How TRVL.com is putting the agent into online travel
Pamela Whitby speaks to an industry veteran, serial traveller and entrepreneur about how Covid-19 is accelerating innovation in the messy world of travel distribution
Sometimes timing is everything and today as the travel industry faces up to the Covid-19 crisis, Dutch entrepreneur Jochem Wijnands has never been more passionate about putting the agent at the forefront of online travel booking.
“Our plan is and has always been to bring the travel agent service to the web,” says the CEO and founder of TRVL.com, “but now more than ever the industry is demanding it”.
In a survey of thousands of travel agents in April, 95.7% of respondents voted yes to building a global online market place for their services. One of those was Richard Williams, a travel agent in the UK: "Competing with OTAs has been my biggest challenge. So I think that bringing travel agents to the web and reclaiming some of that lost territory is right on the money."
Our plan is and has always been to bring the travel agent service to the web…but now the industry is demanding it
Not only does the industry see value in what TRVL is building but consumers might too, according to a 2019 report from Yieldify. The firm, which deals in customer journey optimisation, found that 80% of people are looking for personalised advice when booking online to address the “analysis paralysis” that makes travel planning stressful for 47% of people.
Even Dara Khosrowshahi, the former CEO of Expedia, acknowledged this flaw in the OTA model two years ago when he predicted the future of travel as moving “back to the model of customers visiting a travel agent. An online travel agent, that is."
A bridge to experience
It is not that Wijnands disrespects the service provided by the online travel agents (OTAs) – Expedia, Booking.com, Agoda et al. They are, after all, key technology partners and suppliers of inventory to TRVL.com. “TRVL has been working with OTAs from the start and what they have done extremely well is build one central hub that gives access to almost all hotel rooms in the world. But the world is changing rapidly and their platforms are two decades old,” he says.
The latest incarnation of the 10-year-old TRVL aims to bridge this gap between real-world agents and online platforms to create a “new normal for booking travel online”. Explaining how it works, Wijnandssays that when the platform launches in September, customers will be able to source the expertise of a local travel agent to book their trip. Crucially, the service will incur no additional cost and the travel agent, who will be available through the customer journey, can earn a commission of around 10%.
A new world order
The history of the travel industry shows that a crisis often breeds innovation, and Wijnands believes this one will be no exception. So even though TRVL.com values the strength of its current hotel supplier partnerships with the likes of Booking.com and Expedia, he does not rule out further innovation as he brings travel agents online. In the longer term, for example, the possibility for connecting hotels to the TRVL platform via blockchain technology looks more viable than ever.
Indeed, not only have the big OTAs missed a trick in delivering a truly personalised, local service for travellers, their handling of the Covid-19 crisis has angered many hotel partners, which are looking for innovation like never before. As Best Western GB CEO Rob Paterson told EyeforTravel last week, there is growing appetite for a fairer and more cost efficient approach to travel distribution.
In the longer term, for example, the possibility for connecting hotels to the TRVL platform via blockchain technology looks more viable than ever.
How the OTAs evolve their business model is something that the industry will be watching closely. Wijnands puts it like this: “If they don’t adapt to user demand, expectation and sentiment, then companies like TRVL will get a chance to enter the market and create a new normal for booking travel online.”
Like countless others, TRVL.com has seen its business grind to a halt in the past few months. But in true entrepreneurial style, Wijnands remains positive that when travel bookings recover people will be looking for a different, more personal experience. And this is a gap that thousands of “passionate, committed travel pros”, many of whom have lost their livelihoods in the wake of Covid-19, will be able to fill.