Lola brings out Works, talks 2018 and trends in corporate travel

After its pivot to serve the corporate travel market last year, business travel mobile application Lola is now focused on delivering a simple booking experience to road warriors.

The company, set up by Kayak co-founder Paul English in 2015, has just released Lola Works – a dashboard for travel managers or anyone else involved in keeping an eye on trips and spend.

The idea with Lola Works is that travellers book via the app and all of the information resides in the dashboard. Similarly, the app uses data from traveller preferences to bring back hotels and flights.

Once a travel policy has been set up within the system, it provides administrators with a break down of spend as well as view of who is travelling in the coming days, weeks and months.

A user-friendly map feature enables admin to quickly see who is where at any given time.

Further features include a places tab where all the locations a company’s travellers frequently visit and preferred hotels can be stored here too as can a traveller’s own preferences.

There’s also a budget filter enabling users to enter how much they want to spend on hotels in any given destination. The information is then integrated with the preferences within the places tab. If spend continues to be outside guidelines, the parameters can be reset.

It works in a similar way for flights with travellers given “wiggle room” to enable them to opt for direct flights  or later flights according to their circumstances.

The over-arching theme with the development of the dashboard (and Lola in general) is to “put more joy into travel” and that’s about less rigid policies. English says:

“It’s about giving the business owner or manager more control and insight and also have them set up policies that are traveler friendly. We think that what we have provides a better traveler experience than other things out there. Feedback I’m getting is that most people hate these systems because they are too restrictive. This sends out guidelines but really lets you book what you want. I think the trade-off works really well.”

In a recent interview with tnooz, English spoke about this development as well as about plans for 2018 and trends in corporate travel distribution and technology. Q&A follows:

On 2018 and what it holds for Lola?

We started marketing towards road warriors in the fall, and they’ve been pretty happy with Lola and we’re getting repeat bookings, but now we’re figuring out what to do for their companies, it’s an opportunity we’re looking at.

Is this about each company being different culturally or addressing a different market, or something else?

If you’re running a small consultancy company, with 10 employees all using Lola, as the CEO what tools do you want? It’s independent of vertical, it’s about advantages we can bring to companies when a lot of people are using us.

A second thing we’re looking at in 2018 is increasing distribution – there are big distribution deals we’ll talk about in Q1 or Q2.

What are the main challenges you see going forward?

It’s the same thing as when I was at Kayak. Where I spend my time every day, – the first thing is tuning the team. We have a really strong team, and I’m always debugging it and thinking how to make it improve and have the performance get better every month. I spend a lot of energy on that.

We’re also looking at customers who first experience Lola and trying to simplify it all the time. It’s already a pretty simple app to use but there’s a lot of opportunity to make it even simpler to use.

When you say debugging/tuning the team, what do you mean?

They are super high functioning. It’s about watching the reactions between the team, trying to debug when there’s stress between two members, why aren’t they getting along. Rather than accepting it, I jump in and put on my psychology hat and figure out how to keep things working as smoothly as possible.

When I meet with people one-on-one I always think there are two objectives. The first is how do we help them get to quicker and better decisions and the second is how to improve the relationship with me and them and with them and their peers. It’s that constant focus on team interaction which leads to world class teams which can build world class products. I did this at Kayak and I’m doing it at Lola.

It sounds paternal…

I’ve been accused of that before. As a manager I think you do take certain parenting skills and apply them to work and certain work skills and apply them to parenting.

Who are your main challengers in the market?

It’s two things – it’s the tools road warriors use and the tools companies use. For road warriors it’s everything from online travel agencies like Expedia or Kayak to direct booking with the Marriott app, the Jetblue app and so on. One of the comments from our focus groups is that a lot of road warriors have a dozen apps installed and we’re trying to figure out how to make that simpler. Can we give you the exact same benefits of a direct booking by having only one app installed?

On the company side, we are looking at companies such as Egencia and Concur.

How far do you see AI going in making for a less frictionless travel experience?

We have customer service deeply integrated into the app so you can connect with a human at any time and they will have access to what you have been doing in the app, our purchase history, so can instantly help you. You can talk by email, chat or on the phone.

We also have a bot, Lola bot, when you’re chatting it’s reading everything you’re saying. right now it’s making recommendations for agents but soon we will turn it on for the end user. The reason is not to save money versus the agents, it’s because in a lot of cases it can answer more quickly than a human can.  We’re going to turn it on carefully. There are certain requests that are unambiguous, that are easy for the bot to have confidence it can answer 100% accurately. When there’s a little ambiguity, the bot will make a recommendation of a service agent and the service agent will either accept the bot recommendation or do something different. Over time what you’ll see is the bot will start taking more and more answers but it’s non trivial and we’re not going to solve this by the end of 2018, it will be progressive improvement month to month.

Looking at the growth of voice and predictions for where it might go, how does that impact a business like Lola and the way you have integrated consultants with the bot, does it voice work hand in hand with Lola? Does it mean reworking of the way you do things?

The guy in my team who is director of AI, Bryan Healey, used to run an engineering team at Amazon on the Alexa product – so he has a deep background on what’s called NLU, natural language understanding. There is really two parts to that, one is converting the voice to text. The second is once you have the text and you think you know what they said, it’s trying to figure out what to do about it.  The lola bot right now is all about once you have the text and deciding what to do about it. As far as taking voice input on a phone or device such as Amazon Echo, that is probably technology we will license, we will not build it ourselves.

There’s a lot of chatbots out there in travel now and also the Facebook Messenger platform. Why would a company use something like Lola as opposed to establishing something itself on say Facebook Messenger?

I don’t think Facebook Messenger works well for travel right now. The thing we have in Lola, right now it’s a mobile app only, but we have self-service so you can direct book, hotel or flight, or you can connect with a service agent. The direct booking in many cases is a lot faster than an agent. UI approaches for self-service have been well-established over the last 10 years. I spent 10 years evolving that at Kayak and we’re trying to make it a little better even than Kayak. I mean self-service where you see the hotels, click on it to get the details, click on it to book, it’s very interactive and tactile and that’s something you can’t do in Messenger.

So you don’t see it as a category killer for chatbots?

I don’t. We will plug into the different platforms but I don’t think there is a lot of travel being done on Facebook Messenger right now. I don’t think it’s something that Lola or any of our competitors need to rush into right now.

If I was a corporate looking to use a service like Lola, why would I choose your service over somebody else?

The big three benefits your employees would get is the personalization, the direct booking and the service integration. The next question is what benefit does the CEO get if she has a dozen employees travelling? That’s something we’re working on right now.

Do companies get that it’s not about what the company wants, it’s about what the traveller wants?

If you have road warriors, people in your sales team, consulting team, who travel as part of their job, it’s really important to treat them well, and you don’t always have to spend a lot of money to treat them well. As a CEO you should look at what are the things you can do to make their business travel easier just because you don’t want them burnt out you want them comfortable with their travel so they can be productive on the road.

That’s all very well in theory but a lot of companies don’t see it like that, do you think that’s changing?

There have been reports published that show the impact on productivity when you have less traveller friction. One researcher has come up with a study on traveller friction and what are the things that make travel painful. He surveyed hundreds of companies and showed the ones that have more liberal policies have higher productivity,

The idea of a single app for business travel, can you see a time when that might  happen?

We’re working on it right now. A lot of popular mobile apps don’t even have seat selection which is crazy because if you’re a business traveler there’s no way you’re going to book a ticket without knowing your seat. We’re trying to do all the things required so you don’t need a dozen apps. We have made a bunch of changes already, and more coming out. It’s not that we’re opposed to people have different apps but there are benefits to a company if everything is booked through one platform. We don’t want there to be any advantage to having 12 apps so we’re trying to look at why people have them and trying to make sure we have all those features built into one app so you don’t need it.

What is the one thing holding business travel or business travel management back?

It’s too hard to use. I think of things like Egencia and Concur – CEO’s like it because it allows control of employee spend but employees hate it because it restricts their options. Right now Concur has a white paper on the leakage problem. It’s to CEOs and is saying we know half your employees cheat – and go outside and here’s how to integrate it but to me, if that happens with Lola I’ll be devastated because I don’t want there to be any reason to cheat and go outside of Lola. We’re working really hard to make sure any benefit from booking outside you should be able to have the same thing inside Lola. I think that’s really important.

Looking at travel and travel distribution, what’s the thing that makes you most excited? In the way it’s developing and the potential of the things we can do now?

Trends we have been looking at are why people have a dozen apps and can someone come up with an app that replaces all that. Other trends people are talking about is bots and voice and I think that will happen but I don’t think it’s going to happen soon. Every travel company needs to be working on it but I don’t think it needs to be front and centre any time in 2018. There’s a bunch of companies now that have Alexa demos where you can talk to Alexa and book a flight or hotel but no one is using it.

What are the things that will make business travel take some steps forward – it’s well established, it doesn’t move quickly and distribution somewhat hampered by legacy systems. What things might make it shift?

The thing we are looking at is why is it so hard to do corporate travel and why are the CEO needs at odds with the individual travelers, they are kind of diametrically opposed. The CEO wants to slash costs and the traveller wants good travel options. There isn’t a company yet that addresses both those needs.

So you don’t think things like Rocketrip and others that are pitched around the incentive side are beginning to address some of these needs?

It’s interesting, the incentive thing, I think the internal tool at Google is working pretty well. Companies doing kick backs like TripActions and Rocketrip and Upside are modelling themselves a bit on that, I look at those things as a feature, I wouldn’t build a company around that. Ultimately if it is successful I think kayak and everyone else will add it as well.

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About the Writer :: Linda Fox

Linda worked at tnooz from September 2011 to June 2018 in roles including senior reporter, deputy editor and managing editor.

 

Comments

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  1. Valentin Dombrovsky

    “Companies doing kick backs like TripActions and Rocketrip and Upside are modelling themselves a bit on that, I look at those things as a feature, I wouldn’t build a company around that. Ultimately if it is successful I think kayak and everyone else will add it as well”.

    I wonder who will win in this virtual battle of 2 travel industry veterans – Jay Walker vs. Paul English. Or who would buy another this time. 🙂

     
 
 

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