Building On Packaging, Upside Seeks ‘Full-Service’ Status With Unmanaged Business Travelers

By | August 10, 2017

After beating the packaging drum for more than a year, Jay Walker’s Upside Travel is now also offering flights and hotels individually. It added Uber as a packaging option and will soon announce new support services.

TMC relationships have not advanced, but Walker reiterated during a Thursday interview that they’re part of the plan.

Upside publicized the new offer of individual rooms and tickets on its blog in late July. “We have customers who say, ‘I want to get lower prices than published fares’ and you can do that by buying together,” said Walker. “We don’t reveal the component prices and we can get volume discounts as long as we don’t disrupt the retail fare structure. But we have a lot of customers who just need a hotel, or a one-way flight. They want Upside to be a full-service supplier.

“It was part of the roadmap originally, but it was further out,” he added. “We knew we’d have to offer the full product line, but we didn’t think customers would turn to us [so soon] and ask to be able to do it all.” He said Upside learned that business travelers generally want to use the same booking service for all trips.

While Upside earns commissions from hotel companies on individual rooms, it doesn’t make money on air transactions. That’s fine, said Walker, because it engenders loyalty among customers who at other times buy packages. “The average business traveler is worth a fortune over time,” he said.

Upside Travel chairman and chief executive Jay Walker

As with packaging, Walker said, users booking flights or rooms individually still will see only the company’s preferred partners. Upside wants to offer everyone, but notable non-participants include Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines.

“Each airline has its own distribution strategy,” he said. “We have nothing bad to say about Delta. They lose a lot of business by not being in our system. We don’t currently have Southwest but that’s primarily a systems issue.”

For lodging, he said, “we don’t need every property” but the company has expanded its listings beyond the initial handful in each city. It now offers more than 4,000 hotels, Walker said.

He also mentioned service enhancements to be announced this fall, which Upside is calling “six-star” service. For no additional fee, Walker promised unprecedented en-route support from technology and humans: “When you’re on your trip, leave our app open and you’re talking to a rep, 24/7, like a walkie-talkie. Touch and speak. Touch and message. With the GPS on, we’ll know where you are and where you should be. ‘You’re at the wrong terminal!’ With access to your calendar, we might see you have an 8 a.m. appointment downtown, but picked a hotel uptown, and the flight’s late and you won’t get enough sleep. Let’s change it. This will be software and people who actually get it.”

This plays into Upside’s partnership strategy. BCD Travel and some other TMCs are listed on its site as partners. Generally, the company is trying to figure out how to serve 15 million unmanaged business travelers who are “flat-out unhappy,” Walker said. Travel agencies, he said, have difficulty investing in the technologies his company is building.

“We are going to reach out to the travel agent community in a big way as we grow,” Walker told attendees to an American Society of Travel Agents event in June. “We see the travel agent community as a big part of the long-term success for Upside in reinventing unmanaged business travel.

“The travel agency community desperately needs to add value,” he continued. “If you’re an agency today it’s because you reinvented yourself as a valued provider and you charge for it. We’re trying to provide more value using software tools to make it efficient. We’re not writing artificial intelligence programs [to create virtual agents]. We both have the same problem. So we’re natural allies.”

Meanwhile, Upside now is offering packs of two, four, eight or 12 Uber rides within its packages. Rides are capped at a value of $25 and added to the Uber app using promo codes.

Disclosure: ASTA and The Company Dime have a research and events partnership.


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