If you haven’t heard of chatbots, you might be living under a rock. These little fellows are trying to conquer the whole world of mobile and web development. Facebook, Skype, Telegram, Slack, Kik – all these messengers may more accurately be referred to as chatbot platforms these days. All of them offer smart assistants to carry out a number of requests: from getting the local weather forecast (Messenger’s Poncho) to tracking your everyday expenses (Slack’s Birdly).
Certain tasks, such as consulting and travel search, are still too much for modern chatbots, however, and require live experts. With this in mind, here are three of the best human-powered travel concierge mobile apps, proving that humanity still has a ways to go before the Rise of the Machines.
1. Lola – a prospective Uber for travel
Lola is a new travel app for iOS created by Paul English (a co-founder of Kayak), designed for those who want to plan a vacation without an exhaustive DIY travel search and booking.
Unlike English’s Kayak, which targets self-reliant travelers and eliminates the role of travel agents, Lola puts humans back in the travel business game. Lola instantly connects you to a person who “[will] fight for you and has expertise in the part of the world you’re going to,” says English.
In other words, you can communicate via in-app chat 24/7 with a live travel consultant who can handle any travel-related requests – they can find and book hotels, flights, and rental cars, reserve tables and more.
English says that the advantage of humans is that they are capable of helping you with any matter using their communication skills, personal experience, and the internet. By asking questions and learning more about your trip, Lola’s team of travel consultants may even be able to suggest activities for your vacation itinerary. What Lola offers may truly be called full-cycle travel planning.
Lola has 15 real travel consultants working like busy bees to make your vacation perfect. As the client base grows, English’s plan is to hire more staff and open a call center somewhere in Maine or North Dakota. Eventually, Lola will follow Uber’s business model, allowing any freelance travel agent to apply to work for the company.
Lola also employs 5 people on their AI team. Although Lola is powered by humans, there are some AI-driven features in the application. But Lola’s AI components are nothing exceptional, because English thinks that it will be a long time before AI is capable of handling the majority of travel-related tasks. At the moment, Lola’s chatbot is responsible for simple tasks such as greeting travellers and prompting further communication with a personal travel assistant.
Lola is at its early stages right now, so membership is invitation-only. You can download the application and sign up, but you’ll most likely be put on the waitlist for several weeks before you get access. However, the company is planning to offer paid subscriptions starting this fall – possibly for $99 per year. For those lucky ones who managed to get an early invite recently (with a special secure code), the app will be free for the first year.
Even though it’s in closed beta, Lola managed to clock around 5,000 downloads in August 2016. But the app’s monthly revenue was still less than $5,000 according to Sensor Tower.
2. Pana – a travel app for individuals and businesses
Launched in 2015, Pana (formerly Native) is another mobile travel application that helps you save time and avoid travel woes.
Pana’s travel agents are accessible 24/7 via its in-app messaging service and will arrange your trip and support you during it. As with Lola, Pana’s experts provide suggestions based on your preferences and previous experience and solve various travel problems that may arise. If you want to plan a trip with Pana, the first step is to hop on a call with your personal travel agent to give them insights into what you like and what you don’t. Afterwards, you can reach out to them anytime you need their help.
For example, you can ask your concierge to find and book the best hotel and flight options for your itinerary. Pana’s agents will even keep you updated about changes to flights, hotel cancellations, bad weather or other relevant information, and will do their best to make your trip as smooth as possible.
While in beta, Pana has been working with celebrities and their assistants to better understand users’ needs and behaviors. Thanks to its early testers, Pana has been able to improve both the service in general and the technologies used. At the moment, Pana is using a bot that helps to accelerate communication, answering simple user requests within 30-60 seconds on average. All major tasks, however, are performed by humans. “When you’re stranded in the airport due to a blizzard, the last thing you want to do is talk to a robot,” says Lianne Haug, a co-founder of Pana. That’s why Pana’s business model relies on its live experts, who can effectively and compassionately solve problems.
Pana is currently available for iOS (free to download) and works both domestically and internationally. But as of today, the company provides its services for US-based customers only, and requires a paid membership.
Pana offers several service packages: For $19 per month (or $199 per year): a personal package that offersunlimited access via the app, SMS, and email, and guarantees proactive support during emergencies and delays for one person; and from from $95 to $1900 per month: a team package (which will be of great interest to businesses) that offers all personal package benefits plus searchable and exportable reporting alongside integration with all major expense software. The Team package is available for teams of up to 100 travelers, which is why the price may range from $95 to $1900 per month.
Sometimes business trips may cost you a fortune, but Pana lets businesses save money by giving them access to high volume discounts and also provides transparency on travel spending. Thus, you may handle your budget more efficiently.
3. Aces – an in-app concierge service for HotelTonight
Aces is an in-app chat feature inside HotelTonight, a last-minute hotel search and reservation mobile app, that connects you with a personal travel concierge once you’ve booked a stay via the app.
The service was first presented to a small audience in July, 2015. At launch, Aces for HotelTonight only covered Washington DC, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But the service was expanded to 30 more cities around the globe in late April, 2016.
Aces by HotelTonight is available for clients who book a hotel room with a total cost over $200. The chat window with your personal travel concierge (Ace) shows up on the booking page and activates the morning of your check in.
Unlike the two first travel services we’ve mentioned, Aces can’t assist you in finding and booking flights and hotels – you have to do that on your own. Instead, Aces are here to help you out with ordering extra toiletries to your room or recommending an interesting event in the area. These requests, as well as many others, can be handled by an Ace all through in-app chat.
The company says that they’re now working in close collaboration with local food bloggers and tastemakers to answer requests for food and restaurant recommendations. But Aces also rely on various online advice websites and the help of other HotelTonight employees to provide the most relevant information possible.
When it comes to requests like a wakeup call or room service, the only way for Aces to perform them (for now) is to call your hotel. However, this is likely to change in the future. For instance, simple options like “wake me up” or “bring more towels” may be sent directly to a hotel’s reception desk.
Lola vs Pana vs Aces
While each of these apps helps you save time and enjoy a well-planned vacation, their business approaches are rather different. HotelTonight still requires DIY hotel search and reservation via its application, but then provides round-the-clock support after your stay is booked. On the other hand, Lola and Pana bear much of the burden associated with travelling: both eliminate the need to search for flights or hotel rooms on your own, and provide 24/7 client support during the whole trip.
Working with worldwide companies like InterContinental Hotels Group, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Best Western International, and others, HotelTonight provides its concierge services only within the borders of its partners’ establishments, whereas Lola and Pana aren’t tied to certain locations. With Pana and Lola you can book not only a hotel room, but even an apartment through Airbnb.
There are several ways that these types of human-powered travel concierge apps can earn money. You can learn from HotelTonight, which generates revenue by taking a cut of each transaction (usually around 20-30 percent per reservation). Or, as in the case of Lola and Pana, your app can provide subscriptions – weekly, monthly or annual. However, it’s vital to remember that the more options you have, the more attractive your app may be in the eyes of your prospective users. Thus, Pana’s approach – with a $19 monthly package – is more inviting to travelers who can only afford one or two trips a year.
There’s one more thing these companies have in common: all of them have a group of real experts behind their travel concierge apps. Even though the mobile market is becoming more and more crowded by AI-powered chatbots, travel consulting is a niche that still requires a human touch.
About the author:
Yana Polulyakh is a writer at Yalantis, mobile and web app development company based in Ukraine. Yana writes about mobile app development, technology trends, and marketing. Working in a close collaboration with Yalantis’s developers and designers, she also writes about Yalantis’s own projects.