Virtuoso’s Incubator programme ensures member agencies have access to the best technology in the industry. Five tech start-ups selected for 2018 tell Andrew Doherty how their applications will ultimately benefit travel agents.
Virtuoso, a luxury consortium comprised of more than 1,000 worldwide travel agency partners, has accepted five new travel tech start-ups into its Incubator programme for 2018, including, for the first time, companies specialising in artificial intelligence (AI).
The Incubator scheme, now in its fourth year, was set up to provide Virtuoso members with access to the best technology available.
Selected from a total of 45 entries, each of the tech start-up applications is currently undergoing real-world testing by a panel of 100 volunteer Virtuoso travel agents, who are supplying feedback and suggesting enhancements. Once the trial period ends in September, the start-ups will then be considered for full Virtuoso partnership.
David Kolner, senior vice president, global member partnerships at Virtuoso, explains: “I have the opinion, perhaps considered unpopular, that travel agents are actually technologically evolved.
“Travel was one of the first industries to use computers, and I think their willingness to embrace new technology is underrated. The problem is that there are too many choices with tech now, and discovering what is useful takes time. The Incubator programme champions tech companies that will empower travel agencies.”
Kolner reveals that Virtuoso’s advisors had AI on their “shopping lists”, which influenced the decision to include the two AI start-ups.
“Virtuoso’s CEO Matthew Upchurch has a saying: ‘automate the predictable to humanise the exceptional.”
TTG speaks with each of the start-ups to find out how the travel trade can benefit from their applications.
Canadian company Zoom and Go is a map-based hotel reservation and analytics solution that streamlines bookings via the GDS while boosting productivity and sales.
Dave Zitur, chief executive at Zoom and Go, describes the application as the “Trivago for travel agents”.
“The big advantage for agents is the time-saving aspect of Zoom and Go,” he says. “ Our mapping function is robust and easy to use, and agents will be able to easily find hotels in areas that they may not know.
“Our tool can help by making a consultant an expert overnight. For example, they won’t have to have visited Paris when using our tool to recommend hotels situated near the Eiffel Tower.”
Currently 100% certified with GDSs Apollo and Sabre, Zitur says that Zoom and Go expects to be functional with Amadeus in the first quarter of 2019, with plans to expand into the UK next year too.
Australian start-up eRoam uses AI to deliver personalised itineraries based on trends, freeing consultants from the need to “constantly monitor developments”.
Its technology continuously scans current travellers’ data to advise future clients of the same peer group on what is trending in transport, accommodation and activities.
Antony Hill, founder and chief executive at eRoam Pty Ltd, says agents will be able to craft an itinerary in less than 60 seconds with the click of a button.
“What we do here at eRoam is find the right product for the right person by looking at factors such as age and nationality,” he explains.
“We feature 500,000 hotels, thousands of airlines and hundreds of thousands of events and activities worldwide.
“Let’s say it takes an agent six hours over three days to put an itinerary together. Our technology will help with efficiency and facilitate higher conversion rates.”
Hill asserts that AI will not replace agents but complement their knowhow and expertise.
“Artificial intelligence is a great tool but not the only tool,” he says.
“We need to mix the knowledge of the travel agent with that of the greater public too.”
He adds that eRoam will be available for UK agents following the end of the Incubator programme.
US application PlanitEasy is a centralised travel management platform that combines itinerary building features, customer and trip management facilities, communication tools and accounting services to increase advisor efficiency.
Founder and chief executive Christopher Eriksen elaborates: “We are building a marketplace where agents can work with DMCs and suppliers more easily. A lot of travel planning currently happens through email. What we want to do is streamline the process through our app.”
He says the feedback from the 40 companies already signed up to PlanitEasy has been invaluable.
“I have 10 pages of notes and we’ve made loads of changes already,” he explains. “We are adding pounds and euros to the platform to make it more multinational too.”
UK agencies can test PlanitEasy by visiting the website and requesting a free month-long trial. Eriksen says future features will include a social network for the travel industry akin to LinkedIn, where agencies can connect and “help each other out”.
Jrrny was created in 2015 to act as a content creation platform for travel agents to promote posts about destinations and advertise “their expertise”. The website also allows content to be shared between its 6,000 contributors – bloggers, hospitality providers and other agencies – for marketing purposes.
John Kueber, founder of Jrrny, comments: “We have created the ability for travel agents to create professionally produced marketing content such as map collages and videos.
“The most significant aspect of Jrrny is that travel agents can use other agencies’ content to inspire clients to take trips to destinations that they may not have thought about before.”
Kueber hopes that by September 2018, the service will be open to agents worldwide following the end of the Incubator incentive.
He adds that Jrrny is currently working on a feature that will enable clients to hire a “virtual guide” to help them while on holiday.
“The guide would create a personalised itinerary for the traveller and they will also be available by text or WhatsApp if the client wants any last-minute changes or additions. A lot of people like travel to be unscripted, and our guide will facilitate that.”
HelloGbye uses AI to generate itinerary recommendations using technology that intercepts communications from clients to their travel agent (such as an email).
It then provides agents with suggestions based on purchase history and preferences.
Greg Apple, head of marketing at HelloGbye says: “Our AI intercepts the client’s email and comes back with a pre-made itinerary. The agent can determine whether it’s suitable for the client or not. It normally takes around five to six hours to plan an itinerary. What we do is improve efficiency and reduce planning time.”
With agents who have tested the product already providing rave reviews, Apple says that HelloGbye plans on expanding beyond Virtuoso to be available for agencies that are not part of the consortium, including those in the UK by 2019.
“The biggest value we bring is getting the agent quickly from point A to point B. We don’t see ourselves replacing the agent, but instead making their job easier.”
Additional features include the ability to make post-booking changes without having to call airlines or hotels, and booking multi-person itineraries for travellers departing from different cities on different days.