In late August, a PR person we know pitched a company called cFares and its “Travel 3.0 vision.” For one reason or another, we didn’t write back right away, and she sent a follow-up note: “[W]e are trying to figure out why cFares isn’t resonating with press. They have a great business model, patented technology that’s completely different and online travel is hot.” Maybe it was her request for “the brutal truth,” maybe planning a vacation was on our mind…we arranged a call with the company.
What we found out is cFares actually does have a good angle; it’s not just another travel vertical search engine. The Redwood Shores, California-based company, founded in February of 2005, makes two services available to consumers that, to our knowledge, previously came only via corporate travel agents and inhouse travel departments.
1) cFares gives you access to the 20 percent of airfares, especially international flights, offered at a significant discount by wholesalers.
2) The company will set up a persistent search on a particular flight (international only, for now) and put a 24-hour hold on it if it meets your price.
The first service comes due to cFares CEO Vajid Jafri’s connections built up through 25 years in the travel industry. The second service seems replicable enough, though cFares says it has patented it.
With the 24-hour hold option (called “cAgent”), cFares gives members access to unsold seats that often blip briefly to a lower price in the middle of the night, when prospective buyers are unavailable and unready to purchase. This differs from the Priceline, explains Jafri, because it’s not a “blind buy,” where “only after they charge your credit card do you know you’ve got a midnight flight with three stops.”
The problem with cFares is it follows the Costco model by charging a $50 subscription fee to get access to the wholesaler discounts (cAgent is free, though it requires giving some personal information). This way, the company cozies up to distributors by not taking a chunk of sales like Orbitz and Travelocity do. In our testing, wholesale fares tended to be usually about $30 to $50 below publicly available fares, so this would pay itself back in one or two purchases.
However, with the overwhelming surplus of travel sites out there right now offering zero signup cost, it will be hard to catch people’s eye.
cFares aggregates airlines and discount sites’ listings just like SideStep, Kayak, and Mobissimo, mostly for the purpose of showing that its wholesale fares are a better deal. However, it doesn’t even give that information away for free; to get to the source of a ticket, users have to formally sign up. It also doesn’t help that the company’s site is much uglier and harder to navigate than any of its competitors.
cFares does seem to be doing OK without press mentions. Since going live four months ago, it has signed up 10,000 members, 1,500 of them paying members, attests Jafri. Traffic is apparently growing 40 percent per month. The company has raised $1.5 million from Garage Technology Ventures and is working on a second round.
So, the “brutal truth”? Like price predictor Farecast, cFares doesn’t fit into today’s class of lightweight online travel companies, but that’s a good thing — it has an edge. However, if the company wants to get people’s attention, it needs to give a little more away for free.