Latest Startups Try Texting, With Agent Or Bot

By | February 5, 2016

It’s becoming difficult to count on one hand the tech startups going after the “small” or unmanaged business travel market. 30SecondsToFly, Cinch, Hyper Travel, TripChamp and Travo are a few. Hyper, along with shopping services like Assi.st and Mezi, are bringing a new element to the travel-booking experience. They’re focused on mobile texting as the means of communication between the agent and traveler. It seems cool, but detractors argue it’s a feature, not a business.

The Company Dime booked with Hyper and Mezi. Both used affiliate relationships with Expedia Inc. for hotel fulfillment. Hyper purchased air travel through a supplier website.

The texting was fine, and the agent on the other end was good. It was similar to chat features many consumer websites offer. However, it also required as much time as an online booking and the initial search results were limited to what’s viewable on the small screen. Both initially offered three choices of properties, for example, and finding out rate rules like refundability required an additional text rather than a click or glance.

As compared with a phone call, texting does has the advantage of allowing the user to put it down and come back to it when ready. The agent on the other end, also, can work multiple engagements at once.

Mezi makes its money only on affiliate revenue. Hyper charges $20 per month for a “pro” service offering 24/7 chat access to the concierge. Twenty-five dollars per user also gets businesses “advanced” reporting, “custom” travel policies and expense and duty of care integration. Hyper claims it’s going after more than just the small market.

The founders developed the business idea after their experiences as users of a travel management company.

“Corporate travel management solutions are lousy,” said Hyper co-founder Peter Zakin. “Trying to book a trip on your phone for business is not tenable.”

Corporate booking tools are often criticized for not keeping up with consumer design and capability.

Screenshot 2016-02-01 15.28.20Hyper’s founders said they should not be lumped in with some other startups that emphasize artificial intelligence. Assi.st, for example, has the user texting with a bot rather than a human. Once asked to book a property, the service was unable to get out of its pre-programmed path to answer questions (see image).

Possibly the biggest challenge for these firms is actually reaching customers. When it comes to finding them, small or unmanaged companies are more like consumers than enterprises. Embryonic providers can’t spend millions on marketing like Expedia and Priceline.

“We’ll use a lot of standard tricks of the trade that other mobile-first startups have used,” said Zakin. “We’ll run into some of the same problems as Expedia and Priceline as far as how expensive it is to acquire customers. There’s a new breed of company trying to reconstruct the travel infrastructure inside a company that has synergies with travel, so we see ourselves synching through those types of relationships with a smart partner strategy.”

Expensify comes to mind, though Zakin didn’t name the expense-management upstart.

Finding The ‘S’ In SME

Traditional travel management companies tend to find small clients through word of mouth and sometimes outbound sales calling. Their execs don’t seem very concerned about startups. The smallest end of the market is nebulous, anyway.

“We see these startups as almost R&D shops,” said Travel & Transport president CEO Kevin O’Malley. “They’re trying different things to see if they can disrupt or solve a pain point. The trick is how they convey their value proposition — mass marketing, digital marketing, word of mouth, social media. They have to do it as cheaply as they can, and they don’t have the budget of, say, the online travel agencies. Inevitably, some of them will be successful because the message resonates. Then you’ll see them gobbled up by someone bigger.

“It’s not that we ignore them,” O’Malley continued. “They do get into the ear of our corporate customers along the way. So we’re spending time explaining. There are more and more of these companies.”

O’Malley and execs with the likes of Executive Travel, Gant Travel and Tower Travel Management said they are observing growing demand for text chatting as an option. Some have tested it. They said what’s vital in the corporate world are metrics and storing conversations. It’s getting there.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel senior vice president of global marketing Nick Vournakis said the global TMC piloted a chat service with one of its clients.

“It didn’t create a real compelling experience,” Vournakis said. “The response time wasn’t terribly different. It’s less about the technology and more what’s underpinning it. In my mind, the key trend here is messaging-as-a-service. WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram. These are channels that especially in the eastern part of the world have a tremendous user base, and they’re not just using it to chat, but also to consume. I think that’s where we’re headed. Ten years from now it’s probably not about answering a phone call.”

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