How CityPASS cut translation costs in half with Unbabel’s API integration

12 min read

Mike Gallagher and Mike Morey started CityPASS back in 1997 with the idea of giving memorable experiences to travellers coming to North America. Today, 21 years later, CityPASS has 19 million users from all over the world and is one of the leading companies in the field.

However, running an international business is no walk in the park. There are many challenges along the way and making sure you’re understood by all your customers is definitely one of them.

Like any other business in travel, CityPASS knew from a very early stage that they needed to be multilingual if they wanted to reach a global audience. But of course, that’s easier said than done.

And that’s exactly what CityPASS’s Aaron Finley, VP of e-commerce, and Alicia Russo, Director of Online Content, told me a couple of weeks ago.

In this customer story, we talked about how they tackled the challenges of having everything translated into 7 languages, how they integrated with the Unbabel Translation API to help them reduce translation costs by approximately 50% and shorten turn-around time of translations from 4-6 weeks to under 24 hours, and why they’re now expanding their translated content to email and blog.

Meet CityPASS

CityPASS was built with the goal of offering travellers a rich, memorable experience at several touristic attractions. Essentially, like Alicia Russo explains, their products are “bundles of discounted admission tickets for top attractions across 13 destinations”. And these can come in a variety of formats like paper booklets, mobile tickets, or even vouchers that people exchange for booklets. So for example, if you end up buying the Chicago CityPASS, you’ll have tickets to all sorts of attractions including the Shedd Aquarium, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Adler Planetarium.

And their numbers are quite impressive. CityPASS has recently reached 19 million customers from all 7 corners of the world, and their customer recommendation rating is 98%.

They are currently a team of 50, based in Victor, Idaho, and support 7 languages on their website. CityPASS translates product descriptions, information about individual attractions, emails, articles and blog posts.

A problem called translation

For CityPASS, like for many other international growing businesses, translation used to be a huge hassle. According to Aaron Finley, their VP of e-commerce, before switching to Unbabel, the translation process at CityPASS “was extremely slow, prone to user error and very costly for the business”.

To give you a better idea of how they used to get their content translated, Aaron’s and Alicia’s team would gather all the pieces of updated content that needed to be translated and hand them off to a translation company in a batch of content. The problem though was that they would bundle up and transmit this information in a file and it was “very likely that the data would come back mangled and out of order”.

In the end, they would spend quite a bit of time trying to sort out the mistakes. “The whole thing was costing us a large amount of money and a tremendous amount of time”, as Aaron remembers.

Not to mention the time they had to wait for the translations to be delivered — often 4-6 weeks for larger content batches. And the problem of having to wait so long was that during that period of time the content had already changed and they would end up sending it again. This, according to Alicia, their Director of Online Content, often meant “providing inconsistent data on the website to an international audience” — which is a large percentage of their customers.

Implementing the Unbabel API Integration

But then something happened. “We found the right translation partner”, told us Aaron Finley.
So what initially began as a cumbersome and manual operation turned later into “a smooth and efficient process that delivered accurate translations and increased the overall quality”, as Alicia, their Director of Online Content, explains.

Why did CityPASS decide to integrate with Unbabel’s translation API?

According to their VP of e-commerce, Aaron Finley, at the time, CityPASS was developing their own content management system to make things easier and to keep all their processes under control. “We were working on our own content management system, as well as doing a substantial redesign of the site at the time, and all of our content was being re-worked in conjunction with that. So we knew that it was going to be a huge year for translated content.”

Having their own content management system meant that they could track all the content changes, and by integrating with Unbabel via API, they would get a translation tool to work with them in a more automated fashion and also tailored to their needs.

As Aaron describes it: “We took the opportunity to work on an integration with Unbabel via API because it allowed us what we needed to do for that year—and we recognized that an integration would provide us a much better translation process moving forward. The back and forth roundtrip of information that was made possible through Unbabel is much smoother. It has proven to be a great investment”

How was the whole process of integrating with Unbabel’s translation API?

According to Aaron Finley who overviewed the project, the development started at the end of 2015 and “it took us a couple of months to work through all the details”. However, we have to consider that CityPASS wasn’t just building the translation interface, but also their own content management system during this period of time.

“Basically, we were developing our own content management system, so we knew we could track changes. We found out that Unbabel could receive content via an API request, translate it, then send it back to us in another data transfer. So, we started brainstorming internally how we could incorporate that workflow into our content management system.” — explains Aaron.

With the wheels turning, Aaron and his team of developers headed over to San Francisco to have a discovery session with Unbabel.

One of the CityPASS developers had this idea of using Git, which is a file management tool used by developers, to compare the content changes they were making in one of the branches with what was in their master branch.

In other words, the idea was to “compare a branch that was an offshoot of our master code-base vs what’s currently on the live site to identify all the pieces of content that had been modified. All of our core site content was being converted into a standard JSON data structure, so it was easier to itemize the individual content units that were modified and needed to be translated.”

This is pretty much like looking at a Word document that tracks all the changes that are made. Because the document will itemise everything, you can then see who made the changes and when.

And that’s what CityPASS decided to do with their content.

“As soon as an individual piece of content was modified in English, it would be recognized as different from what’s in production. We call them modified translation units (or MTUs). From there, MTUs get added into a queue with everything else that has been changed but not translated yet.”, explains Aaron Finley.

So from there, CityPASS built a system that would select either all the things that had been changed in English or just some of them and ship them over to Unbabel.

As for the API integration, it was done between CityPASS’s developers and Hugo Silva, who is one of the founders of Unbabel. “They worked pretty closely together to think things through. Some of the infrastructure we use now didn’t exist when we first started this process with Unbabel, so we worked hand in hand together to work the solution that was going to work for both companies.”

Ultimately, the way it now works is CityPASS sends the content to Unbabel as a modified translation unit and our AI-powered, human-refined translation platform takes it from there. First, the translation is done using state-of-the-art Neural Machine Translation. Then, it gets reviewed and approved by a community of thousands of bilingual editors spread around the world who are able to deliver a fast translation with the best possible quality. And in the end, it shows as a translated text unit on their content management system, and all CityPASS has to do is approve and publish the translated content on their website.

As Aaron told us, “it’s a pretty simple process now. We send Unbabel pieces of modified English content. They reply with translated versions in 6 languages. Then, all we have to do is review and ‘accept’ them. From there, our system automatically puts the translated content pieces in the right spots in our content directory for each language.”

In the end, this API integration was the solution that CityPASS was looking for and the whole implementation process met all expectations.

“It was really the right time, the right place and the right partner, and we’ve been pleased ever since. I mean, initially we had to invest some of our time in it but we’re now seeing the returns on a year to year basis. And we’ve been thrilled with the service that we have received from Unbabel — the responsiveness from your team has been amazing.”

Results: substantial cuts in translation costs, shorter turn-around times and reduced risk of human error

Accurate and efficient. That’s how Aaron Finley and Alicia Russo describe the overall outcome of using Unbabel to translate their online content.

In the end, while using Unbabel, CityPASS was able to:

  • Decrease Y/Y translation costs by about 50% in the first year with Unbabel
  • Shorten turn-around time of translations from 1 month to under 24 hours
  • Reduce risk of human error by automating the sending/receiving of content via Unbabel API
  • Expand their translations to other types of content

“The efficiency of the system that we built with you guys and also the efficiency of the translations themselves are great. I mean, there are times when I send the content to be translated and it’s back within an hour. It’s a much smoother process of translation than it was before.” — Alicia told us.

As a result, CityPASS can keep their translated pages up to date with the English ones. And according to Alicia Russo, their Director of Online Content, “that can be really important when we have things that are more time sensitive like notices about attractions closures and those kinds of things”.

Like Aaron Finley puts it, before using Unbabel to translate their content “it was very costly, we had a bunch of developers having to troubleshoot a messed up translation, it took us a lot of time and it was very painful. Our time here is very valuable; we don’t have a huge team here so we can’t afford waste. Thankfully we’ve been able to reduce the cost of translation, the dollar cost and the opportunity cost of just facilitating content.”

Expanding their translated content to blog and email

As a result, CityPASS has also been able to expand what they’re translating and provide a full multilingual customer experience.

“Before, we used to only translate our core site content. But now we also translate blog posts, the emails that our customers receive from us, the vouchers and the mobile tickets that they get. And all of that is a big deal because we used to let people purchase in French but then what we would give them afterwards would be in English. So it was not a complete follow through. Now we can complete the entire process in their language.” — told us Alicia, the Director of Online.

This means that nowadays CityPASS is able to translate not just the pre-purchase content, which definitely increases conversion, but also their post-purchase content, which increases customer satisfaction and reduces the number of customer support enquiries.

They’re looking to rank higher in terms of SEO by translating the blog for all the languages they support.

“It was really a competitive advantage for CityPASS because we have such a high percentage of international customers. Before, our post-purchase experience was lacking. CityPASS customers would purchase in their native language and then receive all the post-purchase content, like instructions, ticket details and so on, in English. This didn’t make any sense to us and we were able to improve our overall customer experience with Unbabel.” told us Aaron Finley.

All this in Aaron Finley’s own words was a breakthrough for CityPASS. “We had a lot of things to translate, a lot of content gaps to close, but with Unbabel, by having a good subscription model and good tailored tools, last year was a breakthrough for us because we were able to translate everything we wanted to.”

By translating the blog they’re looking to rank higher in terms of Organic Search for all the languages they support. They’ve been doing this since the end of last year, but Aaron Finley is excited and looking forward to see the results: “Now we have that same editorial content in 7 different languages which is amazing and could prove interesting in terms of our SEO reach”.

Ultimately, CityPASS has been able to be a multilingual business without much of the hassle they’ve experienced before.

Key learning points

  • A translation solution tailored to their needs via API and fully integrated with CityPASS’s content management system
  • Decreased Y/Y translation costs by about 50% in the first year with Unbabel
  • Shortened turn-around time of translations from 1 month to under 24 hours
  • Reduced risk of human error by automating the sending/receiving of content via the Unbabel API
  • Increased overall translation quality
  • Expanded their translations to other types of content including email and blog-posts

Do you want to know how your team can also benefit from delivering seamless, scalable and trustworthy translations? Learn more about Unbabel’s translation API.

Or reach out directly to our team and request a demo.

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