It’s hard not to gush over the new business travel app from ETA Inc., a startup that enjoyed investment from the International Air Transport Association’s NDC Innovation Fund. With travel distribution legend Jeff Katz and other Orbitz vets among its investors and advisors, ETA has produced a slick app. No two ways about it.
The app remains in limited beta and there’s plenty of room for error. But if testing and trying countless apps and bots from established firms and startups within a couple years teaches you anything, it’s how to spot a great user experience.
Like many mobile solutions, the “executive travel app” starts by asking for an email address to get you registered. The user quickly realizes that servicing is centered around chat, powered by customer messaging platform provider Intercom. “Shake to chat with us,” says the iOS app. Cute.
“Enter your name and make sure it matches your government-issued photo ID or password.” Fine, but can I do this on a website? Nope, mobile only. Okay, I guess my thumbs will have to do. Home address, etc.
“Allow me to find you the most comfortable seat on the best flight. Tap Edit and drag what’s most important to the top.” Choose from: aisle/window seat type, price, timeliness, loyalty, chance of upgrades (what!?), Wi-Fi.
That’s all pretty cool, if not so far afield from what others have talked about or already allow in their preferences.
“Tell me what you care about in a hotel room, and I will find you the best room in the best hotel.” Choose from: proximity to meeting (nice!), price, workspace, Wi-Fi, loyalty, fitness center, chance of upgrades, quiet room (huh?), business center (LOL), view, swimming pool.
Permit the app to read my calendar? Sure, why not. Just testing here. Continue.
Manually enter a trip or pick from a calendar meeting? Sure. “New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox, Boston, Mass., July 16.” Sounds like an important meeting. Maybe there’s something work-related going on in town at that time as well. Better plan travel. Tap. “Where?” Okay, it might have known Boston, but anyway, type “Boston.” Save.
Now the Boston trip appears on the Trips page with a nifty local photo as the backdrop. Is that Paul Revere? Anyway, tap to search for travel.
Retrieving preferences. Looking for the shortest flight. Trying to get the flights with the most convenient departure and arrival times. Found the best flight, checking on-time performance. Finding the hotel closest to your meeting. Checking that the amenities suit your needs. Looking for premium seats …
It took less than a minute to return No. 1 air and lodging choices. Before it’s even done you can tap the cards that already came back to see details, or swipe to see more options.
In this example, “Tap to see details” showed various data on the first result, a JetBlue flight from LaGuardia. This option was “18 minutes longer than shortest flight” and “$38 above lowest price (good — top 30 percent).” Swipe showed an air-only card with more flight options and prices from JetBlue and other carriers.
Back to the main results page, the middle card showed a Hyatt Place. A tap showed this choice was “$55.85 above lowest price (great — top 10 percent)” and revealed other details like amenities. In a separate test with a different meeting location and hotel property, this details list indicated “walking distance to the meeting.”
The design was top-notch. Reminiscent of Uber’s. (To which, by the way, ETA deep links for when you’re on your journey.)
Not everything was perfect. In the setup phase, scanning the credit card didn’t work. In booking results, Hyatt Place showed as around five miles to the Fenway Park area. It’s more like seven.
There was little in the way of rate and fare rules. No way to know what the cancellation and refund policies were before committing to the purchase. ETA Inc. CEO and co-founder Choon Hong Peck said in a Tuesday interview that early testers already raised the issue of the rate rules, so it will be fixed.
“I don’t believe the app is ready for prime time yet,” said Peck. “We’re still working through the kinks and looking for feedback.” The app is currently only usable for domestic U.S. travel.
Peck and his team are engineers with backgrounds mainly in e-commerce. They see meetings, proximity and preferences as the drivers of travel planning. They’re targeting unmanaged business travel because there are fewer competitors, though he acknowledged the marketing challenge.
Peck met Katz when he sold a prior company to a non-travel firm that Katz was running. When Katz was coming back to travel, he met Peck and his co-founder for coffee and suggested they come, too. Katz is now chair of ETA.
Peck said that at the moment, there is no fulfillment partner. ETA is acting as its own agency. It uses Travelport. Some of the bookings are made directly, like a reservation on American Airlines that was processed by Farelogix using its NDC-compliant direct connect. ETA employees are using Farelogix’s Sprk interface to service those bookings.
How does that “chance of upgrades” thing work? “We apply algorithms using frequent flyer and loyalty data, and whether the next class has space,” said Peck. “We apply probabilities, but also are pushing suppliers to give us some help.”
He said there are “lots” of sources for hotel property info. How does he know what’s a quiet room? “We’re also trying to push suppliers there,” said Peck. “We’re the guy in the middle. If we can show them that users care about content like this, we go back to suppliers. Otherwise, we use proxies for something like that. A corner room is probably quiet.”
Peck said the team is still “batting” around a fee structure, but it will likely be a per-trip handling fee or annual subscription. In the beta, the first two trips are free.
Other investors include NDC Innovation Fund committee member and longtime industry attorney Gary Doernhoefer, Kalibri Labs co-founder Cindy Estis Green and former Orbitz VP Anne Marie Razza.