Cairo-Based Elves Is Putting Hospitality Back Into Travel Tech
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I travel a lot. 36 countries last year to be exact. As the CEO of one of the leading travel apps, TripScout, I try nearly every travel product I find, and am obsessed with how people plan for trips. As a result, I have my eye on two trends that will transform the trip-planning process, and how we interact with companies along the way: messaging and artificial intelligence.
Despite the industry buzz about chatbots and concierge apps, we are a long way from these technologies making our life any easier. To date, chatbots are a limited view of the company's website, and expensive virtual concierges make it clear that their scope (and often abilities) are quite limited.
But then I was in Cairo and came across Elves. Elves has real humans, supported by tech and AI, who do anything I ask, anywhere in the world- for free. As one of the hottest startups to come out of Egypt, I found their service to be the ultimate life hack. I had the most obscure requests executed- from getting a vintage street sign printed from the actual guy who made them for the city, to having fresh eggs from a farm delivered to my door in time for breakfast.
While not a travel company, I realized that directing this level of hands on service and sophisticated tech could have massive implications for the travel industry. Elves could actually do what others optimistically claimed.
Then it happened. Elves recently announced the raise of US$2 million in venture capital, which is credited as being the largest seed round a tech startup has ever raised in the MENA region. I spent some time with Karim Elsahy, the company's CEO and co-founder, and he informed me that the new capital is going towards disrupting travel. They staffed a full travel desk, invested in understanding the traveler's journey, and evolved the product to cater to this need.
As a travel professional and enthusiast, I was excited to hear this news. I now have a team of virtual assistants who are knowledgeable on travel, friendly to interact with, eager to solve all my needs- and it's still free. I quickly adapted to start every trip with Elves, and use them to handle any issue that comes up on the road.
I no longer sit on hold with airline call centers when I need to change my flight. I no longer waste time researching the right hotel. If I forget to bring something with me, I no longer deal with finding where I can buy it locally. I do not hassle with finding a taxi to the airport at 5am. I simply take a few seconds to send Elves a quick Facebook message and it is done. It is like Amazon Prime's one-click and same-day delivery for everything else in the world- but with emojis.
Gartner predicts that 85% of customer service interactions will be non-human by 2020. It will likely become the standard for most customer support and commerce. The way users interact with WeChat in China, and the amount of focus Facebook is putting on making Messenger a platform reinforce this trend.
Even Facebook is paying close attention to Elves. Zak El Fassi, who is the Head of Partnerships for Facebook in MENA and focused on the messaging platform told me, "I have been both impressed by the growth pace of Elves, and how they are disrupting the travel industry by leveraging chat." He comments on his first Elves travel experience, explaining how "I managed to book a flight and a hotel, I got onsite restaurant recommendations, and booked a tour: all from within the same chat window on Messenger. What would have usually taken four different apps, suddenly became a message and a few clicks away, right within on Messenger."
Elves breaks into the space when most major travel companies are just barely scratching the service. Expedia's vice-president of product management, Scott Crawford, recently explained that their chatbots currently are "designed for single uses, such as collecting pieces of information from customers specifically to book a flight, or providing date ranges of available hotels matching certain criteria". These are starting points for the large companies, but it will be a challenge for these limited products to reach the scale needed for the machine to learn enough to be useful.
Elsahy understands that the AI needs data to work, and the only way to build that data is have enough happy customers along the way to power a diverse range of inputs for every interaction. He told me, "with real humans behind every interaction with Elves, we are able to understand the nuances of human expectations under a diverse range of questions, preferences, and situations." He added, "unlike the other travel chatbots in the market, we use our technology and AI to empower our team's efficiency, not lead the conversation with the customer."
With Elves's human first focus, the company is able to build the data and AI to further drive efficiencies and automation. Egyptians are known for their hospitality around the world, so it comes as no surprise that an Egyptian startup is putting it back into messaging and AI.