Friday, June 10, 2016

Travel agents? Apparently, they’re the new thing.

I’m a big fan of the show, The Americans. The plot revolves around an All-American family of the Reagan-era. Nice suburbjapanesse lanternsan home in the DC area. (And I do enjoy the fact that, hanging in the entry way of that nice suburban home is the same thing that hangs in my den: a crewel work of Japanese lanterns in a “modern” vase. The difference being that mine was made by my mother, while theirs was probably picked up by a prop person at a yard sale.) Two typical kids. Working mom.

While the Jennings may look like the All-American family, looks can be deceiving. Not to mention that spies are everywhere. And a couple of those spies are living in the Jennings’ typical suburban home, as Philip and Elizabeth are Russian spies under deep, dark cover doing their spy stuff. Part of their cover? Their business. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings own and operate a travel agency.

Travel agency. Well, those were the days.

Or were they?

I’ve done a fair amount of travel, and even in the good old pre-Internet days, I didn’t tend to use a travel agent. I do remember going over to one of the airline offices – most of which were in the Statler Building in Boston’s Park Square – and asking about schedules and prices, and picking up tickets. For hotels? We used travel guides, and phoned or faxed to make our reservations.

I do recall a couple of trips to travel agents. One visit I recall had the travel agent droning on about an exciting fare to somewhere called “The Bicentennial Nightly,” or, as the agent abbreviated it, the BN. Well, that was obviously 1976, but I can’t remember where we were heading on our BN. For years after, however, when we planned our trips we’d ask ourselves whether we’d be able to secure a BN fare for ourselves.

Businesses had travel offices that either ran everything on their own, or were the intermediary between you and the travel agency that they worked with. You put in your request, and your reservations got made for you.

And then there was the Internet, and who needed a travel agency? You had everything you needed online. Oh, I assumed that if you were doing something really out of the ordinary for personal travel, you might want to work with a travel agent. But our travel was pretty garden-variety: we went to NYC, we went to California, we went to some city in Europe. No terra incognita for us. If we liked a place, we frequented it. (NYC, Ireland, Paris…)

But, until I saw an article the other day on Bloomberg, I didn’t realize that online booking services, with their clunky interfaces, are considered old school – almost as old school as dropping in on a travel agent. To get some new school thang going, appearing on the horizon are “a series of disruptive travel services that are blending human intelligence with mobile technology. The goal: striking a middle ground in an industry where the personal touch still means something, but the bottom-line savings of D.I.Y. tech is hard to beat.”

There’s Skylark, which you join for $400 a year and which is focused on the “luxury leisure market.” Skylark is an outcropping of Ovation Travel.

“Until recently,” [Ovation president Jack Ezon] said, “our agency’s high-end customers weren’t going online—the internet was really a mass market space.” (Source: Bloomberg.)

Hey, you upscale snob, that’s me you’re talking about in the mass market space. I’ve booked some pretty pricey hotels online, thank you very much. I guess they just weren’t luxurious or leisurely enough. Not to mention that I don’t do enough travel to justify spending $400 a year to use an app that “is paired with a live travel specialist” who you can contact via the channel of your choice: phone, IM, email.

The service will help you coordinate a scavenger hunt for the kids in Rio or get VIP access tickets to the British Museum in London, for instance. 

Hmmmm. I don’t imagine, in this time of Zika worry, that there’ll be a boatload of folks signing their kids up for scavenger hunts in Rio.

Marchay’s more upscale: $2K for annual membership, and bills itself as a “private travel collective,” in which members must spend a minimum of $25K per year. With a price tag of $25K, we’re not thinking Soviet farmers or kibbutzniks. If you join this collective, you get to work with a dedicated team member. And you get big discounts at primo hotels.

Lola is the brainchild of Paul English, whose other brainchild was Kayak.

Lola lets users text their travel needs to specialists, who do the research and present a handful of options—all via an in-app messaging system.

Those handful of options are generated by an AI back end that “can detect patterns in your preferences and automatically generate personalized recommendations.”

Not clear what Lola will cost. (Maybe it will follow Kayak. Not that I know how Kayak works…)

Essentialist will cost you. In year one, it’s free. After that, it’s $1.4K a year. At Essentialist, you’re paying for content. And it’s not just any old content, but the kind of scoop it sounds like you might find in the glossy books you find in hotel rooms. You know, the ones with some trendy articles and a lot of ads.

“This isn’t the standard information that you can get from a lot of travel sites and authorities,” said [co-founder Nancy] Novogrod. “It’s very on-the-ground and insider-y, on a very contemporary and innovative platform.”

You also get “travel planning and support” for your air and hotel reservations, plus “access to experiences that aren’t generally available to the public. For instance, Novogrod leveraged her connections in Venice to set up a family dinner in a private palazzo not generally open to the public.”

Or, I guess, a scavenger hunt in Rio.

Me, I’ll stick to the clunky DIY online approach. My travel is nothing special, except to me. And so far, the DIY approach, has been so good.

As for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, at some point they need to get caught, don’t they? Wonder what will happen to their travel agency business.

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