The shift in travel spending from bricks-and-mortar travel agencies to online travel companies has largely been about automation -- taking the human part out, for cost savings.
Now a few startups, including HotelTonight, Native, and (apparently) Facebook, are trying to put the human element back in, through virtual concierge, or chat-based personal assistant, services. For instance:
"Facebook is working on a feature within Facebook Messenger that allows users to ask real people for help researching and ordering products and services, among other tasks."
That claim is based on The Information's interviews with "three people briefed on it" who spoke anonymously.
While Facebook's product won't be travel specific, travel could be one of the provided services, it appears. It's unclear what the cost would be.
Starting last Thursday, HotelTonight, the on-demand booking app, has begun testing a local virtual concierge service in five US cities.
The startup's goal is to keep more big-spending users within the app after booking a hotel, and hopefully enable a hotel to encourage the guest to splash out on services like its spa or restaurant.
Debuting this spring, Native, on the other hand, is explicitly about travel. Have a travel question? Open the app, and ask "Tim," via an interface similar to sending an instant message. Some time later, you'll receive word from Tim on a couple of solutions.
Native says it can book travel on your behalf, handle frequent-flier mile redemption, and change airplane seats. The cost starts at $25 a month for an individual, if you sign up for a recurring monthly contract. Or for $50 for a family plan, meaning booking travel for a family.
Siri comes, Siri goes
Virtual assistants for travel have been a tough nut to crack, business-wise. There's been a long effort to make virtual concierges cost-effective.
They've had a hard time. Fun fact: Many travel agencies have access to instant message and phone text, too.
But maybe the economics and demographics have shifted to make it feasible.
Does today's mobile-first generation -- accustomed to enjoying on-demand pizza and on-demand taxis and on-demand hotel booking -- have a willingness to pay for concierge services?
Evature was an early effort to develop an Expert Virtual Agent (EVA) that enables free-text search for online travel. Concur, the travel-and-expenses management company, invested $2 million in it.
Today it powers text-based cruise search for iCruise. Agents using the Sabre Red booking platform can use Evature-powered assistant Eva to search for flights, hotels, and car rentals using free-form text, like, "Show me all open PNRs with BA".
Mobile service virtual agent Carla from Carlson Wagonlit was, as we've reported, "an example of how companies are trying to tie all the pieces together using mobile technology but also maintaining a human face."
(By the way -- Eva, Carla, Moneypenny -- Could we all stop giving most of these virtual assistants female names?)
Competing with traditional agents
It's not the only online travel company based on having human "travel hackers" respond to questions. FlightFox lets you find an agent who will virtually handle your travel questions. The only difference is that price varies by the complexity of the request, and the interaction happens outside of an app (such as via email).
Similarly profitable and long-running, Cranky Concierge also offers online-only travel consulting work, only it has set rates on an a la carte menu -- such as $60 for planning and booking a US domestic roundtrip, or $90 for international roundtrip, on your behalf.
Again, these are humans who communicate with you "the old-fashioned way" -- via email.
More automated attempts, such as Olset's algorithm-based hotel recommendation service didn't catch on with users when it was plugged into virtual personal assistant service AnyDo, which has a wide following for task planning.
So a skeptic might ask: Is there an effective business model here in any of these ideas? A good agent could be found for a typical family trip at the prices Native is charging.
Yet the skeptics may turn out to be fools. HotelTonight and Facebook have some of the world's smartest minds regarding what the mobile-first, on-demand generation is expecting.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
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