Kayak Cofounder Paul English Launches Travel Agent App Lola
Company name: Lola
The gist: Lola is an app that lets users communicate via text message 24/7 with a live travel agent, who can find and book hotels, flights, rental cars, restaurant reservations, Broadway tickets—basically anything travel-related.
Who will love the app? Frequent travelers who want the personal touch of a travel agent with the convenience of a mobile app.
Who will not love the app? The do-it-yourself travelers, who prefer to use the web to compare flight prices and research restaurant recommendations.
Paul English is “terrified of today’s overuse of technology”—which is ironic coming from the cofounder of Kayak, the popular travel search engine that helps users plan and book trips through their desktop or mobile device, eliminating the role of travel agents. But as of today, travel agents could become a part of your travel booking experience again.
“This is human-powered travel, where you have an expert in your corner who’s fighting for you and has expertise in the part of the world you’re going to,” says English, who stepped down from Kayak in December 2013.
When users download the app, they’re asked to create a profile. Which airlines do you love? Which ones do you hate? Do you prefer a window seat or the aisle? If you authenticate the app, Lola will download the headers from your Gmail to see which hotels you’ve stayed at and let you rate them. That way, when you’re texting with a Lola travel consultant, he or she knows the amenities you look for when booking a trip.
Take English’s recent trip to New York to visit with family. He logged into Lola and typed, “I’m going to New York tomorrow. I want a 10 a.m. breakfast for five at a fun place in the Lower East Side and a 3:30 flight home.” A travel consultant named Rachel sends him a couple of different flight options based on his preferences—he hates Spirit Airlines, but loves Virgin America—and he can click in to see the details. She also sends two breakfast options through restaurant reservation site OpenTable, allowing English to view photos and a map of where each is located.
“The cool thing about Lola is, it’s not a computer you’re talking to, it’s a human,” English says. “The advantage a human has is they can do anything on the web. For example, you can’t find Southwest Airlines on Expedia or Kayak. You can’t book an Airbnb on Expedia or Kayak. Because Lola is a team of humans, we can do anything you want.”
And that includes asking questions and learning more about someone’s trip. Rachel booked English’s flight and made a restaurant reservation, but then started asking him what he thought his family might enjoy doing in New York. Rachel researched events and, after a bit of back and forth, had booked tickets for “The Lion King” on Broadway for English’s brother, his wife, and their grandson.
Each travel consultant is on hand before and during your trip. If your flight is running late or re-routed, but you’re mid-air without Wi-Fi, Lola will have scheduled you a new connecting flight by the time you’ve landed. Or checked the forecast while you’re vacationing and sent a text suggesting a surf lesson or boat trip because the weather is supposed to be exceptional.
“When you use a do-it-yourself site, you book [the trip], and then you’re on your own,” adds English, noting that with Lola, “someone is taking care of you 24/7 to make sure your vacations and business trips go flawlessly.”
Fifteen travel consultants are currently based in Lola’s Boston office, located in the space English had formerly reserved for his startup accelerator, Blade, which he shut down last year to focus full-time on Lola. Five are former travel agents, with combined experience at the likes of American Express Travel and AAA, while the others come from companies that pride themselves on top-notch customer service, such as Nordstrom.
To better understand the importance of good customer service, English hit the road in his Tesla last fall and worked as an Uber driver, where he garnered a 4.97 rating. He says he wanted to see what it felt like to be rated after every trip, because Lola users will have the same ability. After every vacation, users can rate their experience with Lola on a scale of one to five. If they rate a four or less, the team is going to ask why.
“We want to understand what types of trips and types of travelers we do a good job at, and what types of trips and types of travelers and which consultants on our team do a s— job at support,” English says.
Although Lola’s artificial intelligence engine helps inform the company’s travel agents, the travel agents are actually the ones re-programming the app’s AI engine.
As the company grows, English’s plan is to open a call center for roughly 100 people in either Maine or North Dakota. Eventually, Lola will follow the Uber model and open its platform to allow any travel agent to apply to work for the company.
The app is currently free to use, but it’s invite-only, meaning if you download Lola from the App Store today, you will be asked for an invite code. English urges anyone without a code to still download Lola and create a profile, because the app will continue to be free throughout the summer for those who get in. Come fall, the team plans to introduce a service fee—potentially $99 per year—to cover the cost of having access to a travel consultant 24/7.
“People these days live in an asynchronous world,” English says. “People of all ages are very used to switching between apps and doing multiple things at once. They’re used to their phone as a device where, on the other side, somebody is doing something for me. Bring me a car. Pick up my dry cleaning. Bring me liquor. Bring me groceries. Book my Lion King tickets. We think travel planning is the next extension of that.”