Kayak vets’ travel startup, now called Lola, is building software for travel agents

Blade co-founders Paul Schwenk, Bill O'Donnell, and Paul English, all of whom previously worked together at Kayak, Intuit, and Interleaf.
Blade co-founders Paul Schwenk, Bill O'Donnell, and Paul English, all of whom previously worked together at Kayak, Intuit, and Interleaf.

Paul English and Bill O’Donnell helped build some of the most successful online tools for helping travelers book their flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars.

Now, they’re applying that expertise to an industry that was decimated by the Web: travel agents.

English and O’Donnell are the cofounders of a travel startup called Lola, which has been slowly revealing details about its ambitions in the past few months. On Wednesday, the former Kayak executives announced even more about what they’re working on, coinciding with a travel-industry summit at the company’s Fort Point office.

The startup’s new name — it was previously known by the placeholder “Blade Travel” — is a portmanteau of longitude and latitude, said English, who was a cofounder of Kayak, the travel search company acquired by Priceline in 2012 for $1.8 billion.

The fact that veterans of consumer-friendly travel tech are now hoping to build a business by serving travel agents offers an intriguing juxtaposition.

The number of travel agents  peaked at about 35,000 in the late 1990s and declined rapidly with the advent of online travel services — there are only about 13,000 agencies today, according to the travel-industry research firm Phocuswright. In 2014, travel agents commanded about 28 percent of the $326 billion US travel market, compared with 44 percent for travel booked online.

English said the experience that he and other Lola members gained building consumer-focused travel software for Kayak should leave the startup well-positioned to help overhaul the aging software programs that travel agents use to book their packages.

“Innovation happens at the consumer level,” he said. “Building really simple consumer tools is what ends up reinventing enterprise software.”

While travel agents have a much smaller footprint in the market, they still play a key role in arranging more complex and expensive trips, particularly for corporate travelers or vacationers who need expert guidance, said Douglas Quinby, a research vice president at Phocuswright.

“If I go visit my aunt Sally in Omaha next month, it’s not really a big deal. It’s easy for me to book a flight and rent my car online,” Quinby said. “But if I’ve got a bucket-list trip and I’ve always wanted to go do a culinary tour of southern Italy or go trekking in Nepal, am I going to book that on CheapOair? Probably not.”

English began working on the project that became Lola in mid-2014 with two other Kayak veterans, O’Donnell and Paul Schwenk. It was first known as Blade, an investment vehicle and incubator for consumer-tech startups backed by $20 million, supplied mostly by the venture capital firms General Catalyst and Accel Partners.

Blade spun out and invested in several startup projects, but eventually evolved into a full-fledged startup of its own tackling the travel industry. Today, Lola has about 30 employees, English said.

Lola is still working on its software products, and plans to begin testing it with family and friends next month before a planned public launch early next year. The general idea, English and O’Donnell said, is to build a new kind of behind-the-scenes software system that travel agents can use to find and book flights, rooms, and other essentials.

That would be paired with a consumer smartphone app that agents can use to keep in touch with their clients, potentially ending what can sometimes be a long chain of phone calls and e-mails if plans change on the fly, O’Donnell said.

“There’s no reason for that,” he said. “Everyone today carries a supercomputer in their pocket with a  beautiful, high-resolution screen.”

It’s still not totally clear how Lola might plan to make money on its service. Other companies are working to improve the connection between travel booking services and their customers on the ground, including a digital concierge service called Aces offered by online room-booking company HotelTonight.

The other side of what Lola’s attempting — improving travel agent technology — could prove to be more difficult.

“There have been many, many attempts over the years to transform the technological landscape for traditional agencies, and most of those efforts by a lot of big companies have had fairly limited results,” Quinby said.

But English brings some definite credibility to the equation, he added. “If somebody can step in and really upend this space and introduce something really novel, it certainly could be him,” Quinby said. “I think there’s a lot of anticipation in the industry.”