Get to know a Toronto startup: Flee

Byron Hawes is extremely well travelled. The Toronto-based travel writer whose work has been featured in the likes of Architectural Digest and Monocle Magazine went to high school in Tokyo, worked in foreign affairs at the UN and decided the best way to learn Mandarin was to move to Beijing to experience it firsthand. His globetrotting adventures make him the go-to guy for travel recommendations and inspired him to launch a new travel site called Flee.

In the first five minutes of sitting down with Byron to talk about his new startup, it was clear that he has a wealth of insight into the best kept secrets of many of the cities he has had the chance to visit either on assignment or just for fun. I had a hard time jotting down notes from the interview while simultaneously adding all of the restaurants, hotels and cities he mentioned to my bucket list. Luckily, Hawes has captured everything I need to know in Flee.

Just released in public beta last week, Flee is a new experiential travel resource aimed for the savvy traveller who is looking to experience new things and places that are often off the beaten path.

Flee combines highly curated and original travel recommendations with a seamless booking process all wrapped up in an elegant and intuitive design. Flee aims to simplify discovery and booking so that customers can spend less time searching and more time experiencing.

"During our research we found out that it takes people on average 21 days to plan a trip. We thought that was way too long. With Flee you can plan a trip in under 21 minutes," explained Hawes.

Hawes and his Co-Founder Zeina Belouizdad created Flee after identifying a gap in the online travel recommendation space. "We realized that there wasn't a single product out there that was catering to us, the non- Expedia traveller. The kind of traveler who knows they want to get away but doesn't necessarily have a destination in mind. We built Flee to be a travel application providing destinations that have been pretty much overlooked by current travel websites and apps," explains Belouizdad.

Flee's design is definitely inspired by Hawes' editorial background. The visually appealing interface has a magazine-like feel with each travel recommendation featuring a well-shot image along with a short quirky review and location information. The Flee team has plans to add the ability for users to download a PDF version of each city guide for offline use on a smartphone or tablet while at the travel destination.

The simplicity in design is echoed in how easy it is to use the site. Hawes explained that they wanted to keep the recommendation process as one-click as possible. To start, users select their travel dates and their budget to be provided with recommendations from over 30 cities, currently only in North America. The team has plans to expand their recommendations to Europe and then Asia in the near future. Users can book hotels through a seamless integration Flee has with Mr. and Mrs. Smith or flights through Travelocity.

Flee's travel recommendations are not your typical tourist spots. Flee's picks for Toronto, for example, include West-end gems like Ursa, Bar Chef, 416 Snack Bar, and Queen street accessories shop Zane. The site also features many cities you may not think of travelling to, such as Louisville or Minneapolis, but that Hawes swears are not-to-be-missed weekend getaways.

Flee was selected as one of the startups to take part in the Jolt Accelerator program at MaRS. "Jolt played a critical part in Flee's development. Coming in we had the idea, the brand and all the content to build this awesome product but we needed guidance to be able to build a winner. We've picked a tough space to be in and so being surrounded by those who have built and conquered dozens of times in the past is not only a bit asset but also very inspirational," said Zeina Co-Founder.

Flee can be found online at www.setmeflee.com. The team expects to launch their first iOS application on the iPad this summer.

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