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November 2018, Amsterdam

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Lost in machine translation? Call on Jeenie

Jeenie, a mobile app for on-demand language help and cultural advice, is promising to put the human touch back into any travel situation. Pamela Whitby finds out more

Travel can be stressful. From long-haul flights and lack of sleep to explaining your dietary requirements and negotiating ground transportation, the last thing you need is to get lost. Lost on the way to the hotel or, for that matter, lost in translation.

“For example, if you’re in Shanghai and show your taxi driver an address written in English or refer to your hotel by its English name (e.g. Mandarin Oriental hotel), they will not understand your desired destination. Drivers know the hotels by their Chinese names and recognise addresses written in Chinese characters. Something as simple as a taxi ride is an essential exchange and lots of people have challenging experiences when traveling in countries where they don’t speak the local language,” says Kirsten Brecht Baker, the CEO and co-founder of Jeenie, a mobile app for on-demand language help and cultural guidance. 

While an English traveller directing a taxi driver to a hotel in Rome might not be quite as easily misunderstood, English speakers outside of Rome can still have a tough time. However, for Chinese travellers arriving in Italy capital it can be even more stressful. As Brecht Baker points out, very few Italian hotels, even in Rome, have Mandarin speakers, and stressful situations can arise if, for example, check-in dates have been confused or reservations have gone missing. On a practical note, establishing whether noodles are on the menu for breakfast, or booking tours and activities through a concierge can also prove tricky. These are among the numerous use cases that Jeenie is looking to solve.

A growing market

By 2020, according to Statista, the global language service provider market is expected to be worth $45 billion. A big chunk of this focusing on businesses that often need highly skilled, technically certified translators and interpreters in places like hospitals or law courts. With people travelling more than ever, all kinds of different real-time machine translation tools and devices are springing up too, not least Google Translate.

Tapping into this, Brecht Baker explains that the Jeenie idea came from the pivot of an earlier business. “We were matching employers with people who had what we as referred to as global competencies, including language, but also had industry and technical experience – think a Mandarin speaking mathematician or a Zulu speaking project manager,” she explains.

While the need for language is growing in the workplace, there is even stronger demand for anybody in the world to access real-time language help when travelling

What the team quickly discovered was that while the need for language is growing in the workplace, there is even stronger demand for anybody in the world to access real-time language help when travelling.

Of course, people are already turning to the likes of Google Translate for help and while few will dispute their value, there are limitations. “If you are really trying to engage, if there is a relationship, if there is dialogue involved it is entirely limiting,” Brecht Baker says.

Communication with a human touch

According to Joerg Esser, a theoretical physicist, Roland Berger consultant, former Thomas Cook group director and moderator at recent EyeforTravel Las Vegas, one of the biggest challenges for any technology is to make everything simple, efficient and convenient, without losing the human touch.

Jeenie, which is building a community of human linguists, has recognised the importance of this. The good news, according Amir Amidi, Managing Partner, from the Plug and Play Tech Center, who also presented in Vegas, is that AI/tech models that don't lose the human touch are proving to be a better case for financing.

So what exactly is the business model; how does Jeenie work?

Jeenie, which launched in mid-September, is creating a 'sharing' two-sided market place where everyday problems created by language barriers are solved by real every day language speakers, and in real time! Brecht Baker says the app could be described as sort-of Airbnb or Uber for language help and cultural guidance; it is a two-sided market place that includes:

  • Linguists: On the supply side, Jeenie is building a community of humans with fluency in at least two languages, a smartphone and a data plan. The aim, subject to some rigorous qualifications, is find people from all walks of life and all over the world, even in marginalised communities. Linguists or ‘Language Jeenies’ sign up for free and currently have a presence in 65 countries.
  • Customers which include both travellers and businesses:
    • Launched as a B2C model the idea is that travellers can download the app, and for a pay-as-you-go cost of $1/minute, can have a real person online in real-time via audio or video helping them through any everyday situation. Typically calls last around 5 minutes.
    • The B2B model - hotels, tour operators and department stores see value in giving their staff tools to better communicate with international customers – is gaining traction too. Since businesses buy bigger packages, rates are discounted.  

So far, the group has introduced the language pairs of English-Cantonese and English-Mandarin, and most recently English-Japanese. The focus on China is hardly surprising; in 2018, this was the fastest growing outbound travel market with 145 million Chinese travellers expanding their horizons, and spending their hard-earned cash.

Unsurprisingly, hotels, stores, destinations, attractions, and even restaurants, are looking for ways to attract more Chinese tourists and communicate with them better. By calling up a language Jeenie, who understands the person’s language and culture and speaks the language in the culture of the place the person is visiting, allows business to build a much stronger connection.

More language pairs including Spanish-English, Portugese-English but also Japanese-Spanish and Mandarin-Japanese, will be added soon. The team is keen for Jeenie to not be viewed as US or English-centric, but rather a truly global product, that delivers an authentic connection. As stickiness of the app increases, the longer-term ambition is not to simply interpret or translate, but to truly engage.

“We are creating what is a new case in personal concierge travel,” Brecht Baker says. 

You might even say its ‘jeenius’. 

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