Kayak co-founder Paul English’s new travel startup, Lola, plans to hire 100 full-time travel agent employees by the end of 2016 in a bid to re-engineer the travel agency model and to redefine the dynamics of online and offline travel.
The startup, previously known as Blade Travel as a placeholder for the just-revealed brand name, will launch a private beta of its consumer app by the end of the week, with plans for a public launch of the mobile app in the first quarter of 2016. We exclusively reported on English’s plans at Blade in July.
Lola (short for longitude and latitude) currently has 31 employees and projects it will have a workforce of 250 employees, including 100 full-time travel agents with salaries, benefits and stock options by the end of 2016. Lola previously attracted $21 million in funding from former Kayak funders Accel Partners and General Catalyst Partners and is in the process of raising a Series A1 round, enough to operate the company for 18 months, English said.
English, co-founder and CEO of Lola Travel, as the company is formally known, said December 2 at an event at the company’s Boston offices that the consumer mobile app will enable travelers to purchase flights, hotel stays, car rentals, apartment rentals and theater tickets, for example, from travel agents who will interface with travelers within the app and will in some cases take control of the app in order to show customers various options and help them make their bookings.
Lola initially will be app-only — no mobile Web or desktop for consumers. The website will mostly promote signing up for the beta or downloading the app.
In so doing, English, who co-founded Lola with Bill O’Donnell, who was previously Kayak’s general manager of mobile, is bucking the Millennials-fed do-it-yourself trend in online travel bookings.
“We think bringing humans back into the equation is very important,” English said, adding that online search and booking as practiced by Kayak and Expedia, for example, is characterized by “the tyranny of choice” — as in choice overload.
In addition to the consumer app, Lola is building a travel agent app in an attempt to re-engineer the entire travel agency workflow, from interfacing with global distribution systems to booking and beyond. Although online travel agencies offer phone support, it is disjointed an ineffective, English said.
When he was co-founder and CTO at travel metasearch site Kayak from 2004 to 2013, English required engineers to answer customer service calls so they could understand the concrete problems that travelers faced.
That’s where Lola’s 100 travel agent employees would come in. While some might be home-based, a substantial number of them would sit next to Lola engineers in the Boston office so the engineers could feel the pain that agents feel and learn their concerns as the engineers build a travel agent console, English said.
“We want to eat our own dog food,” English said.
Some of the new-hires will have travel agent experience while others will merely have customer service jobs on their resumes, English said.
Current tools for travel agents, including global distribution green screens that find many travel agents still preferring to use decades-old formats and scripts over graphical user interface-type tools, are “horrific,” English said. He said Lola wants to recreate and take control of the end-to-end travel agency experience.
In some ways, Lola rekindles memories of ITA Software’s aborted mission to build a modern-era global distribution system, an initiative that ITA abandoned in favor of focusing on flight pricing and shopping.
English said Lola will not rebuild the global distribution systems but will redefine how travel agents go about their business and interface with customers.
“My goal is to create a new kind of travel agents who just love their jobs,” English said.
Lola is obviously a work in progress and faces huge challenges.
Do consumers really want to get travel agents involved when planning the handful of leisure trips that they might take each year?
How will Lola make money? English said business models under consideration include taking commission payments (airlines hardly pay any), subscriptions for members, licensing the technology to travel agencies, and charging travelers a fee, an option he doesn’t prefer.
If Lola eventually tries to license its software, will travel agencies, travel agents and corporations really want it in considerable numbers?
In phase one, English said Lola will focus on developing the consumer app and the travel agent console. Licensing the software to travel agencies could be the focus of phase two, English said.
He added that he can envision tens of thousands of travel agents using the new software, although these agents as a rule wouldn’t be Lola employees.
English spoke at a Blade Travel Summit (the company was known as Blade Travel until the Lola brand was announced December 2), featuring presentations by three other travel startups, Freebird, Wellobox and Fuzzy Compass.
Like these three startups, Lola will face the challenge of acquiring customers in an era when paid search, however costly, rules the day.
English said he expects Lola’s Series A1 funding to carry the company for 18 months with 250 employees and enough money remaining to conduct marketing activities.
The biggest things that Lola have going for it are co-founders English and O’Donnell and their track record in travel tech and mobile. Apart from that, Lola faces headwinds in really going against the grain of instant bookings and digital-only travel. It’s a very ambitious project with huge challenges.
More to come: Skift will soon publish a Q&A with Lola CEO Paul English.