TORONTO — In a sign of the rapidly evolving retail travel industry, not only is a company known primarily as a travel concierge app considered a travel agency, it’s also now a member of luxury retail travel group Virtuoso.
Lola (‘Lo’ for longitude, and ‘la’ for latitude), billed as an on-demand, personal travel service, instantly connects travellers to its team of travel consultants through a smartphone app, for instance, on an iPhone.
The company came on board with Virtuoso earlier this month “representing a new take on travel advisors”, said Virtuoso. Its website is lolatravel.com.
So far it’s only available in the U.S. but Lola’s Chief Marketing Officer Robert Birge says expansion to Canada is on the table, even if there’s no timeline yet.
The company has also said it may open up its technology platform down the line, to travel agents worldwide.
Lola members use the app to look for hotels, book flights and research their vacations, and can connect with their advisor using the app at any time. Lola’s hiring practices prioritize customer service skills over travel industry knowledge or experience.
David Kolner, Virtuoso’s Senior Vice President of Global Member Partnerships, said Lola “is merging human interaction with technology in a smart and seamless way.”
Asked what the feedback had been from other Virtuoso members, positive or negative, Kolner said Lola had received “a lot of positive welcome messages” from both suppliers and members in the Virtuoso network.
Some Virtuoso members have asked for clarification on Lola’s business model. “We are a pretty tight-knit organization of the best-run agencies … and everyone is eager to welcome and learn more about the ‘new neighbour on the block’.”
Is Lola an OTA? No, says Kolner. “OTAs are truly mechanical fulfillment and the consumer has no human interaction during the process.” Lola, on the other hand, offers a human connection. “While it may use technology and eventually artificial intelligence (AI) to augment that relationship, there’s a human being influencing and supporting the sale and relationship to the consumer at the end of every transaction,” says Kolner.
There’s a travel consultant on the other end of the app, just like there’s a travel agent on the other end of a telephone line taking a booking over the phone, or at the computer answering a client’s email. The difference is, the app also offers untold booking capabilities along with that travel agent interaction.
Lola CMO Birge says Lola “could not be more different than an online travel agency like Expedia or Booking.com that are fundamentally DIY stores. We’re a personal travel service for hotels, flights and anything else you need for your trip. We learn your preferences so you don’t have to sort through literally thousands of hotel options. Our service is not DIY.”
Lola’s co-founder and CEO, Paul English, co-founded travel meta-search engine Kayak back in 2004. Lola’s CMO Birge was also Kayak’s CMO. Now the retail world will be watching to see if Lola takes off like Kayak did.
Meanwhile Lola is keeping its eye on not just travellers, but other travel agents as well. “Right now we’re focused on creating a world-class personal travel service that gives more people access to a premium type of care that few people can get today. Once we perfect that, there are a number of ways we could open up the technology,” said Birge.
According to reports, Lola may consider partnering with a GDS down the line. On its to-do list: refine the travel agent desktop interface. Ultimately Lola could develop (and offer up to travel agencies) a new and improved desktop interface, as an alternative to the dated – but effective, and well-used – ‘green screen’ platform.
Lola is also developing end-to-end technology to deliver a messaging-based mobile interface for Lola members.
Lola is not the only unconventional travel agency joining up with Virtuoso. Quintessentially, which has Virtuoso-affiliated offices in New York and London, is a concierge-based model where travel planning “is only one aspect of the personal service they provide their clients,” says Kolner.
Virtuoso has experienced rapid growth over the past 18 months since opening up participation to travel planning organizations throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Now in 40 countries, Virtuoso member agencies have more than 730 office locations and 11,400 advisors.
These non-traditional agency models factor into that growth and are attracting younger consumers who traditionally may have shied away from using travel advisors, adds Kolner.
Lola has the same commitment as other Virtuoso agencies, but is going about it in a way Virtuoso find exciting for the industry, adds Kolner. “As the saying goes, this is not your father’s travel agency.”