Last December, Lola, a company that provides travel services to consumers who communicate with a team of live travel agents by messaging them through a smartphone app, was launched by Paul English, co-founder and CTO of Kayak, the online travel site that aggregates hotel and air pricing.
Yesterday, the luxury travel agent network, Virtuoso, announced it had accepted Lola as a full-fledged member.
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According to the press release published by Virtuoso, Lola has a 45-person team, including members of Kayak’s original management team and other technology companies.
That team also includes a staff of travel agents and specialists to book travel for users. The idea is that users will communicate to these agents through a messaging service on their phones. The agents will have unique technology to help them select hotel, air and vacation options for these clients, or, as the Virtuoso press release stated: “Lola is developing end-to-end technology to deliver a messaging-based mobile interface for Lola members and a proprietary agent console for its travel consultants. The agent console will be powered with artificial intelligence to support personalization for constrained-choice recommendations and chatbot-supplemented communication.”
At a press conference yesterday called by Virtuoso, Robert Birge, chief marketing officer of Lola, walked journalists through the company’s mindset.
“Our app is how you connect to our travel service. We are going to put you one touch away from a team of travel consultants. Those travels consultants are supported by our internal technology that we are building, including a significant development effort on artificial intelligence and natural language processing and other things to make them more efficient.”
Birge said that Lola has a development team working on the client application and on the user interface that the agents use. “That team is also working on a travel engine that will include travel content and supplier information along with artificial intelligence personalization and everything else that feeds answers into our agent consult. So that's Lola in a nutshell,” said Birge.
The marketing executive said Lola had evaluated a number of travel agency networks and had selected Virtuoso “because it fits into our vision.”
“We want to create a premium level service at a much greater value than you can get that service for today,” said Birge. “On one hand, we want to provide an alternative in the market to DIY travel stores like Expedia and Kayak. On the other hand, we want to provide a premium level service at a much greater value and service than you can get now.”
Birge said that the most widely known industry benchmark now is American Express Platinum and that Lola believes “that its on-demand personal travel service can be superior and that we can create an equivalent set of member benefits along with that.
“The Virtuoso hotel program in our assessment is superior to the American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts’ platform,” said Birge. “That was the primary driver. We believe that out of the gate this makes us already a competitive offer to American Express Platinum.”
Pricing has not yet been determined for the service, which will be by invitation only.
Travel consultants are currently working alongside Lola’s development team, but will likely move to a new location. “We are considering both within the United States and outside the United States,” said Birge, who said Lola has hired a mix of experienced travel agents as well as employees, including some from Nordstrom and Zappos, who have exhibited that they can deliver good customer service.
When asked if the Lola service is meant to supplement a consumer who already has a traditional travel advisor, Birge said no. “We are building a service to be your personal travel service for everything and that is ideally who we are going to gear everything toward,” he said. “Those will be the people who will be rewarded for better personalization because we will get to know them more. They will be the people that we will invest extra effort in. And they will be the people that will enjoy Lola the most. So I think the answer is no, we want to be your end-all.”
We asked Birge how intricate trips with Lola can get, considering the idea is to complete itineraries by using “augmented messaging,” which means clients and agents chatting through an app. Would private transfers and multiple destinations be feasible via Lola?
“One of the advantages that we are going to have is that we're not always going to be technology dependent,” said Birge. “What we want to do is to use artificial intelligence and to use a good user -interface design. We've hired the chief designer from Kayak to design the user interface for the agents. That's providing help to the travel consultant, but at the end of the day, we have a human being who is able to go out and do things. So if it is not the type of thing that is built in as a technical integration that you would get through a DIY travel store, we'll go to whatever lengths to take care of anything you need for your trip. That's what we want to promise people.”
David Kolner, Virtuoso’s senior vice president of global member partnerships, said that Virtuoso “ followed all of our normal application processes in putting Lola out for review for members to comment on. We reviewed it with our member advisory board, in addition,” he said, adding that Lola has been announced as a full-fledged member to the entire network of 390 agency members, which comprises 11,400 travel advisors in 40 countries.
Kolner acknowledged that Lola is a bit different but that this is not a dramatic shift for the agency network.
“I think it's that Virtuoso is really just unafraid of what's happening in the industry because we know that we are a company about human connections,” said Kolner. “We say that's our core purpose, we enrich lives through human connections. That's what we do at Virtuoso. Whenever there is human connections involve in selling travel, we are going to be there, and with that bedrock, it makes the future of technology not as scary at all, even for all of our members.
“As a network, we are excited to welcome Lola, to first of all share our learnings with them to help improve their business like any other member, but also to see how we can learn about using messaging in new ways,” said Kolner.