In a time of unprecedented advancement in technology, travel agencies are rethinking traditional business models and instead taking innovative approaches to traveler needs. During TravelConnect 2017, ARC brought together a panel of innovative new travel agencies to discuss technology, new business models and emerging markets.
Jay Boehmer, editor-in-chief of The Beat, moderated a panel featuring Krista Pappas, vice president of Lola Travel; Dakota Smith, head of growth at Hopper; and Jason Wynn, senior vice president and general manager of travel at Upside Travel.
Each of these ARC-accredited travel agencies has adopted a creative business model to reach new markets of travelers. Here’s what sets each agency apart.
Lola features an app for business travelers that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze travelers’ likes and dislikes to create personalized suggestions based on their preferences. With concierge support, Lola blends technology with personalized customer service to provide a seamless experience for road warriors.
“We focus a lot on personalization,” said Pappas. “We believe that travel agents are here to stay, but we will use AI and machine learning to build efficiencies and process data to deliver a personalized experience.” Lola’s travel agents help train the AI engine to enhance personalized recommendations.
“Personalization is the key to making travel work correctly,” Pappas said.
Pappas noted that many road warriors want to book their travel themselves, so Lola implements free 24/7 concierge to assist travelers when needed. Lola also helps travelers sign up for loyalty programs with preferred suppliers. “We want to work as advocates for the travelers and provide them with the easiest ways to get to suppliers. It’s complex, but we think we can be a very good partner to the suppliers by bringing customers they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Launched in 2015, Hopper is a flight-monitoring and booking app for travelers. With a historical archive of trillions of flight prices, Hopper leverages data to predict the best time to buy a ticket, and the best dates to travel, to achieve the fare that’s of most value to the traveler.
Hopper’s model is unique in that it does not expect the traveler to book travel right away. Instead, it guides the customer to an optimal decision, even if it means waiting weeks or months for the right time to book a ticket. Eighty percent of those who download the app sign up to receive push notifications, and the average traveler who books on Hopper receives 42 push notifications from the app over the span of about four months before booking a ticket.
But those push notifications are powerful. Hopper will issue push notifications that encourage a consumer to keep waiting for a better price on an airline ticket. Alternatively, notifications could indicate that it’s a good time to buy, or they could suggest another similar destination, or a good deal on a flight from the traveler’s home airport. Smith noted that 20 percent of Hopper’s sales are for trips users didn’t search for — fares that Hopper recommends based on past searches. “By guiding them to fares that make sense, you might actually generate more travel, as well.”
Hopper currently sells only air travel, so it admits that profit margins are slimmer than those for agencies that can package hotel, car rental and other higher-margin travel products. However, Hopper has a strong retention rate and high purchase frequency. “We’re really thinking about lifetime,” Smith said, noting that long-term customer relationships are key to sustainability, especially for a new agency.
Upside bundles business travelers’ flights, hotels, rental cars and even rideshare ground transport into low-cost travel packages. In addition to reducing business travel costs, Upside also provides a gift card as an incentive to the traveler for each trip.
Upside is geared to DIY business travelers — those who book their own trips and are not managed by a corporate travel program. Wynn emphasized that there are more than 15 million such business travelers in the U.S., and for the most part, they are dissatisfied with their travel booking experience. Upside works to provide value, service and incentive to create a more tailored solution for this traveler segment.
“The lifetime value of these customers is incredibly high,” Wynn said. “You can spend a lot of money to get them in the door, but as long as you can retain them and become a big portion of their trip share, it starts working in your favor pretty quickly.” Wynn also noted that, by building relationships with this difficult-to-reach customer segment, Upside delivers value to its suppliers.
Wynn described the importance of building customer loyalty, especially for a newer travel agency. “When you’re going direct to a consumer and trying to establish a brand, it’s an incredibly difficult proposition, because it’s a trust factor,” he said. “Because once someone tries us, servicing… will win the day.”