Digerati50: Rickson Goh finds a detour for Tourplus

  • Having entrepreneur’s mindset since age 14 means not giving up so easily
  • Expansion into the Chinese market delayed due to Covid-19 pandemic

Digerati50: Rickson Goh finds a detour for Tourplus

Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its series that profiles 50 influencers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 2020-2021 (Vol 4), a special biennial print publication released in July 2020. The digital copy can be downloaded from the sidebar link.

The following in an expanded version of the article which first appeared in print edition in June 2020.

Being a tech entrepreneur is perhaps something Rickson Goh was destined for. At 14 he created a website for his school serving more than 20,000 users. It didn’t have a business model, but it did eventually see 3,000 users a day.

It’s no surprise, then, that Rickson would take an idea he had while studying at the Queensland University of Technology in 2012 into fruition. He had formed a team of four to start work on an app that can automate the entire process of travelling, from itinerary planning to transportation booking.

That became the basis of his startup, Tourplus Technology Sdn Bhd, though it ended up being an idea that took a while to bear. Upon graduation, Rickson found himself working at Maybank Group’s Strategy & Transformation Department, reporting directly to the CEO. The experience helped him understood how businesses and technology can work together.

Tourplus would eventually surface in 2015 as a virtual travel assistance that also allowed people to share their customised itineraries. That’s when Rickson realised a limitation to his original idea – it didn’t have a strong business model.

Having an entrepreneur’s mindset since he was 14 means that Rickson wasn’t giving up so easily. While the initial two years of Tourplus was difficult, it wasn’t for naught – Rickson noticed that users were asking about how they could get around to the spots they wanted to visit. They asked about transportation, and guides to share local and cultural contexts.

Rickson made his first pivot in 2017, focusing on a web model that allows travellers to make inquiries through a website and subsequently matching guides and trips there. In 2018, he released an app for tour guides to receive bookings for their services, including airport pickups.

That eventually became one of the key services of Tourplus. “Our main product is the day/multiday tours targeted at families and friends travelling in groups of more than four people where they can book larger vehicles for their tours which ends up being cheaper as well,” he says.

But it’s the fact that you can personalised your multi-day tours is what sets Tourplus apart. Rickson recognises that travellers are increasingly more independent and prefer to travel at their own pace. With Tourplus, they can essentially personalised their own tours, with Tourplus matching their destinations with the right local guides.

This time, the idea proved successful, netting Tourplus the “Top Digital Tourism” Award at the World Top Tourism Awards in 2019. In December 2019, the startup announced that it had raised a US$400,000 (RM1.7 million) pre-seed round from China-based accelerator SOSV and a Chinese angel investor in the travel space.

The funding was actually raised months earlier when Tourplus was accepted by SOSV into its accelerator programme and received a US$150,000 investment from the accelerator. During the three month programme, Tourplus was exposed to some angel investors, one of whom invested US$250,000.

[RM1 = US$0.237]

Tourplus isn’t just changing the way people travel, but also helping the community of local tour guides. For one, Rickson and his team are constantly working with industry players and local ministries to identify new travel trends. Tourplus is also providing much-needed transparency and trust to local tours, which are not usually carried out by licensed tour guides. The app, however, provides detailed travel itineraries and guides that are verified and curated by Tourplus. 

Tourplus had over 2,700 licensed tour guides around Southeast Asia as at end May 2020.


2020 – the big year that was hit by a pandemic

2020 was supposed to be a big year for Tourplus. As it is Visit Malaysia 2020, Tourplus is set to facilitate the travels of various tourists to the country – it even signed a strategic partnership with Oversea Chinese Media and Communications Co Ltd to promote Malaysian tourism to Chinese tourists.

This expansion into the Chinese market had to be delayed, however, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ever resilient to change, Rickson made a temporary pivot in order to keep Tourplus relevant. His biggest concern was helping the local tour guides under their platform to stay afloat during the tourism downturn.

He collaborated with frozen food companies which were also affected by the pandemic, as the establishments they distribute to – hotels, restaurants, wedding receptions – were either closed or reducing their orders.

These frozen food suppliers, which primarily operate on a B2B model, had to supply to customers directly in order to survive. The challenge, however, is that they never had logistical capabilities to distribute directly to customers.

Here is where Tourplus’ network of guides came in. Stationed across the nation, including secondary cities like Taiping and Muar, these guides did not have an income stream now, but they did have transportation. Through this collaboration with the frozen food suppliers, Tourplus would serve as a distributor while the guides served as agents.

 “This is a challenge for us, and completely different from what we have done before,” Rickson says. “It’s not our core business, but we need to do what we can to survive. It’s basically a new startup – one that we built upon our own basic understanding and resources.”

[Ed: The business was closed a few months later in Nov 2020 due to the cold chain requirements of moving frozen food.]

Rickson, however, still wants to return to the travel industry. “People will still be travelling, but it will be mostly localised. For our guide business, it will be a challenge, because Malaysians won’t have transportation issues that they need to solve unlike foreign tourists,” he notes.

Yet, there will be a demand for local travellers seeking to hire larger transportation modes for their own travel itinerary – a gap that Tourplus can fill. At the same time, Rickson predicts that business travel will resume faster than leisure travels, an aspect Tourplus can also help with.

Rickson and Tourplus have seen ups and downs, yet they’ve managed to adapt and evolve when need be. Not all travel plans go smoothly, after all.

[Ed: Read this update on Tourplus from Aug 2021: Rickson Goh shows how you deal with a pandemic]

Digerati50 2020/2021 is proudly sponsored by Maxis - Powering Malaysia's 5G era.


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