Travel Agent NewsFreed's acquisition of Connexus will marry both the new-age travel tech adoptions with that of the traditional travel agency methods.

New world meets old in Freed-Connexus merger

From left: Kenneth Lee, co-founder and CPO, Freed; Eric Lau, general manager, Connexus Travel; and Abel Zhao, co-founder and CEO of Freed.
From left: Kenneth Lee, co-founder and CPO, Freed; Eric Lau, general manager, Connexus Travel; and Abel Zhao, co-founder and CEO of Freed.

Digital and smart merchandising solutions company, Freed Group, has acquired Hong Kong’s oldest travel agency, Connexus Travel (formerly Swire Travel), to expand and extend its reach into travel.

The acquisition, details of which were not disclosed, blends the technology expertise of Freed, which had its roots in Travelflan started by CEO Abel Zhao and co-founder Kenneth Lee in 2015, with the traditional travel agency expertise of Hong Kong’s first travel agent registered in 1948. It operates in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, specialising in corporate, leisure and MICE travel.

Said Zhao, “We see tremendous growth potential for Connexus because of its long history of excellent services and the synergies that will be generated between Connexus and Freed. The positive outcomes we envisage include business opportunities spanning travel services, e-commerce, marketing services and brand loyalty programmes, all of which will be underpinned by a comprehensive range of digitalized services and solutions.”

Eric Lau, recently appointed general manager of Connexus Travel, said, “This acquisition will accelerate the digital transformation of our products through new signature customer-facing travel applications, which will include the provision of new user experiences and efficiencies for our corporate travellers.”

Since its inception in 2015, Freed, which started off in travel, has been expanding its solutions to non-travel brands as well as acquiring travel companies. It raised a Series A round of US$7 million at the end of 2019, and with the funds, it acquired an OTA in Beijing, called Beijing JuXingZiZai International Travels, as well as made other moves to expand including to South Korea and to Singapore.

At that time, Zhao told WiT, “One of the main reasons for our new round is to acquire and/or invest in more strategic partners to help us to expand faster.”

The pandemic has clearly created more opportunities for acquisitions with travel companies in Hong Kong and China struggling amid the prolonged lockdown, and as recovery begins, these companies are looking on how to rise with the changing ride.

Indeed, it was the pandemic that created the occasion for Freed to develop digital solutions to enable e-commerce brands such as Samsung, China Mobile, China Life Insurance, BMW and LG to offer lifestyle and travel services.

At that time, Zhao said, “our business model is superapp empowerment. We empower companies to do more with their customer base – for airlines and hotels to sell other products, for example. During this time, it’s about enabling them to sell non-travel related products.”

In an interview given in April 2020, Zhao, who used to work with Amadeus and Travelport, said, “Technology has been a critical driver for growth for many industries, but its potential has not yet been fully utilised for the travel sector. Look at AI solutions overall, the majority of the providers are pretty much focused on customer service (CS) component, which put a limit on what the AI system can achieve. Therefore, Ken and I decided to try something beyond just CS functions. That’s how we came up with the idea of TravelFlan (travel sector) and ARA (lifestyle sector), end-2-end AI Digital Solutions combining and exploiting local products, content, eCommerce, consumer data into one robust database.”

It’s a formula that seems to be paying off. In June 2022, Freed raised a further US$15 million, led by Daiwa ACA APAC Growth Fund and ACA Partners. Investors also included Hong Kong property developer Chinachem Group, Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks’ Corporate Venture Capital Fund, Radiant Tech Ventures and startup accelerator SOSV’s Select Fund.

With that fund raise, Freed announced plans to open its headquarters in Singapore and expand in Southeast Asia, and beyond. In 2021, Freed expanded to the Middle East with a partnership with SEED Group, a company of the private office of Sheikh Saeed bin Ahmed Al Maktoum.

Source: WIT

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