Tour guide in palm of your hand

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - David Car­roll

HOW nice would it be if ev­ery time we stum­bled blurry-eyed off a plane and into a busy air­port ar­rivals hall, we were greeted by a friend ea­ger to guide us to our ho­tel and pass on all man­ner of help­ful tips and ad­vice?

With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of the Dalai Lama, no one has that many mates. But what most of us do have is a mo­bile phone, which is all that’s needed to ac­cess Travel Mes­sen­ger, a help­ful new ser­vice de­signed to make touch­downs more tol­er­a­ble.

De­vel­oped by Melbourne-based Loop9, Travel Mes­sen­ger uses SMS to send use­ful in­for­ma­tion, tips and ad­vice on 200 coun­tries and 3000 cities across the globe.

The in­for­ma­tion is tai­lored to meet the spe­cific needs of in­di­vid­ual trav­ellers be­cause Travel Mes­sen­ger keeps track of where you are and, by in­te­grat­ing with air­line reser­va­tion sys­tems, it knows ex­actly where you are go­ing.

Loop9 man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Mark McCor­mack says the new ser­vice, which is only avail­able through travel agents, starts work­ing be­fore a trav­eller leaves home.

‘‘ The day be­fore the per­son de­parts, they get an SMS from their travel agent re­mind­ing them of their flight de­tails and giv­ing them a weather up­date on their des­ti­na­tion,’’ McCor­mack says.

‘‘ When they touch down there is a wel­come mes­sage and the name of their ho­tel, along with de­tails on how to get there, in English and the lo­cal lan­guage. So some­one sit­ting in a cab in Bei­jing, for ex­am­ple, can just show the phone to the cab driver, who reads the in­struc­tions in Chi­nese.’’

The sys­tem pro­vides news, weather re­ports, se­cu­rity ad­vice and ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions, and it trans­lates any phrase or word within 20 sec­onds.

‘‘ One of the most pop­u­lar terms for trans­la­tion is ‘ Take me to the air­port’,’’ McCor­mack says, ‘‘ but we have been asked to trans­late ‘ Take me to the near­est strip club’ and, yes, we checked . . . it wasn’t Kevin Rudd.’’

Travel Mes­sen­ger will also help man­age the travel bud­get by con­vert­ing lo­cal cur­ren­cies into Aus­tralian dol­lars and it sends in­for­ma­tion on events hap­pen­ing in each city the trav­eller vis­its. Sports trag­ics can also keep in touch with the scores back home.

McCor­mack ad­mits that most of the in­for­ma­tion is al­ready avail­able in one form or an­other via the in­ter­net but he claims it is far less con­ve­nient to find.

‘‘ If I’m sit­ting on a beach in Thai­land, I don’t want to have to log on at a lo­cal in­ter­net cafe to find that a tsunami is head­ing my way.’’

The idea for the ser­vice came to him a few years back when, af­ter talk­ing to friends about the Bali bomb­ings, he saw the po­ten­tial for an SMS ser­vice keep­ing trav­ellers up to speed with gov­ern­ment warn­ings. At the same time he saw the com­mer­cial po­ten­tial of work­ing ex­clu­sively with travel agents, who are con­stantly look­ing for ways to en­hance their re­la­tion­ships with cus­tomers.

Loop9 has struck deals to dis­trib­ute Travel Mes­sen­ger through Har­vey World Travel and Trav­elScene Amer­i­can Ex­press, with other travel agency chains set to fol­low next year. All a trav­eller needs in or­der to ac­cess Travel Mes­sen­ger is a mo­bile phone set up with global roam­ing. The ser­vice costs about $26 for a four-week sub­scrip­tion and the only other cost in­volved is the stan­dard SMS rate charged by mo­bile car­ri­ers.

‘‘ For ex­ec­u­tives it is like trav­el­ling with their own per­sonal as­sis­tant,’’ ac­cord­ing to McCor­mack. ‘‘ For peo­ple on hol­i­day, it’s like trav­el­ling with a per­sonal guide.’’ David Car­roll’s col­umn on new travel tech­nol­ogy ap­pears monthly in Travel&In­dul­gence .

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