Fancy Meeting You Here

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Until recently, serendipity has determined many of the personal connections we make in our lives, especially on the road. But with the evolution of social media, which is now integrating some of the techniques employed by online dating platforms, flying on business has been transformed. There are now sites that use algorithms to match you with a seating partner on a plane, find someone to have dinner with in a foreign city or share a taxi with to your hotel from the airport. Using the internet to engage with like-minded people is not especially new, with frequent travellers sharing tips on forums such as flyertalk.com, or our parent magazine’s businesstraveller.com/discussion.

Reassured by the fact they have been communicating for some time before meeting in person, a small percentage of users are even arranging meet-ups in bars or trips abroad.  These ‘jollies;’, or ‘mileage runs’, which are often attended by elite-status CEOs, bankers, lawyers and the like, may take the form of a party in Las Vegas, a flight to Muscat or a champagne breakfast in the business lounge, followed by lunch in Gibraltar. For a lot of travellers, though, the reality is not nearly as glamorous, and the thought of arranging a meet-up with a stranger can be a little creepy.

Still, Ben Hammersley, internet technologist and editor-at-large of Wired magazine, thinks it is time we stopped trying to separate ourselves from our virtual lives and, instead, embrace the opportunities that the web can give us. “We have to get over the idea that relationships are somehow superior when you can lean over the table and poke that person in the eye,” he says. “It doesn’t matter that they are not physical. Even the majority of ‘real-life’ relationships are mediated through technology.”

Increasingly, the same can be said of the task of finding a partner (or a one-night stand). No doubt inspired by the success of dating sites such as eharmony.co.uk and match.com – and mobile apps such as Tindr, Blendr or Singles Around Me, which use geolocation software to show you the people in your area available for a liaison – a new ‘travel dating; site, misstravel.com, launched in April 2012.  It aims to match affluent jetsetting men with poor but gorgeous women who want a taste of the high life. “Are you attractive but don’t have the money to travel?” its promotional video asks. “What if you could travel around the world, stay in five-star resorts, dine at top-rated restaurants and do the fun things that travellers do, all for free? On misstravel.com there are thousands of frequent travellers who hate to travel alone –these generous travellers are doctors, lawyers, bankers, athletes, executives, entrepreneurs and millionaires who are looking to travel with an attractive person like you.”

While the concept certainly won’t sit well with the wives and girlfriends of frequent travellers, there is undoubtedly a market for it – more than 20,000 people signed up within the first two weeks. But sex and dating aside, there is also a developing trend for sites and apps that enable networking among travelling professionals. After creating a profile on website biziker.com, for example, business people can use it to meet face-to-face. “When you have a travel plan, log the dates in your Biziker calendar. As soon as there are at least two people travelling to the same place at the same time, we will organise an event and email you an invitation,” it says.

Created by women, for women and men, the Global Dinner Network (global-dinner-network.com) offers a similar service, though does seem to stray into the world of dating. It “connects women and men worldwide for the experience of ‘dinner with a friend’ anytime, anywhere. Use it for whatever ‘dinner with a friend’ means to you: good food, interesting conversation, chatting about personal or career-related issues – or simply having fun.”

Hammersley is cynical about whether such sites live up to their own hype: “Those sorts of services never match the clip art, the stock photography – the dashing executives who get off the plane in New York and go for a platonic dinner in a fancy restaurant in a Steven Soderbergh film sort of way – when actually it will be travelling salespeople pairing off in Dallas Fort Worth.”

An alternative is the women-only site maiden-voyage.com, which launched in 2008. It restricts its membership and verifies the identity of everyone who signs up with a phone call. This added sense of security means that women such as Ana Silva O’Reilly, international marketer and founder of travel blog mrsoaroundtheworld.com, feel safe arranging dinner with strangers they have met through the website. “I know how uncomfortable it can be alone on a business trip so it can be nice to meet someone in your hotel bar rather than staying in your room,” O’Reilly says. “I don’t have any qualms about meeting women, but if a guy got in touch and asked me out I’d say absolutely not.” 

Hammersley also has reservations about the use of unisex sites: “I don’t think a dating site-style service, where you fill out a profile about yourself, will work very well because anybody can fake a profile,” he says. “Even if you can verify that person by doing a Google search, there are the additional insecurities of being in a foreign place among strangers.  I am a six-foot-six ex-boxer and war correspondent – I don’t have any problem with personal physical safety – but I can’t imagine that a five-foot-two girl is going to meet strangers in a new city because they have been pinged on some website.”

One problem for sites targeting female travellers is achieving critical mass. Maiden Voyage had only 780 members in 2012, four years after starting up, and even fewer members are active on the site – the homepage shows that for any given week, there are often no more than two or three women travelling, let alone in the same cities as each other. Chief executive Carolyn Pearson hoped to  improve the effectiveness of the service by offering corporate membership to companies and universities. 

What about meeting people in the air? Until recently, who you are sat next to on a plane has been a lottery – if you are lucky, it will be a fellow businessperson who quietly taps away on their laptop or goes to sleep – but everyone has experienced being stuck next to someone they’d rather not. Still, some tech companies believe flying can actually be a good opportunity for meeting new people and are working on ways to enable you to choose who you sit next to.

Malaysia Airlines was one of the first airlines to experiment with the idea, launching its MH Buddy app in March 2011. You won’t be able to use it to meet strangers, but it will show if any of your friends are on the same plane or in the city. You can also book flights and check in through Facebook, view the aircraft map and select your seat, and share your itinerary with your contacts.

Still, given that the average Facebook user has 245 friends and there are infinite combinations of flights, dates and destinations they could be travelling to, if they are travelling at all, this is of limited use unless all your friends are frequent flyers as well. Plus, with status updates, you will probably know where they are going anyway.

KLM’s free Meet and Seat service, introduced in February 2012, is somewhat more evolved. Every time you fly with the airline, you can go to the ‘manage my booking’ section of klm.com and share your Facebook or Linkedin profile with your fellow Meet and Seat passengers (no one else will see it). Available from 90 days to 48 hours before departure on all KLM flights, participants can choose to sit next to anyone they like the look of thanks to a seat map that indicates where they are sitting, with a profile picture if they have agreed to share it.

Measures are taken to protect participants up to a point. You can manually select the information you share and if you change your mind before the flight, you can remove your details and change to a different seat if one is available. The airline says it will not give your information to third parties and that 48 hours after departure, your details will be deleted. Jan van Helden, KLM’s product strategy manager, says: “About 1,100 people have signed up so far. We hope that if you can choose your seat mate you might have a nicer experience and choose KLM again.”

Nick Martin unveiled his free app, Planely (planely.com), in December 2010. Unlike Meet and Seat, it uses an algorithm to suggest like-minded travellers on the same journey as you, again, based on the information you have shared on Facebook and Linkedin. Martin explains: “Put your dates in, the departure and arrival airports, and we will give you a list of planes flying that route. You then make your selection and get a report showing if you have any matches either on the same plane or at the airport at the same time as you.

“Most people have a photo uploaded and then you decide whether you want to meet up. There is a box you can click to start typing a message, which is sent to that person with your email address so the conversation can continue outside the system. Then you decide if and when to meet, and whether to select seats next to each other.”

Your flight data can automatically be added via travel itinerary app Tripit, or you can upload it yourself, but Martin is keen to emphasise this is not published. “You can’t go in and search a particular flight or date range and route to see who is going to be on those planes,” he says. “The only way you can see someone’s personal data is if you put the same flight details in as them and you are already committed and going. For Linkedin, we will pull in a high-level summary of your profile information. For Facebook, it pulls in the personal side of your profile – what films, TV shows and music you like.”

Sergio Mello, co-founder and chief executive of business-to-business platform satisfly.com, believes Planely’s model relies too much on the initiative and uptake of the consumer. Instead, Satisfly is partnering with airlines to provide a system whereby you create an account that allows the carrier to automatically seat you next to the person you best match based on your Facebook or Linkedin information. You can also specify who your ideal neighbour would be – ‘Belong to your generation’, ‘Work in your industry’, and so on.

“We can see the brands you like, the companies you have worked for, the check-ins you have made, the people you have in common,” Mello says. “We put the digital profile you have to good use. It is a tool to improve your real life experience rather than just another way of sharing your digital life. We don’t want passengers to share their life through our platform. It’s behind the scenes – your details are not published, we just match your data with other people.”

About half an hour before your flight, you will receive a message to your phone telling you who your seat neighbour will be and a bit about them. Until the seat-change option closes, you can also adjust your ‘flight mood’ from ‘business talk’ or ‘easy chat’ (sociable) to ‘work’ or ‘relax’ (unsociable), at which point your seating assignment will be altered accordingly. So far, Travel Start, Iberia and Air Baltic have signed on to offer Satisfly’s ‘intelligent seating’. Like some of the other sites, it will also depend on critical mass to be successful – lots of other people on your flight will need to be signed up for you to be matched.

What does Hammersley think of intelligent seating? “Especially on a long-haul flight, not having to talk to anybody is something I look forward to,” he says. “It would probably be used by people trying to sell me something, and the worst thing would be that I would not be allowed to get off and I would not be allowed to hit them.”

With Satisfly anticipating that 20-30% of airline passengers will use its service – 80% of these being business travellers – making useful connections (or even joining the mile-high club) may be far more feasible.

Planely’s Martin says: “If you are the type of person who enjoys meeting new people then I encourage you to see a plane journey as something more than just getting you from A to B – you should see it as an opportunity.”

For the rest of us, it will be headphones on and meals for one.