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Pana's welcome screen (left) and a sample hotel booking chat. (Images courtesy of Pana)

Pana Brings the Travel Agent Into the 21st Century

This useful app, created by three University of Colorado Boulder alums, aims to make travel easier.

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My mom often reminds me that what’s old always becomes new again. She’s typically referring to her mid-calf leather boots from the 1970s that are now in my closet or some other trend youngsters have claimed as novel while earlier generations sigh and say, “Been there, done that.” But as is typically the case, my mom is right. The latest example of old-becomes-new: Pana, a Denver-based app, which brings the (dare I say) antiquated travel agent into the 21st century.

Pana is essentially a pocket travel agent. No more checking prices on four different websites and reading reviews on three others. Pana uses messaging technology (aka, texting) to connect you with experts who can book your flight and hotel, as well as provide restaurant and things-to-do recommendations for wherever you’re headed. You simply tell them where you’re going and when, and their team will, fairly quickly, send you back up to three recommendations showing the price, location, a brief description, and some photos. Pick the one you like (or ask for other ideas if none are piquing your interest) and click book—and you’re done. (Your credit card information is added to your account when you first register on the app.) Even better: Pana will check you in for your flights (no more boarding group C on Southwest!) and alert you if there are any delays or other issues (like, say, a late April snowstorm in Colorado that halts all travel). Your team will also proactively reach out if there’s a high likelihood of a delay or cancellation to see if you want to rebook your flight—and then handle the logistics.

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The app, which officially launched last month after about a year of beta testing, was started by three University of Colorado Boulder grads: Devon Tivona (he sold his last travel technology startup to MapQuest in 2013), Lianne Haug (a former software engineer at Twitter), and Sam Felsenthal.

“I started talking to frequent travelers (those who fly more than four times a year), and they’d show me 16 different sites in their travel box on their phone,” Tivona says. “It was ridiculous.” He and Haug began brainstorming what the 21st-century travel agent would look like, someone who could not only book travel but also help deal with any problems. With $1.35 million in funding to date, it seems they are on to something with Pana.

Pana’s target client is the frequent business traveler, including those who are in charge of booking travel for, say, a boss or small group; their clients are mostly affluent urbanites, 30 to 45 years old. Users are welcomed to Pana with a short introductory call (you schedule it in advance) to help learn your preferences: Aisle seat or window? Early morning flights are red-eyes? Is price most important or location when it comes to hotel? Any brands you’re particularly loyal to? The more you travel, the more Pana’s algorithm “gets” you and the more spot-on the recommendations will likely be. Though those suggestions are based on an algorithm, there is also an actual person texting you back and reviewing them.

“The reason we keep a human in the loop is 90 percent of the time, you’ll choose one of the top three,” says Tivona. “But maybe, because [our staff] know you, it’ll actually be the fifth option [that they send you].” (A Panabot is currently being tested to automate some communication to speed up the process.) Building a sense of trust is Pana’s chief concern. “You’re making expensive purchases with us,” Tivona says.

Pana has about 2,000 beta users, and Tivona says that base is growing quickly. “The challenge that we have is getting someone to book a trip with Pana,” he says. “Once they take a trip, they get it.”

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I did. And I do get it. A Pana team booked my hostel in Cusco and Lima, Peru, for a recent trip. Though I don’t travel often for work, I can easily see the benefits for those who do. My boyfriend and I spent hours figuring out the most cost-effective flights for our South American adventure, time that could have been spent doing, well, anything else. We also had to check in for four different flights, often from venues with spotty wifi, and we experienced two major flight delays. Talk about a lot of extra stress and wasted time. As Pana continues to build its expertise, as Tivona hopes, I’ll be more apt to use it for trip planning.

Pana’s next step is expanding to corporate travel: They sell access to Pana to the company rather than the individual. Fifteen businesses are already using the beta version. Future plans including adding itinerary and multiple chat conversation functions so users can more easily track separate trips. Currently, you get all booking confirmations to your email, so you need to leave the app to grab that information.

Tivona sums up Pana’s viability in this way: “Why take the time to do it yourself if we can provide [this service]? Time is way too valuable.” Now that’s a fact that’ll never go out of style.

Try It: Pana costs $19/month or $199/year after a one-month-free trial; it’s available for free on iOS

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