Travel advisors Chanell Facey and Liana Rowan knew the drill.
Regardless of how organized they were in managing their group bookings, their travelling clients, at some point or another, were bound to get tangled in a web of miscommunication.
WhatsApp, a popular group chat application, was often to blame. Rowan, who hosts group trips, would use the smartphone app to share important updates, such as itinerary changes, with her clients while in destinations.
Whether her clients actually saw or read those messages is another story.
Group chats in WhatsApp are notorious for flooding up with endless texts and photos – especially when several people are texting all at once, sharing every thought in their head.
“Some mornings I’d wake up and there'd be 87 new messages,” Rowan says. “Someone once uploaded their entire camera roll to a chat. That’s way too much information, so the important stuff gets lost.”
“The bigger the group, the harder it is to communicate.”
There has to be a better way
With group travel, whether it be a destination wedding, land tour or cruise, it’s the job of a travel advisor to ensure that everyone’s flights or, at the very least, hotels, transfers and itineraries, are taken care of.
But ensuring all travellers are on the same page – before, during and after a trip – can be a challenge, even for the most seasoned pros.
Facey and Rowan, owners of Ontario-based TripCo Travel and Love At First Site, a destination wedding business, know this well.
Even with their combined 33 years of travel industry experience, the two continuously found it difficult to properly communicate with their groups.
Whether it was guests at a destination wedding or family members on a multi-generational vacation, they tried all the hip tools, from WhatsApp to Facebook, to find a communications cure.
“We kept saying, ‘There has to be a better system.’ And there wasn't,” Rowan says.
Well, there is now.
Enter Grouped, an app created by travel agents, for travel agents.
Conceptualized by Facey and Rowan in 2021 during the early stages of the COVID-19 shutdown, the platform is a group management tool that aims to make the lives of travel advisors (and event planners) a little easier while enhancing the guest experience.
Designed to streamline processes (and save time), the app, which launched in December, has everyday functions, such as group messaging and a photo gallery where guests can upload and save pictures from their trip.
But it goes further in assisting travel advisors, all thanks to a user-friendly dashboard, where agents, from their computers, can share relevant information with their group, such as flight and hotel details, or itinerary updates.
Guests, who download the app in advance, then receive the content in real time.
“It’s a two-part platform,” Rowan explains. “Agents can communicate with their group through the dashboard, while guests just have the app.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
In the beginning, the ladies (who first worked together at now-defunct Thomas Cook, before they started their own travel agency in 2011) set out to create an app for themselves.
They wanted something that would improve communication at their destination weddings. Often, something would happen, and it was difficult informing guests of any changes.
“It was about making our lives easier with our clients,” says Facey, who is also a part-time travel and tourism professor at Humber College. “And then we realized, no, this friend, and that friend, and these other agents, could all use something like this.”
Neither had any previous experience in app development or coding. (“I can’t even make my printer work,” Rowan admits).
But after weeks of researching the idea, and working with various developers, they eventually found their way.
What began as a simple application for group messaging “became a massive, massive undertaking,” Rowan says.
“Even our developers told us that they’ve never done anything of this scope. We kept adding features that we wanted.”
The trick, Facey says, was about finding an app developer “who was similar to us."
Someone who matched their entrepreneurial spirit.
Putting the agent in control
Grouped has a main chat function, but it also allows users to have private conversations. And only people who receive an invitation to join the app, which includes an access code, can participate.
“It’s controlled by the agent,” Rowan explains, noting that agents can add as many guests to the app as they like.
Rowan, who hosts group culinary tours abroad, uses Grouped to keep her travellers in the loop with each day’s activities.
“Before, we'd be leaving a hotel and someone would ask, What are we doing today?, and I’d have to pull up a PDF on my phone. Now, everyone has the itinerary in their hands,” she says.
Agents can display content in the app as they see fit, whether it’s a day-by-day itinerary, or a listing of events, such as cocktail parties or rehearsal dinners.
“It depends on what kind of group it is,” Rowan says.
Relevant links, reminders and documents, such as dress codes and restaurant menus, can also be inserted into the application.
“We’re trying to answer all the questions our clients might have in advance,” Rowan says. “It makes our lives easier so they don’t bombard us with a million questions later on, like what kind of pants they need to pack.”
Push notifications, activated
What’s more is that Grouped uses push notifications (pop-up alerts), so there’s no reason for anyone in a group to miss key updates, like when the location changes for a transfer pick-up.
Or notifications that are shared before the trip begins.
“You can send out final payment reminders and that pings on people’s phones,” says Facey, saying how the app “pulls all the pieces” of a group booking into one place.
Similar to WhatsApp, Grouped allows guests to mute conversations in a chat, if they feel like tuning out.
However, the travel agent can override this function, and send a push notification, if it’s an important one, so that everyone sees it.
This can be useful for when shit hits the fan.
Rowan uses the example of a travel agent she knows who had a wedding group booked in Jamaica. Something had happened at Montego Bay airport, disrupting everyone’s flights, and the agent was trying to share updates in a crowded WhatsApp chat.
“Her messages kept getting lost,” Rowan said. “She kept having to repeat herself over and over.”
For situations like this, Grouped not only allows agents to alert their guests, but also pin important notices on the app’s homepage for all to see.
What makes Grouped better than traditional email?
“When people travel, they tend to stop checking their emails,” Rowan says. “And when we send emails, we don't even know if clients have received them.”
“But everybody has their phone.”
Free for guests
Grouped is free for guests to download, whereas the dashboard function for travel advisors is sold as a monthly subscription that’s linked to one email address.
There are different packages, based on how many groups agents are working on at a single time.
Four active groups costs $25, eight groups is $40 and 12 groups is $55. All prices are in U.S. dollars.
“Agents can upgrade or downgrade, depending on what their work flow is at the time,” Rowan says.
What users can bank on is that the app’s functions are inspired by real-world situations experienced by travel advisors like Facey and Rowan, who say more features will be added as they collect industry feedback.
“We have a very long wish list,” Rowan says.
Agents helping agents
The goal of Grouped is to help other travel agents, who are often “left behind” in times of need, Facey says.
“Especially after the pandemic,” she says. “It is important agents know that we made this, with them in mind.”
The ladies also hope their app improves service levels in the group travel space, which is sometimes riddled with inefficacies.
During COVID, many suppliers “failed” travel agents, Rowan says, and agents were left on their own to “solve a million different problems.”
“Our clients are unhappy with the current state of travel, things cost more, and the service is the least it's ever been,” she says. “We have to look out for each other.”
Travel advisors, meanwhile, are watching Grouped closely. Last month, Facey and Rowan hosted a webinar to introduce their app and nearly 300 agents logged into the live session.
Travel advisors can sign up for a free 7-day trial of Grouped, and the registration includes training and onboarding guidance.
“We want agents to feel like we're growing with their business,” Facey says. “We want to make their lives easier.”
To learn more about Grouped, click here.