An in-depth interview with the 30 Seconds To Fly team to discuss their innovative product, Claire, a travel manager powered by artificial intelligence technology for businesses and large organizations. What’s in a name? Well, with their revolutionary product that helps employees book policy-compliant flights seamlessly via their mobile device, they’ll be ready to fly within 30 seconds.
We talked with the two co-founders Felicia Schneiderhan and Riccardo Vittoria as well as Jear, Worrawut Worasirikamol, who are responsible for sales & fundraising.
Our interview is divided into 2 parts, Skyping with Felicia in San Francisco and talking with Riccardo & K.Jear in Thailand. However, the interview is sequence by question-based in order to make it easier to read.
Felicia: There was a time that Riccardo traveled to SEA. He wanted to book a flight from Singapore to Hanoi, Vietnam (also multiple destinations). He had to spend more than 1 day to find and book his preferably flight. It upset him so much that he had to call me. He told me that we should make this easier for travellers and could come up with a solution for them. That was the beginning of our journey to develop a booking flight system.
Jear Worrawut: I’d like to add some information about our co-founders. Both Riccardo and Felicia have founded their own companies before building Claire. Felicia founded Black Bun, which is a natural hair-curling product that uses no heat. Riccardo founded his photography company. The pair met at Fulbright while on scholarship and together they founded a startup company, Peekbite, which won the annual competition at NYU Innovation. It’s an application that allows you to pre-order food before arriving at the restaurant. Even though it’s users really liked the app, restaurant owners didn’t want to pay the fee and they ultimately decided to pull the plug after 8 months. They also realized there were many risks involved that might impact business in the future. After leaving Peekbite, they invested most of their time validating an available market for their next move. After 8 months, they found exceptional advisors among them people from SUTD, MIT, Apple. They have two expert professors in optimization and machine learning.
Felicia: This is also a very good question. It’s because travel agencies, nowadays, dependently rely on human resources to book flights. It a very manual work that comes with high costs. At the same time, A.I. technology has been standardized and supported by a continuously increasing community over the last few years. This leads to a great opportunity to fill the gap between the need of a travel management solution and the lack of it due to the high costs associated.
Felicia: Of course there are, because we have two forms of A.I.: the first one is natural language processing (NLP), which is the ability of a computer program to understand human speech as it is spoken and to interact back with chatting. This is challenging for us since there are many great libraries out there that need a lot of work to be adjusted to our customer interactions.
Then we have another A.I. core component which is a trip selection algorithm. The system needs to learn user preferences. For instance, if a user chooses a cheaper ticket rather than business or first class, the system itself will learn user preferences at each interaction. This is the real core of Claire and luckily these algorithm are the most fun for our development team. But it takes time to collect a good and large enough dataset that allows our algorithms to replicate the human brain.
Felicia: It’s because we defined the boundary or the scope of the decision making. The company’s travel policy itself is Claire’s boundary. Claire is not a consumer product, but it’s a product for businesses, thus, the most important thing is for travelers to have the ability to book policy-compliant trips in which the policy itself will indicate which type of tickets can be booked and has been integrated to the system beforehand already.
One other thing is, we can log into personal accounts to adjust personal preferences, e.g. if we prefer to sit by a window or an aisle seat or a flight that serves vegetarian food. At the same time if we frequently use Claire, she will learn and recognize our travel patterns. Therefore, the more we use Claire, the more she can recommend us the flight that is suited to our travel behavior. Even if you’ve never used Claire before, Claire can predict your preferences because she has learned from other user’s data that has a similar profile to you. This means Claire, in the near future, would recommend more precise flights to fit the user needs.
Jear Worrawut: Business travel in America is divided into managed and unmanaged travel. Companies under managed travel are companies that directly contact TMC (travel management agencies), such as American Express to book their trips. Some TMCs have created their own online booking tool (OBT), some TMCs don’t, but we can call them directly to make any booking such flights, hotels and etc. For example, we can call them and tell them to arrange a flight for us like “Can you book me a flight to New York on “X” day to “Y” day please?” They will also provide us a duty of care and look after us during our journey.
Business travel is different from leisure travel, because it has to be compliant to a travel policy. The company may have particular preferred airlines to collect bonus points and also several levels of staff members who can travel with different policies. The important thing here is how we can manage this with the utmost efficiency. HR departments generally have to coordinate with these TMCs or sometimes rather than manage it themselves, they may hire third party instead.
Business travelers under an unmanaged travel program are free to book their travel through the channels of their choice. These range from leisure travel sites and online travel agencies to individual hotel chains or airline websites, the popular sites are Priceline, Expedia, Travelocity and etc. Most organizations operating an unmanaged travel program do have travel policies in, however, they tend to be far less detailed or restrictive. After they’ve traveled the trip, they have to propose the expense claim or reimbursement themselves. One of the major challenges of unmanaged travel is monitoring policy compliance and capturing data about travel patterns within organization. Claire’s focus is on unmanaged travel program companies.
Jear Worrawut: First of all, enabling each member of our clients with a personal travel agent at their service 24/7 without incurring in crazy expensive services of TMCs.
Secondly, saving money. Most companies who are under unmanaged programs have a little to none knowledge about collecting bonuses, and access to negotiated fares.
Then, saving time. Business travelers have many concerns when travelling as they need the most reliable flight, policy compliant, arriving at the right time, that maximizes their miles, not forgetting about comfort as well as not disappoint their manager. It takes an average of two hours to find the right flight. Riccardo once wasted two days himself on a complex itinerary with multiple stops and one of our asian research group members said he had to write up a whole trip’s plan to propose to his boss when he had to travel to Malaysia, which it took him days. What Claire can offer here is going from two hours, on average, to 30 seconds and we’re ready to go. Everything is automated.
Last, the governance. One of the pain points that every unmanaged company has to deal with is how to make sure the travelers will follow travel policy. Mostly HR or Finance will be the department who take care of this, including reimbursement. Claire will come in handy with this, as she will directly feed every expense during the journey to the client’s expense management system. Claire will make sure that travelers book policy-compliant trips, making things easier for HR and managers since they don’t have to manually enforce policies for their travelers anymore.
Claire will also suggest how to adjust travel policies in order to save money based on data from our customers. We are the first revolutionary tech-automated and data-driven startup in travel management.
Felicia: As we know, the travel management industry is divided into two major parts. Managed travel and unmanaged travel. As managed travel will be quite hard for us at the beginning because customers are tied to a travel management company already by receiving corporate prices. In contrary, there is an underserved market segment of companies, who are under unmanaged programs, which currently do not manage their travel and do not have enough travel turnover to benefit from optimizing their travel management. Most of them don’t have access to corporate prices, manage travel by themselves and don’t have aggregated travel data. We will offer them a light, personalized travel management tool which reaps the benefits of engaging a TMC while maintaining a low cost approach to travel and offering great usability for business travelers. The US available market of these SMBs is approximately 36BN dollars.
Jear Worrawut: There are still no companies who are focusing on building data collective and apply this into building an A.I. that mainly support B2B market segmentation. There’re some companies that are also building an A.I. application, but logically different from us as we’re building a text-messaging platform integration. Furthermore, most of our competitors are rising from B2C segment, easier product, that on the other hand has a less remunerative business model. When it comes to B2B market, we have to think of policy integration, data analytics, data consolidation. To build a competitive A.I. is a matter of collecting useful data for at least 1 year, but once we start this continuous feedback process with our users, our A.I. will become better and better every month. Claire will combine the brains of travel agents and clients, and she will be connected with a huge amount of real time data that a human cannot even imagine to process, becoming soon an incredibly accurate travel assistant.
Felicia: We have many competitors in the market that we deeply respect. We are fighting for the same dream. There’s no-one who is actually doing the same thing as us. If we look at the American market, the most similar company who is using text-messaging to communicate in travel industry, it’s going to be Pana. They started with a B2C model and then began to target small companies as well. Their product is based on an application, they represent themselves as human+A.I. agents. Another is Cinch Travel, which is another mobile application. Then there is HelloGbye who has a mobile app for the consumer market. The last one is Lola Travel, but I think what makes our product different from others is that Claire is not an application, she’s not a standalone tool, but she’s SaaS (Software as a Service) composed by an HR control panel and an AI engine that anyone can use via conversational text-messaging platform like SMS, Slack or Whatsapp, etc.
Felicia: Our team members are around the globe in seven different time zones, which sounds crazy, and it seems like it might be a problem, but for us it’s not so much a challenge. People in this era are easily connected through internet. We normally communicate with each other via Skype and frequently work together using Slack, which keeps us connected all the time. We’re constantly talking and giving help to whoever needs it. I proactively check all the time and give an answer to everyone through all channels. We try to unite the team as Riccardo is in Asia and I am in America. In the end, it works very efficiently.
Felicia: Now, we’re talking to investors in the Asia-Pacific, Europe and America region. Although each region has different needs, we believe that every individual advice will help us push ourselves even more. I think we have a unique business model and have come to the right place and right time. We had very good responses from all the investors we have been in contact, they loved the team and the business. The thing we have to do now is to wisely choose whose fund we’re going to get. The challenge for us is to find money wisely, from investors who are specialized in the travel industry and in artificial intelligence, or from investor that can have a strategic role in our business model.
Felicia: If we’re talking about the travel tech messaging platform, as far as i know, there’s only one firm. The travel supply to booking flights in SEA is more complicated than Europe and America. While the market value has grown steadily, the United States has begun to slow down. I think that the Asia-Pacific region has the potential to grow in the travel industry and by next year we will see significant changes. It will be the second market we attack after US.
Felicia: We will continue to focus on the travel industry. Although natural language processing can be applied to other industries, the trip selection algorithm, which is more important, can’t. Still we will provide our business travelers with many different services far beyond a flight ticket.