Seatfrog: the app that auctions off empty first class seats

New app, Seatfrog, allows UK rail passengers to bid for upgrades to otherwise empty first class seats for as little as £5, by joining online auctions up to 30 minutes before departure. Patrick Kingsland speaks to chief executive Iain Griffin to find out how it works

In their previous jobs, Ian Griffin and his two colleagues travelled a lot, but rarely in comfort. With a combined height of 18ft 8in, the three founders of Seatfrog often found their conversations turning to the temptation to upgrade their train tickets.

When they realised how difficult this process actually was, they decided to create a travel technology company for this purpose, and today it is working with Virgin Trains and is in conversation with rail and air carriers around the world.

“Our idea was to rip out the friction associated with upgrading for passengers,” says Griffin. “We wanted to make it super transparent on price and as easy to do as possible.” Patrick Kingsland speaks to about the practicalities of this new concept.

Iain Griffin, chief executive at Seatfrog

What challenges do passengers face when trying to upgrade train tickets?

There is just so much fragmentation. Say a passenger changes their mind at the last minute and wants to switch trains or upgrade their seat, train operating companies will manage this in different ways: some will email you, others will allow you to get on the train and ask the guard. But all those processes are highly manual and often very confusing for passengers.

How does the Seatfrog app work and what does it offer passengers?

From a passenger’s perspective Seatfrog is the best way to get a last minute upgrade. They can put their booking reference into the app any time before they travel. We then allow them to see what the seat looks like and establish a sense of value. If they want to upgrade they can place a pre-bid or buy it.

On the day, we also run an auction two and half hours before the train departs. The highest bidder wins, which is transparent and honest. So far we’ve have a huge conversion rate. More than 50% of people that get an email want to upgrade, which is almost unheard of.

What are the benefits for rail companies?

We help train companies in many ways. Firstly, Seatfrog optimises any inventory that is guaranteed to travel empty. There is a lot of capacity that is unused at the moment. We say: why don't you offer it to people seated in standard and the person who is willing to pay the most should be able to sit there?

The app also helps reduce the operational expenditure that is associated with processes like upgrades. Virgin, for example, was running an email-based programme where passengers had to print out the email, take it on board, find the guard, pay the guard for the ticket, get that ticket reprocessed and then find their seat. That’s a lot of time wasted for the guard, who already has a difficult job in terms of running the train service.

What we’ve done is integrate our technology into the guard’s device onboard the train. Now all the guard has to do when the passenger wins the bid, is scan their ticket and we will have a new one sent to their mobile device. It is completely frictionless.

From the moment somebody puts their booking reference into Seatfrog to the moment they win an upgrade, there is only a couple of taps involved. You see a lot of stories in the press about customer service on trains not being as good as it can be. For us it is about making that passenger journey amazing.

Passengers can bid for seat upgrades up to 30 minutes before train departure. Credit: Seatfrog.

Seatfrog was launched with Virgin Trains last September. Has the app been working well?

Yes and we are constantly optimising it. We have a feature release cycle every two weeks where we take on customer feedback in social, over the phone through Virgin and have in-app customer support. We constantly gather that feedback so if there are any issues or passengers are finding slight problems with certain things, we will change that within two weeks.

How has the rail industry responded to the concept?

The perception from the outside is that the rail industry is slow and doesn't get excited about change. But my experience so far has been the opposite of that. I was at the World Rail Forum in Amsterdam last November. CEOs from all the major rail companies were there and I had some great conversations. All the train companies that we are talking to are hugely positive about our app.

In my opinion, the rail industry is the sleeping giant that everybody forgets about from a technology perspective. And because of that, I think the suppliers are potentially the ones that aren't pushing the bar on innovation. That is what we are here to do: shake things up, change the industry and be a leader.

What other markets or applications are suitable for Seatfrog?

Seatfrog is about more than just driving a new revenue stream: it's about reducing operational expenditure and making staff and customers happier. There is a whole bigger strategy to it and it has many impacts at many levels. We are already working with a number of airlines in Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East.

I think the beauty of Seatfrog's platform is also that we have an incredibly intelligent data science platform. While it seems like a beautiful app on the front-end, what drives that is an intelligent series of algorithms and machine learning. The app gets more and more intelligent over time and understands when to release seats and when not to.

We are now starting to help train operating companies do more with the data they have. As things stand, they have tonnes of data stored all over the place but are not always in control of it and able to personalise experience for passengers.

What we are trying to do is help operating companies give passengers that more personalised experienced. We believe that training operators to do this will help unlock new revenue streams and expand the ones they have already.