down the mountain, and towards the other side of the city, where I expected to find lunch. The Funicular was added to the UNESCO World Heritage site list in 1987, and although it might not seem like much, is a fairly impressive feat of engineering, given that the construction dates back to 1870. Although things have changed significantly since it’s original build (most of it was destroyed during a WWII bombing, before it was later rebuilt), it’s still something that I’m not sure you can afford to miss when visiting the city, one because of the history around it, but two, because of the breathtaking views that the open track highlights as you travel down the side of the hill.
So finally the moment I had been waiting for…the one thing left to try…the goulash soup! Gettó Gulyás is recognised by many as THE only place to have goulash, either in soup form, or as a main meal. I opted for the soup, with some freshly baked bread, which costed no more than £4, a steal for the quality of the food, and the tenderness of the meat. A medallion of steak followed, served with an assortment of different wild mushrooms and a creamy mashed potato, making for the perfect meal. With the whole meal costing no more than £20, I certainly couldn’t complain, particularly given how nice the meal was, and how well presented it was.
With all that said, it feels like a natural place to wrap up the digest of what happened in Budapest, and why I’m personally looking forward to seeing Budapest available on KOMPAS in the future. From home-cooked goulash, to small independent shops and bars dotted around the city, it seems like a place that’s just about perfect for KOMPAS. I’m certain I’ll find myself back in Hungary soon enough, diving deeper into the culture and the passion the people have for making this city thrive, and I’m even more certain, I’ll find myself taking an afternoon off to relax in one of the famous baths! It’s been an exciting few days, and I’m very happy that we were selected as a semi-finalist. Here’s hoping KOMPAS moves on to the next stage and is recognised as one of the top-10 tourism startups in the world, but either way, it’s already been a fantastic experience, and a great opportunity to understand Budapest, the UNWTO, and show the world why we’re building what we believe will be the future of city exploration. To the locals of Budapest, keep on voting for KOMPAS in your city, and you’ll see us there soon enough! Viszontlátásra!