It all started with a fascination with the TI-59, a programmable calculator by Texas Instruments produced at the end of the 1970s. Soon after, when Atari (remember the breakthrough video game “Pong”) released their first “personal computer,” Scott Lengel, now CEO of AdventureGenie, dug into the guts and began his journey in “writing code”. Little did he know back then—he had launched himself on a career path in building software and consulting major corporations on how to deliver value to customers, while simultaneously driving profits, using leading edge digital technologies.
“You’re good at math, critical thinking and logic,” a guidance counselor once pointed before suggesting to “choose an engineering field” for my future studies, Lengel recalls. “He mentioned I could opt for this ‘new’ field, computer engineering, which we knew little about back then.”
He studied a mix of electrical engineering, hardware engineering, computer science, and math at university and became an archetypical engineer: deeply inquisitive and a problem solver. “Engineers are not satisfied until they understand exactly how and why something works and how it can be improved and optimized. I learned how to identify, simplify and solve complex problems and became comfortable in the field of engineering,” Lengel says.
He started working for DataSwitch, a company that built and managed room-size switching systems, transferring data in the IBM mainframe world. His work included modernizing these systems so mini computers (acting as control systems) could manage them for better efficiency—beginning with good old-fashioned design and debugging of circuit boards, microcode and network layer protocols.
Fast forward a few decades, and technology looks considerably different today in the face of the recent artificial intelligence (AI) boom, technology which underpins AdventureGenie as a travel planning system for RVers and campers.
“As AI is gaining prominence, people sometimes wonder if we are creating too much automation or putting people out of work. I don’t see it that way. AI empowers people; it enables them to do more valuable tasks, allowing people to move higher up the stack, leverage the underlying technology, gain deeper insights and provide more valuable services,” Lengel says.
Summoning AI to help with journey planning
Lengel, a former Microsoft divisional Chief Technology Officer (CTO), practices what he preaches. He founded AdventureGenie with veteran CEO/Investor David Greenberg, injecting artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing into planning recreational vehicle (RV) trips and camping travel. The aim was simple: to help enthusiastic RVers in their journeys’ initial planning stages.
“When the pandemic spread, my wife and I thought we would not be able to travel the world as much as we wanted, so we decided to focus on touring the United States. We used traditional online search engines to begin to develop a trip that would include a six-week trip to the national parks in the southwest,” Lengel says. He quickly realized that planning a trip as an RVer is “just not fun” with the lack of a universal tool, customized for the task. RVers have to sift through many blogs, review sites, and some standalone, disconnected apps as they plan their journey. This stage of the process was daunting.
Lengel’s tinkering mind returned to the engineering whiteboard and with Mr Greenberg recruited a team to build software that can leverage a vast amount of information relevant to RVers, rationalize it, reconcile it, and express it in a one stop shop application that specifically supports RVers and campers.
“We launched at the beginning of May after four months of beta testing, and we already have over 25,000 campgrounds, hundreds of thousands of points of interest (POIs), and we understand how to route people very robustly. And AdventureGenie creates these magical things called Genie Summaries, Genie Match and Genie Wishes” he says.
Collectively referred to as “Genie Magic”, AdventureGenie harnesses the power of AI to recommend to users worthwhile stops on their journey, places to stay, and things to do – specifically customized for them. The more they interact with AdventureGenie, the more the AI algorithm gets to know them and offers them recommendations that are highly-tailored to their preferences and patterns of travel.
While AdventureGenie offers a free interface, paid subscribers can access more in-depth functionality and better customization. One key feature is an AI-generated summary of reviews — based on a sophisticated sentiment analysis of the good, the bad and the ugly — for the campgrounds at each stop in a journey.
“Campgrounds usually have reviews and other information scattered across the internet. Sifting through the publicly available information on campgrounds is time-consuming and exposes the conflicts. Our AI processes the large amount of information and provides a few-paragraph summary for our users to help them decide whether a campground is aligned to their preferences,” Lengel says.
AdventureGenie’s AI is clever enough to understand discrepancies in campground data. For example, if a review is overarchingly positive but mentions that it rained a lot during the stay and hence only got two stars (out of five), the AI understands that nuance and doesn’t penalize the campground.
Cruising in its baby shoes, AdventureGenie is coming out with its first big update in June. While the RV trip planning tool already fills a previous gap with great value for the community, the developers are ambitious to boost the service further.
“We are working on functionality that will understand our users better, ensuring that the planning experience is completely tailored for them. We will be releasing features that include robust predictions and recommendations. Think about an experience that recommends what to do, where to stay and how to get there, where every user of ours would see different content, specifically curated for their eyes and tastes, powered by our proprietary technology,” Lengel says. “With our significant AI upgrade – GenieWishes—we now give subscribers a way to customize a full itinerary at each stop, complete with things to do, see and visit based on their individual wants and needs”.
Back in the early days of Silicon Valley start-ups, a good idea alone could sell. Today, a start-up must present a working product complemented by a rock-solid business plan to attract investors and stand on its own feet. AdventureGenie is on that path. The real power of its AI is a specific focus on a proven need and audience of over 100 million campers. The underlying technology learns about its users’ preferences exclusively in the timeframe of the adventure, which carries two benefits.
Firstly, it offers peace of mind to users in a world where eavesdropping smart devices have been an issue—especially with targeted online adverts appearing minutes after we discussed a random product with friends in the presence of an idle phone. Secondly, with such a restricted scope, AdventureGenie becomes really good at a very particular thing: helping its users plan tailored trips of genuine experiences. Feedback has been good from the community.
“Over my decades in the technology industry, I have established a network with a wide ranging set of tastes when it comes to travel. When they learned about us building AdventureGenie, we received fascinating feedback, but many people asked whether they could use the tool as non-RVers. I said, so long that they travel on land, they can,” Lengel says.
However, there is more to it. Albeit in the early stages, the tool has the potential to grow into a technology that could be replicated for other travel modes or geographical locations, even internationally, in the mid-term. AdventureGenie’s potential to grow is ever-present. In fact, one of the features shows that the creators are agile enough to seize an opportunity when it emerges.
“GenieTrips is an important component of our product offering, which came about accidentally. We saw how some companies offer fully-fledged itineraries for travel, and we thought we could identify points of interest between users’ starting points and destinations and stitch them together to offer a better traveling experience – targeted towards the RV traveler,” Lengel says. Now, AdventureGenie has over a couple dozen GenieTrips available on the platform, which has proved unexpectedly popular among users.
Despite his tremendous industry experience in the field, and having been among the very pioneers who made technology happen, Lengel speaks with nonchalant humility.
“Our goal is to be a very nimble, very agile company. We learn quickly, follow agile software development methodology [a method of creating software that focuses on iterative development and collaboration among self-organized teams with continuously-evolving requirements and solutions], and learn to fail fast so we can swiftly take an alternate path after hitting a snag to improve our product further. We also aim to be extremely customer-centric; we want to add incremental value to our users regularly,” Lengel concludes.
Now that AdventureGenie is out of the bottle, campers, indeed travelers of every kind, should watch this AI tool because its potential to scale is massive. It may be a young company for now, but every journey starts with the first step, and Lengel has a track record of steering technology toward real value creation.