Kayak co-founder Paul English’s new mobile-travel startup Lola wants to integrate live travel agents into an iPhone trip-planning and booking app but another travel startup, RentalsCombined.net already brings travel agents to the fore within desktop and mobile-Web experiences.
The concept isn’t new. In fact, a now-defunct travel startup that had Regis Philbin as its celebrity spokesman and was aptly named ByeByeNow.com, likewise enabled travel agents to take control of travelers’ desktops to make recommendations as far back as 2000.
Several-month-old RentalsCombined.net, based in London, says it offers 600,000 professionally managed apartments and villas for short-term rentals through travel agents.
Travel agents who download the RentalsCombined.net desktop app on its website or through the Sabre distribution system can utilize a “show me” feature, which enables them to push property recommendations, including photo slideshows, location, amenities, ratings and a map, to consumers’ desktop or mobile browsers.
The way it works is travel agents and their customers talk on the phone or message one another and the travel agent instructs the consumer to navigate to a specific URL on desktop or the mobile Web to start the session. The travel agent then essentially takes over the consumer’s screen, pushing property recommendations [see image above], although the traveler can also scroll through a slideshow for each recommended villa or apartment.
After reviewing the photos and amenities of a particular property, or asking the travel agent for additional recommendations to view, the travel agent can then book the property for the traveler, or email travelers a downloadable pdf of their saved favorites, replete with pricing.
RentalsCombined doesn’t yet have a mobile app but the “show me” functionality also works on the mobile Web. After navigating to a particular URL at the direction of the travel agent, the traveler can view information about and photos of Oasis Villa 2 in Mauritius, for example.
RentalsCombined demoed the feature for Skift. In the image at right, the travel agency logo would normally appear instead of the RentalsCombined.net heading.
“It’s not rocket science,” says RentalsCombined co-founder and CEO Nico Nicholas, adding that the feature enables travel agents to insert themselves and take control of the sales process.
The “show me” feature is especially useful for trip-planning for apartments and villas because the process is very different than shopping for a hotel stay, where a chain property might closely resemble an affiliated property in a different country, Nicholas says.
For apartments and villas, which tend to generate longer stays than for typical hotel bookings, it really helps for the agent to show clients property descriptions and photos to accommodate their whims as many of the properties are unique, Nicholas says.
“We don’t sell surprises,” Nicholas adds.
To be sure, Lola, the Boston-based and venture-funded travel startup co-founded by Paul English and formerly known as Blade Travel, has grander ambitions and more focus about travel agent integration than does RentalsCombined. Lola, which launched a private beta of its consumer iPhone app last week and announced plans to hire 100 full-time travel agents, intends to weave human travel agents throughout its iPhone app as consumers talk on the phone or chat with agents and shop for flights, hotels, apartments, and car rentals etc.
In contrast to RentalsCombined.net, Lola is mobile-app based and is also focused on re-engineering the travel agent workflow by developing a new type of travel agency console.
But the idea of integrating travel agents into traveler apps is at least 15 years old, if not older, dating to the ill-fated startup, ByeByeNow.com.
When told about the ByeByeNow implementation in 2000, Nicholas of RentalsCombined says: “I think that the technology wasn’t quite there, but I also think that the products they were selling were readily available offline, and consumer online travel spend was low back then.”
“The product we’re selling is hot in the market, and the travel agents is also eager to take it on board,” Nicholas says. “But I also think that the Web has become precisely that now — a Web. There is so much choice, which is why the likes of Lola and even Virgin are creating this hybrid of on- and offline either through call centers or actual retail outlets. We feel the time is right for what we’re doing.”
Still, assuming travel agent integration solves a real problem for do-it-yourself travel bookers or a hefty segment of them — and that’s debatable — there is lots of room for improvement and innovation.