A co-founder of one of the world’s leading travel search engines has returned to using travel agents.
Paul English co-founded the massive US-based travel search engine KAYAK with Steve Hafner about 20 years ago. Hafner was also involved in setting up Orbitz. The US-based Priceline Group acquired KAYAK in 2013 for almost USD 2 billion.
“I tried to create the best travel website on the market,” he told the New York Times. “But as good as we thought our tech was, there were many times where I thought I did a better job for people on the phone than our site could do.”
English is now involved in Lola, a startup being beta-tested this month in the US. It’s variously described as a mobile app and as a “post-GDS technology platform for travel agencies”. English is reportedly hiring 100 US travel agents to staff Lola, while a separate development team creates tools to let agents use global distribution systems more effectively.
Details of the new product are sketchy. One report described it as “an app for consumers that will act as a travel concierge”, to offer “a blend of the personalised touch that a human agent can provide with the slick user interface of a consumer booking app”.
Travel tech startups are not unusual, but the team behind Lola is making people sit up and take notice. Apart from English, other booking gurus and tech masterminds formerly associated with KAYAK are involved.
“A lot of companies pushed hard on the idea that technology will solve every problem, and that we shouldn’t use humans,” English said.
“We think humans add value, so we’re trying to design technology to facilitate the human-to-human connection.”
Other travel executives confirm that consumers face “information overload”, being confronted by so much travel information online that they “research themselves into a circle”. This produces confusion, dismay and the desire to call a travel agent and ask for help.
It is also worth noting, however, that the number of travel agents working in the US has halved since 2000, and the number is expected to continue declining, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Written by Peter Needham