Luxury Skylark offers hybrid model: High tech, human touch By Jamie Biesiada / August 07, 2017 Share 1 -- Backed by funding from Ovation Travel Group, the luxury travel company Skylark is aiming to successfully marry the traditional agency model to the OTA model, creating a hybrid that combines high touch with high tech."Technology should not replace humans; it should enhance them," said Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations (No. 20 on Travel Weekly's 2017 Power List) and a shareholder in Skylark. "And I think the greatest thing about this model is that it's enhancing the human experience, or collaboration, with our clients. They're able to get our high touch when they want it and how they want it. They can do it themselves, so it's a DIY model: Do it yourself until you don't want to."Skylark was founded three years ago and launched into a private beta-testing mode a little less than two years ago, CEO Paul Tumpowsky said. The Virtuoso member is a fee-based agency (the $400 annual fee is waived for the first year) that includes both online and offline components. For example, customers can go online to search and browse deals for air and hotels and see live pricing. They can complete a transaction fully online, or they can chat with an experienced luxury agent in a variety of ways, such as in text-based chats or on the phone.Paul Tumpowsky Skylark's agents have the advantage of a technology platform that enables them to see what their client is browsing online, among other things. They can also send customized "collections" of trips to customers. Some more generic collections -- "Easy Caribbean" trips, for example -- can be viewed on Skylark's website, and they can also create dynamic links for clients using pricing information. In addition to 24/7 access to Skylark's online inventory, customers also have the advantage of any hotel and/or airline discounts Skylark negotiated.While Ovation did help found the company and remains an investor (Certares is also an investor), the two operate separately, and Skylark is its own company. Even so, Skylark's relationship with Ovation has been key in some areas, such as airline contracts."We went to the airlines that Ovation has a great relationship with, and they offered us nonpublished airfare around the world," Tumpowsky said, mostly international but some domestic, as well, resulting in "dramatic savings" on top of discounted hotel rates, amenities from hotels in Skylark's collection and Virtuoso hotel amenities. Client savings average $200 to $300 per trip."Our model is, effectively: Is there a way to combine an online travel agency with great pricing on hotel and air, with an off-line travel agency that can give you full service and support and peace of mind when you need it," Tumpowsky said.Ezon said Skylark is unique."There are a lot of products out there in the market, but nothing that quite does what [Skylark] does in that it really integrates with an experienced luxury adviser offline, and it's really only focused on luxury," he said.The membership fee was put in place to incentivize clients to use Skylark whenever they book travel, especially considering the online aspect, which can attract travelers to book with confidence outside of regular business hours knowing an agent will still take control of the booking.It's a common problem agents face, Ezon said. On Monday morning, an agent's client might call with news that they booked a hotel the night before on their own because they didn't want to bother their agent but later asks them to arrange certain components of the trip, such as activities."We'd be like, 'What do you mean? We want you to bother us,'" he said. "Now, we're able to capture that business, but also instead of booking it online and not having support, [clients have] the full support of the adviser. You get the best of both worlds, which I think is really where the industry is going to be. I call it the hybrid model."Jack Ezon Ezon said Skylark's clients do seem to appreciate the ability to work with an agent both online and offline: about 80% of transactions are ending offline, he reported, even though they could have been completed online.The agency's ideal customer "is a 30- to 50-year-old who has not worked with a travel agent before, wants to do things themselves but always wants that service, support and advice," Tumpowsky said. "And they want five-star hotels and five-star luxury experiences at four-star prices."Tumpowsky hopes to move the agency out of its beta-test period in September, maybe earlier. Skylark remains in beta testing to ensure the quality of service isn't affected by growing too quickly."We're very cognizant about the amount of time that it takes to fulfill a trip even when it's booked online," he said. "Sometimes it's literally four minutes of Q&A, and in other cases, we have clients that are really planning very complicated itineraries with us."