Paul English’s Lola Envisions Easy Travel Powered By Mobile & Humans
The travel-booking process will become simpler, more personalized, and increasingly handled on smartphones—but with a renewed emphasis on consumers getting help from human experts.
At least, that’s the vision presented Wednesday night at an event featuring four Boston-area travel tech startups, held at the Fort Point office of Blade Travel. That’s the former venture fund/startup workspace led by Kayak co-founder Paul English that recently stopped making investments in order to focus on building one company. After a panel discussion featuring executives from Freebird, Fuzzy Compass, and Wellobox, English unveiled the new name and basic idea behind Blade Travel’s stealthy venture.
The startup is called Lola, and it’s developing a mobile app that will allow users to easily and rapidly book every facet of a trip—flights, hotel rooms, rental cars, tickets to attractions, and more. “The trend of the future is just saying, ‘I want to go to San Diego next weekend,’” and the phone just does it, English said.
It sounds a lot like Kayak 2.0. But what’s even more interesting about Lola is it will also incorporate travel agents who will interact with customers via the app.
The Internet has eaten a huge chunk of business from travel agents, with websites like Stamford, CT-based Kayak and Needham, MA-based TripAdvisor allowing consumers to do travel planning themselves. But the problem with this shift, English said, is that online search tools present consumers with hundreds of flight and hotel options. “We refer to this as the tyranny of choice,” he said. “Do-it-yourself travel is hard.”
English and Lola co-founder Bill O’Donnell, Kayak’s former chief architect, see an opening to bring humans back into the equation. “We think there’s some role travel agents have to play in giving you confidence” and making travel stress-free, English said.
Lola also aims to make antiquated travel-agency software smarter and faster. “We’re re-imagining travel agents,” English said.
And Lola isn’t the only travel startup finding new ways to combine technology with human expertise. Fuzzy Compass’s software connects users directly with “travel influencers”—people with well-trafficked travel blogs and social media accounts—to get help planning custom trips in far-away locales in Africa, Asia, and (coming soon) South America. Wellobox, meanwhile, enables Airbnb and HomeAway hosts to provide their guests with curated discounts to local businesses. (Other travel startups in town include Hopper and Wanderu.)
The trend underscores the importance of trust in the travel industry, Wellobox co-founder and CEO Stuart Blitz said in an interview before the panel discussion. “If I’m going to use your service, I don’t want to be let down,” he said.
He thinks it’s smart that travel companies like Lola are letting software do the “heavy lifting,” but then sprinkling in human interaction. “I think companies doing assisted booking are really interesting,” he said. “You’re seeing some of the limitations algorithms and machine learning have.”
One of the questions for Lola will be finding the right business model. English said the company’s board fiercely debated that topic this week. Lola could require users to pay for a membership, charge them a fee for each booking through the app (English is against this idea), or perhaps make it free for users, but charge businesses a commission when users place orders. This is something that will be worked out as Lola’s app goes through early testing.
Family and friends will be able to download it starting Friday, and it will be made available to the public in January, English said.
Lola will primarily target leisure travelers planning about four trips per year, either domestic or international, English said. But it could also easily handle short, near-term trips. For example, the app could quickly pull together an itinerary for an upcoming business trip, without involving a travel agent. “The app will get to know a lot about me and make simple travel even simpler,” English said.
The startup plans to hire 100 travel agents next year, English said. That’s partly so that Lola can “control the end-to-end experience” for consumers, and also to have travel agents sitting next to software engineers so the product can be improved more quickly, he said. In the future, Lola would likely open up its platform to travel agents not affiliated with the company.
Lola currently employs 31 people, and it intends to grow to 250 by the end of next year, English said. The company recently took over the third floor of its current building to grab more room for expansion, and it will open a small office in a New York City co-working space for marketing, he said.
Lola is talking with investors about raising a funding round, and it’s also tapping into the $20 million that Kayak investors General Catalyst Partners and Accel put into the Blade incubator in early 2014. Blade invested in seven startups, but most of the money remains in the bank, English said.
The seed of Lola was planted in the spring, English said, when Blade board member Youngme Moon remarked that the incubator’s team was so strong, why not build a company themselves? Over the summer, Blade’s nine employees experimented with three ideas, landing on the one that became Lola. (The name is a portmanteau that smashes together the words longitude and latitude, English said.)
The company’s original concept was a virtual “personal secretary for everyone,” similar to Zirtual, but in mobile app form, English said. Eventually, General Catalyst managing director Joel Cutler suggested that Blade apply that idea to the travel industry. That was around July, when English’s noncompete agreement with Kayak expired, he said. “I loved it. I said, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’”
English said he wasn’t contemplating starting another travel company when he left Kayak at the end of 2013. “I wanted to take a break,” he said, which has allowed him to spend more time on things like lecturing at MIT. “The expectations would be so high” for another travel startup, he added.
Indeed, they already are, with English among those fanning the flames. He told the Boston Business Journal in July that he thinks Lola could be bigger than Kayak.
Lola has a lot of work ahead to achieve that. For starters, the company has its name, but it doesn’t have a logo yet.