Many travel agencies see the world of online travel and tech startups as a threat, or, at least, as incompatible with the service ethic of the agency business. But recently, several startups are bridging the gap, with new tools that are either developed by agents or that tap into the human interaction that agencies offer.
A notable example of the former is the AXUS travel app, an itinerary management and support program for travel advisors and tour operators, which was founded by travel agent Julia Douglas, owner of Jet Set World Travel in Chicago.
Douglas was inspired by the increasing burden of managing complex itineraries: the constant back and forth and the “hundreds of emails” that landed in her inbox, not just during the planning process but also during the trip itself. The app solves all that, she said, replacing bulky paper printouts of itineraries with a simple interface that sends clients flight notifications, driving directions and destination guides, and keeps them in touch with their advisor via in-app messaging. Anyone can use the app, but they must sign up with a specific travel agent to do so.
Despite the risks of launching a startup, “I know it was something I wanted to do. I had a vision of how things could be done better,” Douglas said. She began working with a mobile app developer several years ago, and launched the final product more than a year ago, after obtaining financial backing from private sources.
Since then AXUS has expanded its customer base, most recently with Signature Travel Network, which is integrating the app into its Pocket Travel Consultant to create “one solution” that should enable travel managers to differentiate their services and deliver a superior experience to the client.
Meanwhile, another tech startup is making waves in the travel agency arena: Lola, a startup founded by former Kayak chief Paul English, is an app that connects travelers to live travel agents.
In several presentations at tech conferences, English sought to clear up the confusion over the apparent contradiction of a technology product that acknowledges that people actually prefer to interact with a real human being. English emphasized that agents will “always” have a role, and he has already hired and trained an initial team of 20 full-time agents.
The real test will come in the next few months, when the plan is to expand Lola to a wider audience and when English plans to add staff and open a call center.
Another notable example of an agent as tech entrepreneur is Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, CEO of TripScope, a website for agents that combines itinerary planning with a mobile app for customers, so that agents and their clients can keep in touch through all stages of the trip.
Like other self-described “tech-obsessed travel experts,” O’Shaughnessy, who has worked as an agent at Coastline Travel Advisors in Southern California, came up with the idea several years ago and helped raise financing. After beta-testing, the site was showcased at the Phocuswright conference in 2014. Since then the group has signed up dozens of independent travel agencies and has partnered with the Virtuoso and Travel Leaders consortia.
O’Shaughnessy has described the product as targeted towards “forward-thinking” agencies whose clients are comfortable with technology but seek the sort of personal service that an OTA or other online-only service typically lacks.
If these startups beat the odds and succeed, observers are betting the industry will see many more of these agent-friendly startups in the tech space.