Can High Tech, Soft Touch Satisfy Travel Agents’ Luxury Clients?

by Richard D'Ambrosio
Can High Tech, Soft Touch Satisfy Travel Agents’ Luxury Clients?

Skylark offers discounts and perks on upscale air and hotel packages, like here at the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona. Photo: Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group

The luxury travel niche always has been defined as demanding high-touch, personal servicing from travel agents. Recent media coverage has focused on offerings like in-person consultations and custom-designed trips.

But Skylark, a company that bills itself as “the first hybrid luxury travel agency,” thinks it can succeed leveraging a combination of a robust online booking platform combined with traditional luxury leisure agent service and support. Skylark CEO Paul Tumpowsky is banking on the little extras, like added amenities from exclusive negotiated packages, emergency/disruption travel services and custom trip curation, to deliver excellent service to luxury clients.

“We believe we can wrap the right content together for a do-it-yourself shopping experience, with the peace of mind only a human travel agent can provide throughout your trip,” he said.

Skylark, a Virtuoso member, is backed by Ovation Vacations. It is using inventory from both entities to inspire clients to book packages (which it calls “collections”) “literally in one click, without agent intervention,” Tumpowsky said.

Layered into these “collections” are negotiated airline rates from a host of major carriers, and even preferred airline vacation package offerings. Also, there are “Skylark Originals,” special amenities like a Hudson River cocktails and hors d’oeuvres cruise on New York City’s Mark Hotel’s vintage schooner.

Launched as a private beta test about two years ago, Skylark only recently began inviting the public to visit its website. It doesn’t charge per trip or travel consulting fees, but expects to charge a $500 annual subscription fee that essentially will help fund “customer-service issues clients have been screaming about for years,” including airline refunds and extended ticketing times.

“That level of service just doesn’t exist for someone who wants to book online with an OTA, and still have that peace of mind that an agent is caring for them while they’re traveling,” Tumpowsky said. Customer service during the trip is provided by a combination of live Skylark and Ovation agents.

Technology tools used to inspire
Skylark is targeting 30- to 50-year-old affluent customers who prefer an online-first point of sale, but value service and support. “Our feeling is there is an opportunity here to target a younger traveler, someone who has never used an agent, or used one once. We want to show them the reason they had the bottle of wine on arrival at their hotel was that they were working with a luxury travel agent. “

Luxury travelers prioritize other services only a live agent can provide, like finding adjoining rooms for families, Tumpowsky said. “That’s not available online. It’s an offline process, and at some hotels, it’s based on relationships agents have with our hotel partners.” To reach these travelers, Skylark primarily markets through its website and a weekly e-mail newsletter.

Skylark’s website does utilize an agent chat feature, but Tumpowsky said it is used primarily “to start the conversation” and take care of servicing issues, ”small changes to your itinerary, or simple trips where you know where you have to go.”

So far, bookings are up 225% from last year, Tumpowsky said, with more than two-thirds of Skylark’s transactions requiring agents to spend 15-20 minutes live with the consumer. About 80% of transactions end with a live agent.

“There is no question that the answer in the luxury space will be resolved with a combination of technology and knowledgeable and trusted agents. There is no future without the peace of mind a traveler has working with an agent,” Tumpowsky said.

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