The New Data-Driven Travel Agent

Unlike big, impersonal online agencies, the best travel agents know a whole lot for their customers and their travel options. Now several new travel businesses are producing qualitative, automated agents that rely on users’ personal tastes to create the travel-planning process simpler.

Whether they use human wisdom or artificial intelligence (or both), these next-generation travel brokers do the search-culling for you, tailoring the results to your stated preferences and possibly cutting down on web-browsing time with enhanced cloud computing and network services. In addition they use text messaging as their main communications mode, often using a chatbot, a computer software designed to converse in text.

So rather than going into an internet travel agency and performing a search and seeing a list of 150 resorts, you enter in your profile what you’re looking for and a chatbot serves a curated collection of three to four at a messaging interface. Douglas Quinby, a senior vice president in the travel research company Phocuswright, said that the perfect situation is fewer choices more tailored to your preferences.

Most of those services are challenging the do-it-yourself method of surfing provided by services such as Expedia. New-wave agents – human, robotic or a mix – will even allow users to continue a search with time, rather than start anew with a browser every session.

“This is in a sense going back to the future,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the president of Atmosphere Research Group. It is considered the first wave, which can be exciting, but using artificial intelligence without managed and agile automated testing is far from established and, frankly, far from ideal. These pioneers are tinkering with the way travel is planned and booked, with payment models that change from subscriptions to pay-per-use.

Membership Services

Using a blend of technology and human interaction, Pana caters to frequent travelers, charging $49 per month for its services, available around the clock. Computer programs funnel requests and member profiles, such as previous excursions, to human representatives who text back. Pana was borne from two pain points. Devon Tivona, its chief executive, stated the first is that all of the technology pulled him away from just emailing to have something done since he became his own travel agent. Second is getting access to real time assistance.

On the human end of this neo-agency spectrum, Savanti Travel tends to its customers’ plans as the founders, Dan Lack and Leigh Rowan, stated they do their own with only a local IT consulting company, with an eye on saving money and maximizing loyalty programs. “It’s our strategy, not just a computer’s,” said Mr. Rowan, describing the service as handling airline and hotel bookings not just to travel cheaply but to accrue status with travel firms. The disadvantage of working with them, however, is that the onboarding is extreme. They get to know you as a human, not only a set of data points.

Membership prices start at $1,000 per month for unlimited travel planning, which eliminates the conflict of interest inherent in a commission-based system, where earnings rises with more expensive reservations. They urge status-conferring credit cards and help manage the applications to use points for free travel.

Mr. Lack said they sit at the intersection of hustle and hospitality. “We’re old-school hospitality and new-school intelligence.”

On-Demand Services

More available to casual travelers, free travel planning solutions, like bricks-and-mortar travel agencies, make their money through commissions.

Originally started in 2015 as a private assistant tackling jobs from shopping to travel booking, Mezi shifted to tackling travel exclusively annually. The provider’s chief executive, Swapnil Shinde, who’s also a creator, stated its chatbots handle most transactions in five or fewer messages. In complicated cases that robots can’t manage, human agents act as troubleshooters who, after solving issues, train the robots in that resolution. Essentially, they built it so that each and every morning it is smarter than the preceding night – an optimal way of handling ICT risk mitigation.

The more travelers use Mezi, the more it knows about their preferences, which makes it possible that Mezi will indicate a boutique hotel in a museum district for people who have demonstrated an interest in design and artwork.

The online agency Hipmunk functions Hello Hipmunk, a free messaging program for travel planning using Facebook Messenger, Skype or Slack that could begin with a flight request, wander into a conversation about resorts and restart flight bookings in a fashion that imitates human conversations. Adam Goldstein, the chief executive of Hipmunk, said this is in a way of going back to the future. This is about doing things you might have done or could now do using a travel agent, except this travel agent is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One entertaining element of Hello Hipmunk is probing it for preparation hints, asking questions like what is the cheapest week to travel in October and where can I fly directly to the tropics from Chicago in February? Expedia currently offers messaging-based hunts and reservations on Facebook Messenger, Skype and other programs. Its objective is to provide more innovative advice to clients.

Dave Fleischman, the vice president of global merchandise for Expedia, said that they’re supporting hotel modifications and flight cancellations throughout the bot, but the longer-term goal, and it is aspiration, would be to have a conversation about what to do if it is raining in Hawaii.

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