Skift Take

Every smart travel agency and consortium has plans to better integrate one-on-one service with mobile technology. But maybe English, with his established tech savvy, can finally crack the perfect formula for bringing agents into the digital age. The hard part will be acquiring customers, especially when using a mobile app as the sole method of client interaction.

The new travel app from a co-founder of Kayak is looking to recruit travel agents with a focus on service instead of selling.

Paul English is looking to hire 100 travel agents to staff his new consumer-facing mobile app Lola, while a separate development team creates tools to let agents use global distribution systems more effectively.

“We think what happened the last 10 years with all the do-it-yourself sites, is they lost that human connection,” English told Skift in a Q&A. But the exact model that Lola will operate under is still unclear.

Since Lola’s business model is still unclear, agents say the new company just shows that online travel agencies (OTAs) haven’t been doing a good job providing customer service.

“We believe that the travel agency channel continues to prove its immense worth whenever those from the OTA world ‘discover’ the value that can only be found in the human equation,” a Travel Leaders Group spokesman told Skift. “We love the validation.”

Others say Lola’s focus on mobile simply reflect the reality of how people research and book travel today.

“Successful travel agents have always brought a high level of skill, knowledge and often special rates to the overall travel experience and buying process,” said Libbie Rice, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group. “And the method of reaching them hasn’t changed much over time from the traditional telephone call, in-office visit or email. But enter the millennials, and many others too, who are tied to their phones.”

With English’s track record, the service could become a successful middle-ground between mobile booking and the traditional travel agent experience.

“If Paul and his team can find a better way for consumers to leverage the unique power of the travel agent by better interacting with them during the booking and in-trip phases of travel, they could be on to something very powerful,” said Rice. “There’s a lot of potential, given what they accomplished at Kayak. That said, I am curious, as I’m sure the rest of the agency community is, to understand how this tool will truly benefit the travel professional.”

Will travel consultants, in addition to their salary, receive bonuses based on commissions or overall sales? In the vein of sharing economy services, will Lola merely connect consultants with potential clients and leave the consultants to earn an additional booking fee based on what Lola makes on the sale?

The agent-facing technology behind Lola could be licensed out to agencies and consortiums, as well, generating revenue for the company without relying on agent bookings.

Traditional agencies have been experimenting with technology similar to that behind Lola for some time.

“It is exciting to see Lola’s value proposition come to market as it accelerates our tech guiding principle: automate the predictable so you can humanize the exceptional,” said Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso. “New entrants who demonstrate the need for full-service travel advising reinforce what we’ve long known: no web-only service can replace the value of a true travel advisor. It comes down to the simple fact that you can’t take the human out of humanity – we see travelers craving for those services.”

Lola’s job listing for the ‘travel consultant’ role seems to be tailored to appeal to more than just a traditional travel agent. They’re looking for employees with experience in customer service, no matter the field.

“We are building the future of excellent customer service and we need the right people on our team to deliver on this promise,” reads a job description on Lola. “You’ll be empowered to make decisions, and use your experience interacting with our customers to create the best travel service ever.”

It also calls on people who pay attention to the nuance of interpersonal interactions, which is interesting considering the mobile-only focus of the service.

The description continues: “Are you the person that just loves when the Barista remembers your order and your name? Or the one who tells your friends to never go to a certain clothing store because the staff is more concerned with texting their friends than whether you can find your size? If you notice the best, and worst, service in your everyday life, we have to talk.”

The timed online questionnaire available online for applications includes 12 questions ranging from basic (“How many continents are there in the world?” or “Which of the following city skylines is San Fransisco?”) to extremely specific (“You’ve helped a customer book a 1 ½ week business trip, going to 5 different cities along the way. She is spending her last night before returning home in Chicago and you know she is sure to be exhausted and missing her family at home. What do you do to surprise her on this last night?”).


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Tags: bookings, kayak, lola

Photo credit: The mobile-first approach by Lola aims to marry human advice with pervasive connectivity.

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