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Sojern raises another $120M led by TCV to expand its travel marketing platform

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Travel continues to be one of the biggest verticals online, projected to be worth over $1 trillion by 2022, and today a startup that helps travel-related businesses connect the dots between their products and would-be customers is raising a large round of funding to capitalise on that.

Sojern, a company that works with businesses in the travel industry — hotels, airlines, tourist agencies, booking portals and others — to build and run campaigns to find and market their services to people as they are planning travel, is today announcing that it has raised another $120 million in funding.

Sojern started out life in 2007 putting ads on boarding passes, but today its reach covers a much wider terrain in the search for relevant and interested “eyeballs”. Typical media it targets marketing to today includes native advertising; display, mobile and video ads; and social media. But in an interview, CEO Mark Rabe said that the plan for the funding will be to expand to more “emerging” platforms, like connected TV (where it’s already active).

“Our plan is to continue expanding solutions for existing clients as well as accelerate into developing markets like local tourism and attractions,” he said. “Overall we want to keep proving our performance as a late-stage, high-growth company with expanding profit margins and cash flow.”

The round, a Series D, is being led by TCV (Technology Crossover Ventures), a key and potentially very strategic investor since TCV has a long history of backing large travel and marketing startups, including Airbnb, Expedia, HomeAway, TripAdvisor, SiteMinder, ExactTarget, Act-On and Ariba, some of which already work with Sojern, and some who well might work with it in the future.

Other investors are not being disclosed, but Sojern has previously had backing from Norwest Venture Partners, Trident, Treeptop and other VCs; and also has a list of strategic partners, with some holding equity stakes in the business, including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Carlson Wagonlit, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, Kayak, Travelport, United Airlines and US Airways. (As we’ve pointed out before, the relationship it has with some of these stems back to the founding of the company, and part of what airlines, for example, receive is a cut on the advertising revenues that appear on their boarding passes.)

Prior to this latest round, Sojern had raised some $42.5 million. Rabe said that the company is not disclosing its valuation with this round, but as a guide, he noted that the company has been profitable for the last 13 quarters and it made $100 million in net revenues in 2017. Also of note: Sojern’s last valuation was $158 million after raising a round in 2013, according to PitchBook, so — at a very conservative estimate — its valuation post-money is around $280 million. (But my guess is that it is higher considering Sojern’s growth and profitability.)

“We’re going after a total addressable market that we believe is at least $100 billion,” he said, citing a combination of the dollars travel brands are spending in digital and programmatic advertising worth roughly $20 billion and what they’re paying to online intermediaries in the distribution markets worth $80 billion. “So far we’ve driven over $13 billion in bookings for our clients, and we aren’t slowing down anytime soon,” he added.

The company competes not just with other companies big in advertising like Google (which itself has made a very big play to do more specifically in the travel search vertical) but also other companies working in the big data-fuelled analytics space as it interests with the world of travel marketing, such as Adara.

Rabe believes Sojern is unique in the space. “We don’t see anyone out there delivering direct bookings in travel at this scale, and doing it successfully across the industry from the biggest enterprise brands all the way down to independent properties and local tourism providers,” he said.

“When we think about the competitive set, we’re looking at companies with proven business models demonstrating that they can deliver strong results at scale and retain clients over the long term. And what’s become clear is that today’s independent adtech and martech companies have to differentiate to provide value. Because Sojern has been focused on travel from the very beginning, we understand the challenges and complexities of the industry and offer more specialized solutions than a generalist player ever could.”

The predicament that it is addressing remains a messy one: from every segment of the market — from luxury down to budget travellers — we as consumers are spoiled for choice these days when it comes to thinking not just of where and how we might want to travel, but also how to find the best deals and options that match what we want to do. On the side of suppliers, they are all scrambling to connect with their would-be customers before someone else does.

Sojern says that its wider database and reach covers some 350 million travellers, making it one of the more accurate platforms to identifying and connecting with those users.

Interestingly, this could potentially one day get applied to more than just travel, but maybe not for Sojern.

“I get asked this question a lot,” Rabe said when I asked him about expanding to other areas. “But what people don’t often realize is that the travel and tourism industry is actually the largest industry in the world. Conservatively we believe our immediate total addressable market is $100 billion, and on top of that the overall industry is growing with digital continuing to pull share from offline transaction channels like phone and traditional travel agencies.”

That focus is also what attracted TCV, it seems.

“We have been watching Sojern’s rapid rise in the travel technology space for several years, and we were impressed with Sojern’s leadership position in the space and its unique, scalable model for influencing travelers worldwide,” said Woody Marshall of TCV in a statement.

“Sojern’s ability to both conceptualize a better marketing experience for travel organizations and their steady execution over the past decade, as well as their innovative business strategy, strong executive team, and inspiring company culture made them a natural fit for us.” Marshall is joining the board with this round.

Just as the market for travel services continues to boom, so do those startups that are best placed to meet that demand, collectively hundreds of millions of dollars in the last five years. Among the range of travel startups focusing specifically on helping connect intent to travel with ideas of where you can spend your money, other notable rounds have included TripActions raising $154 million earlier this month, CultureTrip raising $80 million earlier this year, and Airbnb raising $1 billion last year.

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