It’s hard to keep track of all the startups now addressing small or unmanaged business travel. They’re applying a number of concepts including rewards, texting, personalization and artificial intelligence. They promise a better user experience than existing corporate booking systems offer. Investors during the past two years have put millions into them. One already was acquired by a more established player; another has refocused on event travel. A third has gone back to the drawing board.
Some of these new entrants aim to make their money on supplier revenues. Leaders of newbie TripActions and longtime corporate provider Serko believe small companies don’t want to pay for travel management. Pana is an exception.
The 16-month-old firm is marketing a membership fee model for its chat-based concierge app. It’s building a platform for travel management company partnerships and adopting basic policy controls.
CEO Devon Tivona echoed other founders’ raison d’être: Planning business travel sucks. A different and better blend of technology with human support could fix it.
“We’re looking to revive some of the magic coming from a centralized point person,” he said. “It’s a 21st Century version of a travel agent. We know the TMC is alive and well, but from a consumer perspective, we want to give you a hyper-efficient, hyper-smart travel agent. Rethinking the agent workflow and making tools that help agents be hyper-efficient brings that executive-level handholding that someone with an executive assistant has.”
The company is exploring staffing models and currently employs some in-house agents. They use a proprietary interface that connects to Sabre’s API and supplier websites. Because agents are not directly using the GDS, said Tivona, Pana can train them in three days. They just need to be good with customer service.
For fulfillment, Pana works with Bruvion Travel, a contractor to Cassis Travel Services in Los Angeles. Pana has access to preferred deals and shares in some of the commissions. Because it’s a membership program, though, Pana markets its unbiased perspective as a differentiator. “Our search algorithms don’t factor in commission,” Tivona noted in an email exchange. “We take commission when it is available, but our brand promise is that we will never artificially weight commissionable inventory when returning results. Our search algorithms are tailored to an individual’s preferences. Our agents don’t even know if a commission will be earned on a booking.”
In general, he said, this funding model is more conducive to “delivering amazing support.” This includes help on the road, down to restaurant recommendations. It also means booking non-traditional suppliers like Airbnb. Tivona declined to say how Pana does that.
Pana still is working out some tech kinks. In our testing, it had to go back to the programmers to fix a problem with loading a credit card profile. The company really does not want to take phone calls. The provided “agency line,” which we triple-checked, went to a landscaping company. A Pana agent suggested we call the supplier if we had any issues. “We prefer to be reached in app or email if possible,” the agent noted.
Tivona said “we’re building muscle around” outbound calls to travelers for disruption services.
Besides all that, the booking experience was solid. As other chat proponents have noted, depending on the circumstances it’s handy to multitask while chatting. The agent can serve multiple clients at once. The client can do something else and come back to it, whereas on the phone that’s just rude. Chat also creates a paper trail, so to speak.
“It saves me so much time comparing the options,” said Closed Loop Fund managing director Rob Kaplan, a frequent traveler and Pana user for six months. “I can’t do it all at once. Pana allows me to tell them what I need, and I just look at the app in between meetings or calls and respond. On a browser, I would lose track or it times out.”
Kaplan thought it was nifty when Pana responded to his request for rail options due to a delayed flight by getting an airline refund and booking a cheaper fare on Amtrak. He said he doesn’t see much of a need to call for help, and in fact appreciates that he can use the Pana app while on the phone with someone else.
Pana recently moved out of beta with its $19/month and $199/year service for unmanaged business travelers. Next up is a “turnkey,” travel management “lite” service for SMEs, said Tivona. Pana’s pricing for teams starts at $95 a month for five active travelers and reaches $1,900 a month for 100. Policy parameters like spending controls, approval processes and class-of-service limits are another $100 monthly. Basic travel activity reports sortable by employee cost $200 more.
Bruvion Travel partner Jason Couvillion said his firm plans to test the TMC platform with “a few” corporate clients. Even short of that, he said, Bruvion is benefiting from the additional volume Pana is driving through suppliers. “They have done a good job of automating everything,” said Couvillion. “We don’t really have to touch their bookings — they quote, hold and book. We do quality control.”
Pana offers clients email templates and unique URLs to enroll co-workers. It supports third-party bookings by admins. Pana integrates with Concur and Expensify.
Pana claims hundreds of clients. They include Booyah Advertising, consulting firm Convince&Convert, education and co-working company Galvanize and Jennifer Fisher Jewelry.