JetBlue, Utrip bring intelligence to vacation bookings

When it comes to vacation packages most offerings are terribly similar. The most creativity typically shown is the ability to book a hotel for only part of the full trip length. This approach leaves vendors chasing a relatively small market. Thanks to JetBlue and Utrip, however, that is set to change significantly.

The JetBlue Vacations portal now features content from Utrip to help travelers plan not just flights and hotels, but also destination-specific details. The system uses an artificial intelligence engine to process details about hundreds of possible attractions, restaurants and activities and then filters them based on stated passenger preferences to deliver a full trip, not just transportation and lodging. Yes, JetBlue is still keen to sell the flights and hotel booking, but the goal of the Utrip integration is to move the passenger engagement further up the purchase pipeline. Umang Gupta, President of JetBlue Vacations, describes the need to both stand out in a relatively crowded market and better serve passengers, “This is the first step to offer something more personalized and differentiate from the OTAs. We are starting passenger engagement even before they purchase the package.”

The Utrip engine accounts for proximity of attractions and travel times, easing destination planning challenges.
The Utrip engine accounts for proximity of attractions and travel times, easing destination planning challenges.

This is work that Gupta describes as “a cumbersome task” and one “that’s becoming more important as people are looking for more experiential things to do at a destination.” Rather than spending time across multiple websites trying to correlate data the Utrip interface takes preferences input by the consumer (budget, pace, interests, etc.) and customizes an itinerary to fit the profile.  It also optimizes things like travel between attractions and accounts for typical dwell time at museums or sports facilities. These details are critical to building an efficient itinerary that doesn’t drive a traveler crazy. And they’re often very challenging to someone visiting a destination for the first time.

Adjust your desires and the Utrip engine spits out different activities for your trip
Adjust your desires and the Utrip engine spits out different activities for your trip

Perhaps most surprising to me about the new integration is that the process is all about planning, not about purchasing tours or booking restaurants. Gupta suggests that, at least for now, it will remain that way as the company maintains independence around the recommendations rather than dealing with potential affiliate bias, “We want to be genuine about the itineraries that we are coming up with. We will have recommendations that don’t cost money or cannot be booked online. We don’t want to face commercial limitations; this is much more than that.” That’s not to say that booking is always excluded, but the initial planning process simply generates an itinerary; none of the extra bits are booked in the pipeline.

Just-in-time Booking

Splitting purchasing from the planning pipeline is something Utrip CEO Gilad Berenstein focuses on as his company’s product is integrated with partners. The goal is to simplify the process, not to overwhelm a traveler. As he explains, “Most travelers are looking to plan a complete experiences, to dream and discover what they’re going to do on the ground, but not be tied in to booking everything up front and at once. The Utrip platform enables travelers to plan complete experiences and makes it easy to buy those things when the time makes sense, whether well in advance, the day before or the day of.”

One of the key factors here is the ability of the Utrip-enabled itinerary to be accessed in real time during a trip. Travelers can provide feedback and adjust schedules. And, for certain activities, there is a booking option available. Lacking that, however, contact details are always available to facilitate the process. For those offline during the trip a PDF outline of the itinerary is available as well, including all the pertinent details.

How it works

Under the hood Utrip uses some cool technology to power the process. The company’s homegrown platform is called “Snowglobe” and it works in three phases to ensure that the best recommendations are being made. Step one is a massive import of restaurants, activities and venues that are potential recommendations. The import also includes reviews from various sites online, both large and small, to help shape some of the recommendations. That data is then fed through a two-part AI engine. The first half verifies accuracy of details like location, hours and contact details. The second half applies natural language processing to understand the reviews and make sure that a “restaurant that sucks for kids” is flagged as not so great for family trips but boosted for a romantic getaway.

Finally – and arguably most importantly – the third step uses professionals in each location to validate the machine-processed data. These human curators are typically working in the associated fields (e.g. chefs, artists, etc.). Their direct knowledge of the venues and options is favored within the system as a final approval of the rankings the automation develops. That last human touch is something that Utrip prides itself on for delivering the absolute best recommendations. JetBlue’s Gupta “It is not just machine learning and AI on the back end. There is an element of curation, a human touch that is very important to JetBlue.” For a company with a tagline that talks about “bringing humanity back” to the travel experience it is easy to see how that relationship works.

The JetBlue Ventures Angle

JetBlue spun off a venture capital arm – JetBlue Technology Ventures (“JTV”) – in early 2016 not to change air travel, necessarily, but to help change many of the other factors around the travel experience. JTV President Bonny Simi explains this goal, “If we can make the non-JetBlue part of the experience more like the JetBlue part then [a traveler will] want to do that more.” In other words, making the whole travel experience better, not just the flight portion, can deliver strong returns to the airline as passengers seek out opportunities to travel again. This arrangement with Utrip, a startup in the Plug-and-Play incubator where JTV is a partner and an investor, feeds that goal of expanding JetBlue’s influence over the whole travel experience. This is very much a forward-thinking approach. Utrip’s Berenstein believes that JetBlue is improving not just travel but the entire commerce flow, “JetBlue is really thinking in a way that a lot of the best eCommerce and digital retail are thinking. Companies like Amazon and Netflix have created an expectation of personalization on the web. Consumers expect it more and more. We’re excited to be working with JetBlue to provide this experience through one of the best brands of travel.”

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.