Meet The People Behind The New Virtual Agents

By | November 9, 2015

[UPDATE, Nov. 20, 2016: Deem acquired Cinch parent Olset.]

[UPDATE, July 11, 2016: Cinch pulled its app from the app store to rework it based on feedback from about 1,000 initial users. The service will be re-released “in a couple months,” according to its founder.]

At least two new entrants are looking to crack the small company business travel market using virtual agents powered by machine learning, speech recognition and natural language processing. Behind the scenes, Cinch and 30SecondsToFly at least initially will depend on fulfillment processing from, respectively, Atlas Travel and TravGroup. These travel management companies see hooking up with new tech providers as a way to tap the market for do-it-yourself travel management.

“Agencies or TMCs don’t go away with the Internet because the Internet needs content,” said Lea Cahill, COO of Boston-area Atlas Travel and Technology Group. “There’s still a core of the industry that has to be behind all that. Why shouldn’t it be us?”

Atlas Travel and Technology Group COO Lea Cahill

Atlas Travel and Technology Group COO Lea Cahill

Atlas also supports NexTravel. Meeting the creators of these firms has “changed how we look at things,” said Cahill. “We have our highly managed, legacy business. We have our soup-to-nuts meeting planning division. And of course our vacation office. So why not look at this other sector of online travel companies or facilitators of travel on the Internet?”

Cahill said she and Atlas president and CEO Elaine Osgood do not think they compete with Cinch and NexTravel. “We do have managed small business, so there’s some overlap, but these are unmanaged or self-managed programs,” Cahill said.

Much like other developers in business travel, Cinch and 30SecondsToFly are focused on helping users more quickly get to answers. To do so, they’re employing technology to learn the user’s preferences and over time produce increasingly appropriate results. No matter how well they do that, though, travel is too complicated to be fully automated. “Not everything can be self-serviceable,” said Cahill. “It might be a complicated exchange or an international trip. At some point, you do have to consider agent services.”

At Brooklyn, N.Y.-based TravGroup, director and attorney Shapse Jakob said existing clients will test the 30SecondsToFly virtual agent, known as Claire. Users interact with Claire by phone or text message. It won’t be allowed to run amok. “We’ll be giving our clients something new and exciting that will help them book more easily,” he said. “But also the agents will always be looking and seeing what the client is doing. We’re going to be able to tell if the algorithm is presenting the best possible fare and fare combination.”

TravGroup also is interested in the new revenue stream that could come from supporting non-clients who are attracted to Claire. 30SecondsToFly co-founders Felicia Schneiderhan and Riccardo Vittoria said they expect a handful of small businesses with a mix of characteristics to begin a pilot in January or February.

Claire will manage small business loyalty programs for clients, which the founders believe can save businesses up to 6 percent. It will access TravGroup’s airline and hotel deals. The system is integrated with Concur and Expensify. 30SecondsToFly now is looking for a TMC partner in Asia/Pacific as well as strategic partners to help with marketing. It just received its first round of angel investment.

Unlike 30SecondsToFly, Cinch won’t try to incorporate travel policy — at least initially. Soon going into beta, the Cinch mobile app is designed to cut down dramatically on the time it takes to book air and lodging by learning the traveler’s preferences. It’s using eGlobalFares to ensure a wide range of air content. It’s scouring online hotel reviews to offer positive or negative assessments of specific amenities at half a million properties sourced through various means. Ground transport won’t be in the app when it launches to the public next year, but will be built in later. Part of Olset, Cinch will make its money on commissions.

Olset founder and CEO Gadi Bashvitz based the idea on his struggles as an extremely frequent traveler with a small company. Should he have used a live travel agent? “Maybe,” he said. “We just didn’t do it that way in my company.”

Other than cost, there’s nothing stopping these virtual agents from going out on their own and establishing themselves as travel agencies in their own right. It’s not as if the requisite knowledge, relationships, ARC accreditation, PCI compliance and any number of other aspects of being a TMC are out of reach. Claire and NexTravel already had their own Sabre relationships.

“I don’t know that I have blinders on,” said Cahill. “A customer like [Cinch or NexTravel] could become so successful that they start to take it more in-house. That’s just evolution. With any opportunity there’s risk, and with that there’s risk mitigation. It’s not just a matter of getting more transactions.”

Schneiderhan said 30SecondsToFly is partnering with agencies for fulfillment “in the beginning.” She said the company isn’t sure if it would want to be integrated with an agency of the client’s choosing.

TravGroup’s Jakob said the 30SecondsToFly founders “recognize you’re never going to replace an experienced travel agent.”

However, he said, “they’re trying to close the gap by helping people realize the Internet is a valuable resource. They’re going to invest heavily in all your preferences and nuances. Hopefully their technology will really be able to learn who you are and tailor-make your request.”

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