Its name is Lola. It’s a showpiece of Paul English. And it aims to be the hottest startup in Boston.
Lola is a technology company aspiring to build an app for consumers that will act as a travel concierge. It intends to offer a blend of the personalized touch that a human agent can provide with the slick user interface of a consumer booking app.
Lola’s team is led by English, the co-founder of Kayak. Its CTO is Bill O’Donnell, the one-time SVP chief architect of Kayak. Its marketing and business development is being headed up by Robert Birge, former CMO of Kayak.
The startup has been funded to the tune of more than $12 million by famous-name venture capital firms Accel Partners and General Catalyst Partners. It’s also about to raise some additional funding.
At an event at its Boston headquarters this evening, English unveiled the name for the consumer travel technology company: Lola, a portmanteau word made from (lo)ngtitude and (la)titude.
It has 31 employees already — including Vanessa Rodriguez, former director of hotel products at Fareportal — and is looking to hire even more talent.
Down with the green screen
Lola is testing the thesis that today’s do-it-yourself approach to booking travel online could be supplemented by a hybrid “virtual concierge” approach.
The company is tackling a few challenges.
The first challenge is to build from scratch a travel technology platform for travel agents that supersedes in usability and functionality the old-fashioned “green screen” platforms that are used by tens of thousands of travel agents today and that are powered by global distribution systems (GDSs).
English said in an interview with Tnooz:
“We were kind of horrified to see what GDS software looks like today…
Before I get too jaded, I need to record one of our travel agents using a GDS, because I think it’ll be useful years from now to show shockingly poor the graphical interface was for agents.
Our development team is rewriting the book from scratch, developing a consumer-grade platform.”
O’Donnell, the CTO, was more measured:
“I don’t have any particular ax to grind about the green screen looking old. It’s highly optimized for expert, trained users to use effectively.
What we think is missing is a ‘last-mile’ connection to the client. Right now the travel agent can find everything they need to know in the old-school terminal.
But to communicate with the customer, they have to use the phone or copy-and-paste messily-formatted junk into an email.
We want to develop a connection to the traveler that offers rich communication, and lets the agent communicate with the traveler throughout the journey to offer relevant messaging — something today’s systems don’t allow.”
The company said it is not aiming to replace GDSs and in fact is likely to partner with one or more of them. Its focus is instead on creating a desktop interface that is more consumer-grade than what is most widely used on a routine basis by agents in the US and abroad.
Starting Dec. 4, it will begin beta-testing its new desktop platform for professional travel agents it has hired — and who have been trained on the platforms used by global distribution systems — plus many sales people who are interested in selling travel but who lack prior industry experience.
They will use the tool to book the trips of employees’ friends and families. English said:
“We’re going to eat our own dog food for a while…. We’re going to perfect this platform in-house, before we start offering it to agencies as an alternative to today’s systems….
We want to reimagine the tools agents use and try to bring the simplicity of consumer-grade software to the day-to-day workflow of agents….
Our engineers will be sitting next to our travel agents to get rapid iteration on improvements whenever we discover slowness or a lack of ease-of-use.”
The company’s next goal is to release an app for consumers. In the first few months of 2016, the app is scheduled to debut as a travel concierge service.
Its interface will be designed to collect profile information from travelers, which will be interpreted by a mix of human-based agents and algorithms that hope to provide superior travel advice and a (promised) less stressful booking experience than today’s approaches.
Separately, the company has a data science team building a “personalization engine.” The mobile-first consumer app will aim to reduce the number of top recommendations offered to just a handful of flight and hotel choices.
Those recommendations will be based on preferences gleaned from a consumer, the consumer’s spending preferences, and from predictions based on broad consumer behavior. (Industry critics will be interested to see if Lola can have more luck with personalized recommendations than some other travel companies have had to date.)
Eventually, Lola wants to launch mobile app-based services for travelers that will enable customers to receive help throughout their entire journey, such as by offering a way to help travelers deal with situations like last-minute flight cancellations.
Blade recently acquired hopOn, a San Francisco startup that had created a travel booking platform. That startup’s CTO Doug Morgan has relocated to Boston.
The company’s marketing team is doing business development with hotels, in particular, and other suppliers while also building the “plumbing” to handle their data feeds.
The company expects to eventually work with all types of travel suppliers — not just airlines and hotels. (Think transportation network services like Uber and Lyft, as possible examples.)
English said he doesn’t see the company’s customers as being exclusively leisure travelers, though that will be the initial assumption at launch. He said most people alternate between booking travel for pleasure and for leisure, and that the Lola app will be able to adjust its trip recommendations accordingly.
The company declined to talk about how travel consultants — its nomenclature for agents — would be compensated.
A merengue and a cha-cha to get here
It was back in December 2013 that English stepped down as CTO of Kayak. He created Blade, which was presented as an incubator of non-travel startups. Blade raised about $20 million from venture capital firms, some of which was spent on a handful of startups.
The bulk of the money has since been diverted to Lola. The other baby startups have been kicked out of the nest, clearing the building that Lola is leasing for its growing staff.
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