A new vacation planning tool wants to predict your next holiday

It looks like Pandora for travel, but its real utility is getting all members of the family on the same page

By Nikki Ekstein / BLOOMBERG

What if choosing your next vacation were as simple as deciding what to watch on Netflix?

That’s the intention behind Wanderlist, a new tool from Virtuoso, a network of 20,000 travel agents that move more than US$26 billion (RM106.34 billion) in annual transactions. It lets travellers create a virtual bucket list through a highly visual, lightly game-like survey. Then it syncs each user’s answers with those of their most frequent travel companions — family, friends or a partner — in order to suggest trips that’ll make everyone happy.

“Think of it as a little portal for your dreams,” says Virtuoso CEO and chairman Matthew Upchurch, who sees Wanderlist as a way for busy people to identify their travel priorities and for travel specialists to strategically execute them. “It’s like the leisure equivalent of a financial advisor. If you have a framework to help optimise your money, why not have one for your leisure time and spending?”

It also costs as much as hiring an expert — in part, because you are doing just that. In most cases, a travel advisor will suggest Wanderlist to clients; for a starting cost of US$500, they’ll create a “portfolio” that strategically plots your group’s results on a calendar according to seasonality and savings opportunities.

(Retaining the specialist for travel planning support and ongoing advisory consultations, plus any other services, would then come at an additional cost.) Don’t have a travel agent? Wanderlist’s website will pair you with one to get the process started.

How It Works
So far, Wanderlist has been deployed to 15 travel specialists and 350 of their travellers. Within that small sample group, the technology has shown promise in streamlining a group’s many opinions and helping agents think about a family’s long-term goals.

One party, for instance, discovered that all four family members wanted to visit Hawaii — though it had never come up as a vacation idea — while in another case, the tool helped spur a grandmother and granddaughter to travel to Russia to see the Bolshoi Ballet, an interest they hadn’t known they shared. Another family thought it should go to Greece this year, but instead followed the agent’s recommendation and prioritised crowd-pleasing New Zealand on account of the currency’s better exchange rate.

A screenshot of Wanderlist in action

The survey itself is simple but thorough and takes about 30 minutes to complete. First, it asks about your “life stages” — children under 12? A family with teenagers? — in order to determine whom you travel with most frequently. Then, it prompts you to rate countries and experiences with a quick thumbs up, thumbs down, “already been there”, or “want to go back”. (There’s a fifth option if you’re not sure about the place at all.)

Click the thumbs up icon twice and the destination will get slotted into your top picks — sort of like adding a TV show to your “list” on Netflix. By the time you’re done, Virtuoso will have collected a couple of hundred data points as to what type of traveller you are and what motivates your getaways.

Wanderlist is most robust when multiple family members participate. In my own trial, I was surprised to see that Indonesia was my husband’s second-highest-ranked destination — particularly considering that he’s always been apathetic about beach-focused vacations. Since we both want to go there, our preliminary analysis suggested we pair the destination with either Cambodia (one of my top picks) or Australia (one of his). It also shares information on the best times to go. (In my case, it was October through December for shoulder-season deals).

The service stops short of becoming a do-it yourself travel-planning tool; the intention, unsurprisingly, is to pair travellers with advisors who can consult on the finer details and handle the logistics of booking. The company will also create a hardcover coffee table book featuring all the places your family wants to visit, just to keep you inspired.

What It’s Up Against
Gillian Morris, whose app Hitlist helps travellers find airfare deals that align with their bucket lists, says that other companies have tried (and failed) to build “vacation finders” in the past. As the creator of the Travel Founders Breakfast Club — an informal think tank for travel-tech start-ups — she’s had a front row seat to many of their stories. Among them: Triptuner, which abandoned its direct-to-consumer strategy in favour of a business-to-business approach; TouristEye, which was devalued and shut down after an acquisition by Lonely Planet; and most recently, Vivere, which is basic in its functionality.

“I honestly see something like this almost every month, and it never tends to go anywhere,” Morris says.

One reason for this is that our dreams aren’t always aligned with our practicalities. “People say they’re interested in a certain type of vacation, but the things they book are often quite different: They say they want to go to Zanzibar but end up going to Miami,” Morris laughs.

While the app sorts your results into a visual bucket list, the real insights come in a written report from your assigned travel advisor

But Wanderlist could, in theory, be an efficiency tool that shortcuts the “getting to know you” process between client and agent.

“Virtuoso is automating a back-end system that all travel agents already use,” says family vacation specialist Kathy Sudeikis of Acendas Travel, referring to ubiquitous industry software called Client Base that helps agents create client profiles the old-fashioned way, through conversations.

A further benefit, says Sudeikis, is earning the loyalty of Wanderlist’s youngest (and most digitally inclined) users: “The same kids who were exposed to the benefits of working with a specialist will stay clients when it’s time to plan their graduation trips and their honeymoons.”

Upchurch says, so far, Wanderlist has thus far been adopted by travellers aged 6 to 86.

Looking Ahead
If Virtuoso agents could integrate Wanderlist’s data with their sales platforms — which they currently can’t — they might be able to unlock further competitive advantages. For instance, Sudeikis thinks using the data for targeted marketing could prove useful: Passing on special discounts for a Paul Gauguin cruise to Tahiti to a family that had already expressed interest in going there, for instance. “The opportunity to expose clients to exactly the types of trips that they are thinking about, and to drill down to such a personal level, stands to be very powerful.”

The tool collects your preferences on both destinations and types of experiences

Morris, too, sees potential for the tool to develop machine-learning capabilities, a Pandora for vacations. “It would be pretty cool if Virtuoso was building a deeper preference map that could surface unique insights and eventually as its own artificially intelligent agent,” she says.

For now, Virtuoso is less focused on those aspects and more on bringing Wanderlist to family offices and corporations, which can use it as an employee-retention benefit.

One CEO, Jeff Prouty of Prouty Project, a Minnesota-based consulting firm, has already signed up and called the tool one of the greatest motivators for his business. Then again, he didn’t just offer his entire team access to the Wanderlist survey; he also provided individual consultations with a local Virtuoso agent and a stipend for each employee’s first trip. — Bloomberg