From bespoke holidays to on-demand private jets, Ben Brown reports on the members-only travel apps that behave like your own personal agent.
We take travel apps for granted these days, but it wasn’t so long ago that walking into a travel agent was the only way to book your next trip. You listened while an experienced rep talked you through the best hotels and told you about the available excursions.
They’d have visited the hotels themselves, tried out the restaurants and tested the cocktails (someone had to). Booking a trip felt more tailored and bespoke. Unfortunately, travel agencies – as we knew them – have declined, with the numbers halved since 1990.
Nowadays, travel booking is more of a DIY buffet. You put the pieces together yourself on Expedia or booking.com, and take a chance on the faceless menu of hotels. We’ve swapped the experience and knowledge of others for self-empowerment through websites and dedicated travel apps.
However, hunting down the best hotels and flights online is a laborious process – online travel agents (OTAs) try to help but you still have to trawl through dozens of reviews to get a truthful impression of what the property is going to be like, or whether it’s worth paying for premium economy.
A travel agent, in your pocket
This is all about to change. A handful of startups have introduced a new generation of travel apps that combine the best of both worlds. The personal, tailored approach of a real travel agent, merged with the instant accessibility of the on-demand age.
These apps allow members to carry a travel agent in their pocket at all times – for a fee, of course. Simply open the app, tell the travel rep what you’re looking for, and let them do the rest.
The following six apps are exclusive, members-only services, often with high membership fees. However, the scalability of this concept to a mass-market is easy to imagine.
Marchay is at the most expensive end of the spectrum, at US$2,000 for an annual membership, and a minimum travel spend of US$25,000 per year through the app. Aimed squarely at the frequent corporate traveller, Marchay maintains that members will save at least twice the membership fee.
For your money, you get an unparalleled level of service. You can expect a detailed interview process to match you with the perfect travel agent. They’ll subsequently plan your trips based on your preferences, book the ideal restaurant for you, and secure up to 65 per cent discounts at top-tier hotels.
Marchay’s value is in its collectivity and anonymity. Sharing only the best restaurants, private clubs, and travel information among its users, the app fosters a private, unique community for high-net-worth frequent flyers.
If the travel-agent-in-your-pocket concept penetrates the mass market, it will likely be JetSetter that leads the charge. Now part of the TripAdvisor family, the app has powerful backing, and a great deal of scope.
At its heart, JetSetter is still an invitation-only website and app. It curates a careful list of hotels, each visited and “verified” by a team of 200-plus professional travel journalists. And because it’s “members-only” they are able to offer significant discounts behind closed doors.
The downside? It’s nowhere near as personal as Marchay. But, then again, membership is free. For an additional cost, you can access a personal travel planner who will organise and book a journey for you. However, because this involves a one-off fee each time, you’ll only get real value from the bespoke service if you use it to create an extensive itinerary.
The best way to describe Lola is “Uber for travel agents”. It’s currently in beta, with a long waiting list, but it has big plans for the app moving forwards.
If you’re one of the lucky 5,000 early members, you start by inputting your travel preferences into your profile. Do you prefer hotels or serviced apartments? Buffets or fine dining? (The more you use, the better your recommendations). Next, you text your travel requirements via an in-app chat system, while your personal travel agent finds and books everything from flights to lunch dates.
Founder Paul English (co-creator of Kayak), intends to open up the app to travel agents across the planet, so they can establish their own presence and interact with members. There’s huge mass-market potential in this plan.
As travel apps go, this one is more like a concierge than a travel agent and is best used while you’re already on the road. Quintessentially is all about experiences. If you need a last-minute dinner reservation, front-row seats at Fashion Week, or an Alpine expedition, this is the app you turn to.
It’s a members-only service, which ensures that every customer gets access to their “lifestyle manager” when they need to. There is a hard limit of 5,000 members for each one of the firm’s 60 global offices, so – theoretically – it should never be overloaded.
JetSmater is Uber for private jets (and helicopters). At any one time, there are dozens of grounded jets and helicopters, and hundreds of empty private seats. JetSmarter tracks them all, making them available for their exclusive users.
Members have the option to book a custom charter or hop onto a spare seat on existing shuttle routes. Members get access to 24/7 live chat to assist with any problems, and the agents will also facilitate any ancillary requests like restaurant bookings at the other end of your trip.
The app also acts as an exclusive networking club, with frequent users often sharing the same flights.
Skylark uses exclusivity and anonymity to its advantage. Flight operators and hotels are much more comfortable offering discounts when the deal is paired together and offered to a select group. Why? Because lowering the price in this way doesn’t hurt their brand reputation, like it would through an OTA.
Skylark boasts up to 50 pre cent savings using this method. Membership starts at US$400 annually, and it’s strictly invite-only while the app finds its feet. Like Lola, members have instant access to a personal travel agent via in-app messaging, who will hunt down and book the best options according to your preferences.