In travel, getting up close and personal with your customers is the key to success. Data and personalisation technologies are enabling just that, according to speakers at a major Enterprise Ireland international travel technology summit in Cork.

For hoteliers, the challenge is finding ways to work with online travel agents (OTAs), while at the same time encouraging guests to book direct.

It’s a fraught topic for many hoteliers but not so much a question of ‘them or us’, as ‘them and us’, suggested David Byrne, CEO of the Great National Group.

The Irish company is one of Europe’s fastest growing hotel services providers and the developer of room revenue management software Revanista.

The rise of OTAs is inexorable. Currently dominated by the likes of Booking.com and Expedia, in the coming years we are likely to see Facebook Hotels, Apple Hotels, Instagram Hotels and Ali Baba Hotels too. “Google already has hotels,” he said.

Using data to get close to travel customers

With Booking.com already spending billions of euros a year on Google, it makes sense not to try and compete on search, he said.

Instead, an increasing number of hoteliers will rely on data, which can help grow revenues by fuelling the personalised communications that help prompt and nudge customers before during and after a visit.

Data-based technologies can also provide the dynamic pricing models that optimise room rates depending on such factors as demand and occupancy rates at other hotels in the same location, on a particular date, he said.

Algorithms can then calculate a price that comes in at a discount for those booking direct.

For Byrne, OTAs should be used as a shopping window to the hotelier’s product. “We should use them to our advantage. Ultimately once you’ve a trustworthy site, a trustworthy engine and a trustworthy brand, people will book with you if it’s cheaper.”

Changes in the EU’s regulatory environment make it harder for OTAs to put pressure on hoteliers not to provide cheaper prices to those booking directly.

OTAs provide an important service to the sector, he pointed out, including increasingly in the promotion of local attractions.

“On the flip side, what we are finding in our hotels is that, in the first quarter of this year, 40% of all online travel agent bookings that came through our portfolio cancelled,” he said. Their free cancellation policies encourage behaviour where people book one or a few hotels and then try to sort flights.

“Alternatively what we are seeing in some cases is customers actually getting price data from the OTA sites and then actually ringing hotels to see if they can get a better rate if book direct.”

Irish personalisation platform Boxever, which works with airlines such as the UAE’s Emirates and Peru’s Viva Air, as well as local carriers Aer Lingus and Ryanair, uses data and artificial intelligence to improve customer experience.

While data analytics is not new, the move to harness it is increasingly evident, said Ru Barry, Boxever’s director of business solutions.

Whether it is put to use in operations, process automation or personalisation, the upshot is that it helps people understand their business better. “Whatever you are doing, you are using data to make better business decisions,” he said.

What does personalisation mean in travel?

What exactly personalisation is has never been clearly defined. For some, it means targeted outbound communications, while for others it means offers and recommendations. In some cases it might be the way in which an airline can help you find your lost luggage. In all cases however “it’s about how to improve the experience, make it better,” he said.

Ditto automation. Here too the industry is seeing not so much advances in automation technology as increased incidences of it being put to work, helping businesses with the processes they do today.

What is coming down the baggage carousel may be even more interesting however, including increased use of visual recognition technologies, which will see passengers recognised and assessed for risk as they move through the airport, without needing to show passports, he said.

But just as Netflix does for content and Amazon for retail, there is an increase realisation generally that one way to make more money “is to treat people the way they want to be treated,” he said.

It’s more possible to do too. Where 10 years ago a personalisation project would have taken two years to develop, and significant capital expenditure, cloud computing has done away with those barriers, he said.

It’s an area travel guide company Lonely Planet is looking at too. Where previously it had a universal content model, which primarily saw digital as a way to sell books, it now has a separate digital strategy in place.

Said Noirin Hegarty, Lonely Planet’s VP digital content: “For us it’s about personalisation and seamless journeys, they’re the two most important things for us. While we are really good at inspiring people, we haven’t been so good at bringing them down the funnel to transaction, so that’s going to be part of our strategy going forward.”

Leveraging social media will become increasingly important. “We viewed it as a bit of an add-on, when actually it’s key to content.”

It has been experimenting with Alexa and video, and has trialled successfully with Snapchat, as a way to reach under 25s. “We don’t want to be a legacy brand that everybody loves but no longer makes money,” she said.

Leveraging consumer travel trends

The company is keenly alert to the consumer travel trends. “Right now, it’s solo female travel, multigenerational travel, especially from the US to Ireland, but overall it’s sustainability and environmental concerns, particularly from millennials. Over-tourism is a debating point and how the industry responds to that is important. Unplugging, detoxing, dark skies – getting away from the every day, the total escape, is also what we’re seeing.”

Regulatory changes have put increased pressure on the need for greater data transparency, another trend likely to inform consumer behaviour in travel, delegates heard. People will want to know why they got one recommendation rather than another, suggested Ru Barry.

In all sectors, proper governance around AI decisions will be required, including software products with the kind of user-friendly interfaces that allow such trails to be identified. “Innovation is helping,” he said.

In fact, it has become central to even the most traditional of business sectors – hospitality. Great National Group has conversion specialists, an SEO team, data scientists, “and we’re a hotel company”, said Byrne.

For Lonely Planet, the advent of distribution platforms such as Apple News has been “a game changer”, said Hegarty.

“A US $50 piece of content you can create in London goes out on Apple News in US and you can have 750k or 1m views on that – that has been phenomenal. Who knew two years ago we’d need a growth director, now you can hardly afford one because they can name their price.”

It uses data science and analytics, as well as tools such as that developed by Irish company NewsWhip. “Everything is changing. It used to be you could create a piece of content, produce a good headline, and put in your keywords. Now it’s much more about how you distribute, how you engage with the user, and what platform that is on,” she said.

Data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning are reshaping the travel industry, both operationally and in terms of customer experience, according to speakers at The Future of Travel, an international travel technology summit organised by Enterprise Ireland.

What these technologies offer travel companies is an opportunity to create customer engagement with “real time, in the moment relevance”, delegates heard.

In the experience economy, customers expect no less, said panellist Oisin Hurley, chief technology officer at Swrve.

AI improving customer experience

The Irish company uses AI and machine learning to hone engaging customer interactions for its customers’ customers.

Hurley was participating in a high-level panel discussion exploring the ways in which ‘deep tech’ is shaping customer experiences and expectations. It included moderator Mark Lenehan, head of air and rail propositions at Travelport Digital, John Burnes, founder of Ai Collaborator and Paul Buckley, head of social media at Aer Lingus.

At Aer Lingus, the former Irish national carrier now transforming itself into to a travel hub for the North American and European markets, social media is leveraged not just for engaging with customers but for gleaning insights, emerging trends and threat identification, said Paul Buckley.

For start-ups in this space, the key to winning enterprise customers is to move past the technology and instead articulate the solution, said Byrnes. Ai Collaborator, his business, provides a complex matchmaking service between AI innovators and industries, including travel, with pain points in need of solving. “If it doesn’t resonate with the buyer, they won’t buy,” he said.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about the effect on the customer and on the business, agreed Buckley, cautioning that any new solution must work alongside the existing technologies deployed in an enterprise.

Integration enables holistic view of travel customer

Aer Lingus already licensed a tool that integrated all its social channels into one place and provided good analytics, before it more began working with Irish personalisation platform Boxever, which uses data and AI to improve customer interactions.

The integration of the two tools gives Aer Lingus’s customer service agents a much more “holistic” view of the customer they are speaking to, when responding to questions, he said.

“Having those two platforms working together creates a synergy, something that we never envisaged when we went out and got the two services in the first instance, and that inherently makes both of those two service providers more sticky,” said Buckley.

Marketing and customer engagement company Swrve helps leading brands scale their communications to millions of customers in real time. It does this by capturing, processing and segmenting billions of simultaneous data streams across apps, devices, channels, clouds and enterprise systems, to deliver engagements with greater customer relevance.

Start-ups must find use cases asap

For start-ups looking to follow in its success and sell into the travel sector, the key is to find a use case as early as possible, agreed Oisin Hurley, its CTO. “Get in the door and solve one problem into a cocked hat, delivering it completely,” he said, acknowledging that, at enterprise level, that is easier said than done.

It helps to pick a champion within the organisation “and make it your job to get that champion promoted,” he said.

Once in, further use cases will arise. Your role then is to “engineer them as quickly as you possibly can, to develop the level of stickiness you want.”

Beware silos. “Silos are always the enemy. If you are putting up another order of business in front of people who are already using one set of tools, and yours looks different, is different, requires a different log in or isn’t integrated with the other system, then it’s kind of dying on the vine,” said Hurley. “So be thoughtful and try to find out where your solution is going to fit.”

Lead with problem solving

When selling, don’t lead with the technology – no one cares how cutting edge it is. Lead with the problem you are solving, he said.

For example, Aer Lingus wasn’t looking for a new AI technology, it simply needed to identify possible issues early and AI technology provided the solution.

“Anything that happens, happens early on Twitter,” said Paul Buckley. If something happens at an airport where it doesn’t have direct staff but relies on ground handling agents that work for a number of airlines, Twitter can be invaluable in letting them know about incidents that might impact on its business.

It uses social listening tool SAM, which sends early stage alerts to Aer Lingus staff members. “I’ve no idea what SAM does or how they do it, but they do it well to make sure we’re aware of certain situations,” he said.

As a member of a business angel network, John Byrnes pointed to a travel solution he has backed that has installed tablet devices in 10,000 hotel rooms in North America. These create a “command and control” centre for guests, through which they can order room service, notify housekeeping or control room temperature.

Machine learning suggests optimal time to buy

Machine learning recognition technology sitting underneath the application identifies if the guest is in town for business, in which case it might suggest good lunch spots, or for leisure, when it will suggest fun activities, “so guests can use the concierge service in a very personalised way,” he said.

Predicting the optimal timing for such suggestions is also increasingly possible, delegates heard, with statistical probability used to identify times when consumers are most likely to be receptive to information, or most likely predisposed to buying something.

Machine learning and AI are increasingly adept at identifying consumers’ propensity to buy just as they “start to come down that curve,” said Oisin Hurley. This provides businesses with the optimum time to promote a product or service in a way that allows them to “catch people casually”, he said. “Put something in front of them and they may purchase.”

The constraints facing the area include data privacy regulations, particularly as you move across geographies, delegates heard, as well as an inability to harmonise with existing customer technologies.

Loosening out corporate purse strings is always an uphill struggle too.

“It’s about prioritisation. Something really needs to be on the agenda in order to get the resources required,” said Paul Buckley.

Aer Lingus uses extensive guest surveys to identify pain points for customers. It feeds responses in to generate a ‘heat map’ that helps determines the ease of implementation and the benefit of any solution.

The greater the ‘heat’, the greater the chance a solution will secure investment.

Chat bots is one area of AI he predicts will grow quickly. “I’m a firm believer that it can make a big difference in customer experience and I see that developing rapidly over the rest of this year and next,” said Buckley, admitting there is a conflict between what the customer values and the airline’s ability to be efficient and reduce costs.

“To a certain extent there is a trade off between the human approach and the efficient and streamlined service a chat bot can offer, but there is a sweet spot in the middle,” he said.

The creation of a seamless handover between the two is something the airline is working on right now.

Ranked by Forbes as one of the most powerful examples of AI in use today, Boxever’s platform is revolutionising the art of customer engagement.

In the complex and competitive world of airlines, customer experience is king. A key element of that experience is personalised, timely, relevant customer interaction. Dublin company Boxever’s leading edge machine learning platform, creates hyper-personalised notifications based on time, location and the customer’s past behaviour, enabling airlines to deliver a game-changing customer experience, and to improve customer acquisition and conversion rates.

Set up in 2011, Boxever coupled its founders’ inside knowledge of the airline industry with their passion for state-of-the-art data analytics and cloud-based technology.

“We took advantage of the fact that other, bigger operators in our space were very traditional, using on-premise, old school technology, and we were quickly able to take them on and win based on our advanced technology,” says Boxever CEO, Dave O’Flanagan.

Boxever delivers for airlines

Boxever’s platform builds customer profiles using data gathered by the airline and then uses AI to automate decisions about how to personalise interactions across all channels – SMS, web, email, social media, contact centreat key points on the customer’s journey.

“By connecting all of our client’s data and channels in one place we’re helping airlines to better understand who their customers are and become smarter every time they interact with them; for example, offering the right product, cross-selling a product, or providing the right service if there’s a problem,” says O Flanagan.

Boxever’s platform is used by over 20 airlines across the world including Emirates, Ryanair, Viva Air Group, Aer Lingus, Cebu Pacific and Jetstar. Low-cost carrier Jetstar selected Boxever to help it enhance customer experience and increase revenues, and in just eight months had realised millions of euros in additional income. The impressive results were achieved through the deployment of several applications including customised urgency messaging, abandoned shopping cart recovery emails, and personalised pre-return emails to capitalise on ancillary opportunities such as taxis and hotels.

“Boxever is our centralised brain for personalisation, decisioning and orchestration for our customer touchpoints, from marketing, digital and within our call centre,” says Cathryn Arnold, Head of Digital at Jetstar Group.

Similar success stories are evident among all of Boxever’s customers but the company is not resting on its laurels. A radical overhaul of Engage last year produced a decisioning engine with even more power, scale, speed and usability and led to the company being named in Gartner’s first ever Personalisation Engine Magic Quadrant.

Boxever delivers for other industries

Although it began as an airline specialist, the company has decided to spread its wings.

“About 18 months ago, we decided that the learning we’d accrued in airlines was transferable to other sectors,” says O Flanagan. “In airlines, the customer experience is a real differentiator. But increasingly, the same applies to industries such as insurance, banking, utilities and financial services where it is becoming easier and less costly to switch from one provider to another. So we saw a huge opportunity.

“We feel we have a strong proposition to help organisations in those industries be smarter in how they communicate with their customers. We can help them drive revenue by putting the right thing in front of the customer and making sure that when there’s a service issue or problem, they respond in a timely manner with the right content and message for the customer.”

The potential market for Boxever’s technology now runs to tens of thousands of organisations across these industries. Initially targeting the UK and Ireland, the company is planning to set up an office in the US and is focused on augmenting its airline success with success across other sectors.

Beyond technology

With a team of world-class specialists available round the clock, Boxever goes beyond providing world-class technology to also providing ongoing world-class support.

“We have a really powerful platform that can respond to customers’ needs in milliseconds but to make full use of that platform you’re going to need some expertise from us or our partners to make sure your business is doing the right stuff and leveraging the capability of the system,” says O’Flanagan.

“Terms like ‘digital transformation’ and ‘personalisation’ are nebulous and organisations can be a bit overwhelmed and feel under pressure to ‘do AI’ without really knowing where to start. We really work to understand the customer and their needs, and I think organisations greatly appreciate that our knowledge and experience, as well as our technology, can help them get started or become more effective in this space.

“We don’t hand over technology and walk away. Quite the opposite: we’re long-term partners to our customers.”

As Netflix and others have realised, the most accurate way of predicting how people will behave in the future is by looking at the way they behaved in the past.

In the case of the streaming giant, AI-powered segmentation of content and users has produced a hugely effective recommendation system that keeps viewers hooked. You liked ‘Black Mirror’? You’ll probably like ‘Stranger Things’ too. While the algorithm may be complex, the end-result is simple, creating a user experience that is comfortable and familiar, where decision-making is easy.

For brands in the travel sector, this is an eye-opening insight. Airlines, hospitality brands, and DMOs (destination marketing organizations) are all competing in a sector that is high on options, low on commitment. Even the holy grail of a booking is often just a once-off as the customer continues on their journey.

Maintaining travel relationships

Dublin-based travel tech specialists LikeWhere has found a way not only to inspire bookings, but to add value and maintain a relationship throughout the entire life cycle of the travel experience.

They do this by connecting a few basic dots, Netflix-style, that allows customers to discover and plot their own personal best version of a particular destination. You liked Shoreditch in London? You’ll probably like Williamsburg in New York too – here’s why.

“Most brands just focus on the core booking,” says founder and CEO of LikeWhere, Simon Dempsey. “They work their audience until they’ve got that booking, whether it’s flights or a hotel room, and then a lot of them stop there. Meanwhile, the customer moves on, straight into the arms of powerful third parties who are only too happy to take over the relationship.

“We help brands to engage for longer and we facilitate a more personal relationship that extends beyond the booking, right up to the point where the customer gets to the destination,” he says. “Companies that work with us can utilize their audience for longer and grab a piece of the pie that Google are keen to have. Ultimately, it’s a more holistic offering over the whole cycle.”

The secret to all this is a simple but clever fusion of mobile technology and human storytelling. LikeWhere integrates story-based content within a brand’s own digital domain, allowing them to engage with customers beyond the ‘lobby’ and into the destination where they’re spending their money.

Back-end recommendations system

“The product is a back-end recommendations system that I describe as bringing together the best of tech and the best of human communities,” says Simon Dempsey. “The technology does all the analysis of cities, breaks them down into micro areas, and defines how a district or neighbourhood feels in human sensory terms or meta-data.

“In tandem with the data, we also have a publishing stack with a network of about 600 content creators,” he says. “We give them the location data and ask them to turn it into something meaningful, something attractive, based on the 40 or 50 different areas that we think make up the city. We then curate the words and the images and plug it all into the brand’s own digital domain.

“Take [global hospitality giant] Hilton as an example of one of our clients,” says Dempsey. “While they are working on a direct booking, we can look and say ‘OK we know who this person is, we know their home city, we know the destination’ so we just plug in our feature which makes the most relevant recommendations and provides them with short-form content stories that aligns with those interests.

LikeWhere CEO Simon Dempsey with judges from the previous #TalkTravelTech pitch event with Hilton

LikeWhere CEO Simon Dempsey with judges from the previous #TalkTravelTech pitch event with Hilton

Generating brand revenue

“Then peppered throughout the entire content experience are bookable components such as tourism experiences – again aligned with the interests of the person – and content sponsorships from other third parties who aren’t in conflict with the primary brand,” he says. “And all of these offers generate revenue for the brand in the destination.”

The LikeWhere feature is completely turnkey and baked into the brand’s own digital infrastructure. In addition to Hilton, the technology has been embraced by the likes of Airbus, Aer Lingus and Alaska Airlines.

“We mainly partner with three types of clients: hospitality brands, airlines and DMOs,” says Simon Dempsey. “We work really well with DMOs because they’re marketing people like ourselves, they have a clear understanding of the power of neighbourhoods and the way that neighbourhoods can help somebody see a clear reflection of their travel interests.

“We did an event in Orlando earlier this year that was a real eye-opener for us,” he says. “We spoke to more than 300 DMOs from the US alone, the likes of Visit Atlanta and Discover Miami, and they all instinctively got what the product is about, so the potential there is huge. That’s going to be a big focus for us this year.

“In addition to the US market, we are also focusing on building the momentum we have in the UK, France and elsewhere in Europe,” he adds.

LikeWhere: an IATA innovation finalist

Even though the company is less than five years old, LikeWhere already has a stellar track record. The firm was identified by Enterprise Ireland (the national trade and innovation agency) as a high-potential start-up, winning a number of local enterprise awards before finishing third at the 2015 IATA Passenger Innovation Awards.

LikeWhere then took part in an international collaboration between Hilton and [promotional agency] London & Partners to find the best new technology serving the hospitality sector; the Irish company made the final pitch and won the coveted Hilton Account.

Growth has been “steady”, according to CEO Dempsey – whose background is in multimedia design and content – with innovation a constant factor as the team refines the product.

Innovation is all we are, it’s our life blood,” he says. “As we get bigger, we want to retain that heart of improvement to keep servicing customers. We’re always looking at doing the tiny things slightly better or slightly faster and that’s the culture we want to protect as we go out into the world.

“Competitor-wise, our advantage is probably that we’re strong on both tech and content,” says Dempsey. “Also, there’s nothing else out there that has really sought to define specific areas or neighbourhoods within cities. We’ve found a niche in telling micro-stories within cities.”

The challenges and opportunities facing loyalty in the hospitality sector, and how technology can help hotels, was explored at a major travel industry conference in Cork in Ireland recently.

Part of the problem for many hotels is that they run on legacy IT systems, Dave Canty told The Future of Travel, a travel tech summit.

Canty is VP global loyalty programme at IHG, the hotels group that includes the InterContinental, Regent, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn brands, among many more.

The event was organised by Enterprise Ireland, the trade and innovation agency, as a result of the country’s status as a travel technology hub, home to businesses such as Arvoia, iHotelligence and OpenJaw.

Hotels are working hard on loyalty

Hotels are working hard to get guests to book direct, rather than through online travel agents (OTAs), but poor use of technology is impeding this, delegates heard.

“Hotel companies have integrated so many different functions that aren’t core to their business, to the point that it becomes a really clunky (user) experience,” said Canty.

Mobile apps have the power to bring loyalty to life in the customer’s hand, he said, a fact in evidence in his own focus group work.

“When we speak to the different demographics, especially the younger ones, and ask them how many loyalty programmes they are a member of, the first thing they do is look and see how many apps they have. That is how they identify them, so anything we can do to enable the experience through the app and mobile technology is going to be key.”

There is a caveat. “At the same time, we can’t allow this to get in the way of that human interaction because, at the end of the day, it’s hospitality. What is needed is to get to a happy medium.”

Challenges for hotel loyalty programmes

Hotel loyalty programmes must contend with the ‘disconnect’, in many cases, between hotel companies and the owners of the properties, who are often franchisees. The guest relationship is distanced when a third-party hotel management company runs day-to-day operations.

When an airline customer has a bad experience with an airline, for example, its staff can often turn that around with an upgrade, air miles or simply good service, all of which they can ensure by training or empowering staff.

“The problem in the hotel industry now that has moved to an asset light model, is that the hotel chain is really just a marketing partner of physical property, and the loyalty programme is just a component of that. That means that, if anything goes wrong, you are a lot more limited in your ability to deal with things,” said David Feldman, director, Loyalty Intelligence, Radisson Hotels.

That matters in this sector more than most. “We are, after all, in hospitality. We want things to go well. Where there are friction points in place in the experience, that makes it more challenging to deliver that ideal seamless experience you want to deliver to the guest, and that’s where the challenges are,” said Feldman.

The fact that large-scale loyalty programmes must be “massaged” to resonate with multiple customers segments is just one of the constraints under which they operate.

“What we need is to find technology that enables us to deliver a great experience. The problem is that these major hotel companies have old technology at their core and are nervous about touching anything,” said Canty.

Loyalty programme managers must also compete for resources internally. “Having the conversation with my stakeholders across the organisation becomes a massive challenge because the brand leaders have their own priorities and agendas over and above what I’m trying to deliver from a loyalty perspective,” he said.

How to sell into the sector

Those trying to sell into the sector from outside must first win over the “guardians of technology”, building a relationship with them over time “and almost selling your vision piece by piece,” he advised.

To do this they “need to establish a relationship with some contact, whether it be the loyalty leader or the tech leader,” and then work together to solve a problem or enable great customer service, he said.

In both the process and the extended lead time it takes, selling into hospitality is very similar to selling into airlines, noted Sinead Finn, CEO of affinnity, which does deals with airlines on behalf of technology companies.

Any change that requires an operational delivery at hotel level, or adds an extra dollar to the hotel owner’s costs, makes the sales process even harder, said Canty.

In major hotel chains, next year’s budget is often agreed as early June the previous year, pushing out sales lead times even further.

Not all brands need a loyalty programme, Apple being a prime example. It already has passionate loyalists, noted Feldman, who said the single greatest asset, the most important currency, of any loyalty programme, “is its ability to make changes in consumer behaviour”.

Data is simply a deliverable. “You don’t get data if people don’t sign up and you don’t get people to sign up without a value proposition that encourages people to come back and stay with you, or fly with you, a second time. In an airline or at a hotel, everything is about the second stay or the second flight,” said Feldman.

It is not about rewarding people for behaviour they would have given you anyway.

The much-watched partnership deal between Marriott, which has 7,000 properties worldwide, and OTA Expedia makes sense, suggested David Canty. “For the longest time, we looked at the OTAs as the enemy, when in fact they’re not. There is room for all of us,” he said.

Though many hotel companies are in “wait and see mode, as to what’s actually going to be coming under the deal, I do think we are going to see more and more companies working closer with OTAs,” he predicted.

Fears that millennials will eschew loyalty programmes were dismissed on the basis that, as Feldman put it, “people want value”, regardless of demographic.

They also want personalised, human interaction. Priorities may differ depending on whether they are business or leisure travellers but in all cases it’s important that hoteliers look after guests who redeem loyalty points.

Industry lore has it that such guests are typically put by the elevator, or overlooking the car park. That’s a poor way to reward the loyalty you looked for: “The redeemed stay is the most important stay,” said Canty.

Hoteliers need to reward loyalty programme members who book through OTAs. The problem is that they very often can’t identify them. “That’s an area in need of a solution,” said Canty.

There is also a conflict between the loyalty programme and the revenue side of the house – a resistance to incurring the cost of a complimentary breakfast or room upgrade – delegates heard. To overcome that barrier, the loyalty division must be able to demonstrate value to the hotel over time.

In the post-GDPR world, loyalty programmes allow hotels to have permission-based relationships with customers they couldn’t otherwise have, pointed out Feldman, who said good personalisation should be invisible.

There’s a difference between personalisation and personal, cautioned Canty.

“If you’re going to take data from customers it’s incumbent on you to use it”, he said, pointing out that, at the top tiers, the hotel industry is increasingly ensuring that everything is just right for those customers whose preferences it has requested. “If you’re not going to use it, don’t ask for it.”

Long sales cycles, difficulty moving to implementation and a patchwork of legacy systems are causing turbulence for start-ups in the travel tech space.

Finding the right venture capital partner can help, delegates at The Future of Travel, an international travel technology summit in Cork heard recently.

The event, organised by Enterprise Ireland, brought global leaders in the travel sector together with Irish travel tech innovators.

Ireland is a leading travel tech hub with over 100 companies operating in the space, including global leaders such as Ryanair, CarTrawler, Datalex, and OpenJaw.

Partnering with a VC can speed growth

Partnering with a US venture capital firm can speed a company’s growth in that market, according to Katherine Grass, managing director of Thayer Ventures, a San Francisco-based VC that specialises in travel technology investment.

“For a European-based company looking for investors, you want someone who brings expertise to the table. We have the travel expertise that can really help a company when they are expanding their business into the US, so that’s the fit we are usually looking for when we’re making investments outside of US,” she said.

Thayer’s primary focus is Series A funding. Right now, it sees opportunity in a subset of the hospitality sector, including “what we call ‘alternative lodging models’, trying to professionalise the whole Airbnb concept,” she said.

“We see a lot of ‘like-franchise’ models in Asia that are taking all these long-tail, non-branded hotels and trying to brand them. There is a lot going on around hospitality and lodging, there are still huge margins in it and a lot of IT inefficiencies, so tonnes (of opportunity) there,” she said.

Ditto smart cities. “Not connected stop lights or fridges but how a city uses its kerb space better, the taxing of the streets,” she said. The rise of delivery services, from Amazon to Uber, creates a need for solutions that help cities operate more effectively, and possibly charge for such activities.

“They are two of the areas we are really excited about,” said Grass.

Understand the investor

Those looking for VC funding must understand the motivations of the investor, she told Irish travel technology companies present.

For Thayer, a primary one is the need to return investment to the fund. “We are looking for start-ups and ideas that have a big enough market opportunity and that have growth potential.”

Even a solution that addresses a very real pain point in travel is not enough, she cautioned, if it won’t generate enough return.

The travel industry often requires more runway than a start-up expects. “The time it takes to sell into airlines for example is long, so we worry about how quickly a company can scale – and about profits,” she said.

While VC funds want to see clear focus, start-ups that come into the sector with a solution for travel that could also, eventually, have currency in other verticals can make a compelling case, she suggested.

This chimes well with the success of Irish travel tech company Boxever, pointed out Dublin-based Edel Coen of London VC fund Draper Esprit, who moderated the panel. A creator of a big data and personalisation platform for airlines such as Ryanair, Boxever is now poised to roll out in other sectors now too, including insurance.

Don’t, however, come to a travel tech VC with a pitch that suggests you “want to attack five different sectors at once,” warned Katherine Grass.

Don’t forget to monetise the idea either. “The typical stereotype of the naive entrepreneur in travel is one who comes in with ‘I was backpacking with my friends and couldn’t share our itinerary so I have this route planning solution’. If that is your opening pitch, it might be a short conversation,” she said.

Industry knowledge most valued by VCs

Industry knowledge is held at a premium by travel VCs, agreed Amy Burr, managing director partnerships and operations at JetBlue Technology Ventures.

The Silicon Valley-based corporate venture capital arm of JetBlue Airways invests in early-stage travel technology companies, including seed, Series A and Series B rounds. While it generally invests in US companies, it is now looking to branch out into new regions, particularly in Europe, said Burr.

To secure investment from JetBlue Tech Ventures, a start-up must fall under one of five ‘themes’.

These are customer experience; hospitality and service; operations and maintenance; loyalty and distribution of revenue; and evolving regional travel. All are broad enough that “anything that actually touches travel, we can look at,” said Burr, whose role is to help bring value to portfolio companies.

Though it can’t guarantee a deal, the team acts as a conduit to JetBlue Airways and JetBlue Travel Products, as well as to the international partnership programmes it runs, where it can make connections with other travel providers around the world.

It currently has 24 portfolio companies. Although these have an inside track into the travel sector, including assistance with proof of concept, they ultimately face the same challenge that faces all start-ups in this space, “actually converting it into an implementation,” she said.

Working with legacy systems

Industry knowledge helps in what is a highly nuanced sector. “It’s really complicated to hook into the legacy systems and processes and change the way people do business in travel. If you don’t have that background in travel, you maybe want to look for someone who can help you in this vertical,” said Burr.

There is, of course, value in bringing the fresh perspective of the outsider to any industry, she said, “But the balance is that you’ve got to be able to find a way to work with the legacy systems.”

500 Startups, the California-based early stage venture fund, was also in Cork to meet with Ireland’s burgeoning travel tech sector. 500 is an active early stage investor, with a family of 19 funds around the world investing at all stages but most typically Series C.

“We are sector agnostic but we invest in so many things that have applications that are horizontal to lots of different verticals, so there are some things we are investing in that will or already have impacted on the travel industry,” said Pedro Santos Vieira, head of partnerships at 500 Startups Europe and a business angel investor.

As an angel, he is particularly interested in voice technologies, blockchain and IoT, all areas that the travel tech space will ultimately take advantage of, he said. For Irish travel tech companies looking for VC investment, the most important consideration is the expertise of the board member it brings with it.

A key driver for VC investors is the founding team, he said. “In deep tech it’s very customary to see teams that are super strong scientifically and technologically, but if they don’t have the commercial ability – that’s a potential red flag for us. So we do try to find a team with complementary skills.”

The size of the market opportunity is vital but interestingly, founder-market fit is more important than product-market fit for very early stage investors, he said.

This is because 500’s experience with its accelerator programme shows clearly how a strong team will be able to pivot as the market requires. If they are the right team for that market, “the chances of us investing are much higher,” he said.

Successfully progressing innovation from idea to implementation stage in the travel sector is notoriously hard. At Travel Tech Summit: The Future of Travel, leaders from the global airline industry revealed how it’s done.

The event, organised by trade and innovation agency Enterprise Ireland, was attended by key travel industry executives from around the world, as well as from Ireland’s fast-growing travel tech sector.

A panel moderated by Kevin O’Shaughnessy, CEO of travel app City Hook, titled “Is Innovation Harder to Deliver in Travel?”, delivered insights from companies including American Airlines, International Airlines Group (IAG) and  SITA, the world’s leading specialist in air transport communications and IT solutions, whose innovation lab is based in Donegal.

Locating decision makers in travel

In an industry as large and complex as aviation, having an advocate within the target organisation is crucial, delegates heard.

“It’s critical to know who the decision makers are and in large organisations that’s hard,” said Kevin MacFarland, managing director digital, American Airlines.

“It may seem like marketing is going to be able to make this decision, when in reality it involves payments, so if you don’t get the accounting folks on board in an airline, things are going to get cratered. That’s really hard to figure out.”

To help, American Airlines will pair staff at executive level with start-ups it is partnering, to help them navigate. “Otherwise you’re just wasting your time and ours,” he said.

Having an advocate is also important because no new product exists in isolation.

“It’s going to have to work with all the other 20 million systems that are in an airport or an airline,” said Barry McLaughlin, lead architect at SITA Lab. “If you’re not from a travel industry background you’ve got to take the time to understand it, and to understand the pressures that people are under in airport and airline operations.”

Problem-driven innovation in travel

To succeed, innovation in the sector should be led by organisational or customer need.

“Our view is two to five years out, we’re looking at technology that is just emerging and trying to see what problem does that solve,” said McLaughlin.

“We are constantly talking to our customers and we’ll try and marry it with some problem they are facing or some opportunity they want to investigate.”

Where it finds a match between a technology that might work for a particular scenario, it will move to proof of concept.

“We always build something and always partner with an airline or airport to put it in and see if it works. If something doesn’t work, we shelve it and that’s fine. Where it actually gets harder is where it does work, because now you’ve got to transition this into your portfolio.”

Innovation that scales

To be adopted at American Airlines, an innovation must have the ability to scale. “If it’s not going to scale to 500 airports eventually, it’s probably not something we are going to progress,” said MacFarland.

One of the most structured programmes open to start-ups in the travel space is IAG’s accelerator programme, Hangar 51.

Securing a place is competitive, however, with hundreds of applicants whittled down to just 10. These then work side by side with IAG team members to develop their solutions, said Dupsy Abiola, head of global innovations at IAG.

Abiola sits in the Group’s digital transformation team and actively scouts out emerging technology with the potential to solve significant problems across the Group’s operations.

Tips for start-ups targeting travel

Start-ups pitching to the sector must both know its audience and be easy to work with, she advised.

“As entrepreneurs, you have to understand the market you are targeting. You also have to be a good partner in order to get from the emerging technology you have to a scaled solution. Sometimes we see technologies that are really interesting but the teams aren’t easy to work with, for a variety of reasons,” she said.

Lack of industry awareness is problematic. “When start-ups all over the world pitch me their solutions I ask ‘Are you a replacement or are you an add on?’ A lot of people are basically saying ‘You need all the things you currently have, plus an additional GBP 2 million for my solution’. If so, how are you going to make the value case?” she asked.

“If it’s a replacement product, they need to understand what they are replacing – and why. If it’s an add on product, which budget are they going into, to magic this GBP 2m for their solution?”

Although travel is beset by legacy systems, the right innovation should sit well within them, just as Stripe has proven possible in the similarly beset banking and payments sectors, she pointed out.

Be aware, however, of the particular regulatory and other constraints specific to travel.

“If your solution requires multiple loads of sensitive data and multiple touchpoints, you have got to understand what you are asking of these companies, how likely is it that they are going to put in an unknown entity, and if so, the enormity of that task,” she warned.

“If it’s something that is fizzy and simple, that adds value and doesn’t require touching operations, that’s a very different conversation to ‘I want to add something interesting to the side of your planes’.”

At American Airlines, “there’s a real bifurcation with things that hit the operation,” agreed MacFarland. “Our motto is to move fast and deliver customers and team members safely, not break things.”

Be aware that even a seemingly simple app that tells people how long it will be before they reach their departure gate brings with it a raft of additional liability and operational complexity, he cautioned.

While speakers were looking at emerging technologies ranging from robotics to machine learning and blockchain, each was at pains to point out that it’s not about the innovation per se, but about improving their business.

“We’re super focused on running the best airline in the world, that’s what we are here to do,” explained MacFarland.

“We’re an airline, we’re not an investment company. We will make investments, we will help partners to scale if it’s strategic and good for our industry and our customers to do so, but for us it’s about taking care of team members who are taking care of customers, so that investors want to invest.”

“If you can scale and make great returns – then great, because it’s going to improve our customers’ experience and our employees’ experience. That’s the heart of our approach, versus any particular area of innovation or investment strategy.”

Why partner with Irish travel tech businesses?

Innovation

innovation icon
  • Irish SMEs are the most innovative in Europe.
  • Always at the forefront of innovation in travel, Ireland is the birthplace of duty-free shops and aircraft leasing.
  • Enterprise Ireland-backed start-ups, such as CarTrawler, Datalex and Hostelworld have revolutionised the travel industry.
  • Irish travel tech companies deliver leading-edge technology that integrates easily with traditional legacy travel IT systems.
  • Home to innovation centres for SITA, Starwood Hotels, Ryanair, Uber and Lufthansa.

Ecosystem

Ecosystem icon
  • Ireland’s uniquely concentrated and collaborative ecosystem comprises over 100 travel tech companies, spanning global giants to rapidly scaling niche players.
  • Recognised for its world-class talent pool, over 3,500 people are currently employed in the sector.
  • The thriving Dublin-based group Travel Massive hosts regular travel tech education and networking events, attracting travel industry founders, leaders and creators from the world over.
Enterprise Ireland-backed start-ups, such as CarTrawler, Datalex and Hostelworld have revolutionised the travel industry.Enterprise Ireland-backed start-ups, such as CarTrawler, Datalex and Hostelworld have revolutionised the travel industry.

Reputation

reputation icon
  • Irish travel tech companies including Aerospace Software Developments, Datalex and Flightman provide innovative solutions for the world’s leading airlines.
  • Booking platforms Hostelworld and Campsited connect customers to unique accommodation worldwide.
  • CarTrawler, Arvoia and CityHook help leading travel operators expand their reach globally, while Boxever, LikeWhere and Swrve drive personalised experiences for customers.
  • Over 50% of the world’s leased aircraft fleet is owned or managed from Ireland.

Innovation

innovation icon
  • Irish SMEs are the most innovative in Europe.
  • Always at the forefront of innovation in travel, Ireland is the birthplace of duty-free shops and aircraft leasing.
  • Enterprise Ireland-backed start-ups, such as CarTrawler, Datalex and Hostelworld have revolutionised the travel industry.
  • Irish travel tech companies deliver leading-edge technology that integrates easily with traditional legacy travel IT systems.
  • Home to innovation centres for SITA, Starwood Hotels, Ryanair, Uber and Lufthansa.

Ecosystem

Ecosystem icon
  • Ireland’s uniquely concentrated and collaborative ecosystem comprises over 100 travel tech companies, spanning global giants to rapidly scaling niche players.
  • Recognised for its world-class talent pool, over 3,500 people are currently employed in the sector.
  • Enterprise Ireland supports Propeller Shannon, an accelerator that aims to drive the development of innovative start-ups in the travel sector.

Reputation

reputation icon
  • Irish travel tech companies including Aerospace Software Developments, Datalex and Flightman provide innovative solutions for the world’s leading airlines.
  • Booking platforms Hostelworld and Campsited connect customers to unique accommodation worldwide.
  • CarTrawler, Arvoia and CityHook help leading travel operators expand their reach globally, while Boxever, LikeWhere and Swrve drive personalised experiences for customers.
  • Over 50% of the world’s leased aircraft fleet is owned or managed from Ireland.

Tell us what you need and we'll find your ideal Irish business partner.

How we can help

Enterprise Ireland is the Irish Government’s trade and innovation agency. Our goal is to build successful, long-term business relationships between international companies and Irish partners.

Access to Innovation

As one of the world’s largest seed capital investors, we help develop a pipeline of cutting edge Irish companies.

Connect to Businesses

Our industry experts understand your requirements, and match you with a shortlist of Irish partners that can deliver on them.

Get Direct Introductions

We make direct introductions to the right people in Irish companies, enhancing and simplifying your experience.

Access to Innovation

As one of the world’s largest seed capital investors, we help develop a pipeline of cutting edge Irish companies.

Connect to Businesses

Our industry experts understand your requirements, and match you with a shortlist of Irish partners that can deliver on them.

Get Direct Introductions

We make direct introductions to the right people in Irish companies, enhancing and simplifying your experience.

Learn more about our travel tech companies

Aerospace Software Development

Aerospace Software Developments (ASD) are a dynamic and fast-growing software company. ASD specialise in the development and implementation of mission-critical applications based on the latest RFID technology which are specifically designed for the Aerospace and Aviation market sectors.

Boxever company logo

Boxever

Boxever is the leader in data science and omni-channel personalization solutions for airlines and travel companies. Boxever’s Customer Intelligence Cloud enables travel marketers to build a 360 degree view of every customer and apply predictive analytics and machine learning to automatically create personalized, one-to-one marketing experiences that lead to higher conversion rates, increased revenue and truly differentiated customer experiences.

Cartrawler company logo

CarTrawler

CarTrawler’s multiple award-winning technology platform uses an algorithmic approach to choose the perfect product at the perfect price, to the customer, each and every time. It factors a myriad of data signals in real-time to deliver the best possible conversion and revenue for our partners.

city hook company logo

CityHook

CityHook is a simple website that answers a good travel question: what’s the best way between the airport and downtown? We combine local knowledge, transport timetables, editorial and community reviews to calculate the best way to get from the airport to downtown.

Datalex company logo

Datalex

Datalex is a market leader in digital commerce for travel retailers. The Datalex Commerce Platform enables a travel marketplace of over one billion shoppers covering every corner of the globe, driven by some of the world’s most innovative airline retail brands.

Flightman

Flightman is a global leader in the provision of “Connected Aircraft” solutions to airlines. The company develops Aviation Software Solutions which are incorporated in a Service to connect the aircraft to the back-office systems and drive productivity and operational improvements.

Hostelworld

Fifty-one per cent of hostel travellers say that the most important factor in a great trip is meeting new people and experiencing new cultures. Hostelworld aims to ignite those social travel experiences through superior booking options and a mobile app that helps travellers make the most of their journeys.

LikeWhere company logo

LikeWhere

LikeWhere analyse cities, interpret how they feel in human terms, then match the right location to the right customer.

Travel tech Insights

Travel Tech Getting personal with travel customers
June 12, 2019

Getting personal with travel customers

In travel, getting up close and personal with your customers is the key to success. Data and personalisation technologies are enabling just that, according to speakers at a major Enterprise…
Travel Tech How deep tech is shaping travel
June 5, 2019

How deep tech is shaping travel

Data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning are reshaping the travel industry, both operationally and in terms of customer experience, according to speakers at The Future of Travel, an international…
Travel Tech
Boxever uses AI to deliver smarter customer interactions

Boxever uses AI to deliver smarter customer interactions

Ranked by Forbes as one of the most powerful examples of AI in use today, Boxever’s platform is revolutionising the art of customer engagement. In the complex and competitive world…

Travel Tech
LikeWhere: tech firm helps travel brands become trusted guides

LikeWhere: tech firm helps travel brands become trusted guides

As Netflix and others have realised, the most accurate way of predicting how people will behave in the future is by looking at the way they behaved in the past….

Technology that allows airline companies to offer a suite of ground transportation options to customers has made CarTrawler a world leader, while a focus on innovation helps it to constantly improve its product offering.

CarTrawler is a real Irish success story. The world’s leading B2B travel technology platform began life in 2005 as a car hire company but, according to Chief Technology Officer Bobby Healy, the company quickly saw the potential of online offerings: “Our background was in airline technologies and we applied that learning to the car hire industry, and very quickly became the leader in the world.”

CarTrawler technology connects

CarTrawler’s technology links customers booking flights online with a range of ground transportation options, from bus transfer to car hire or taxi hailing services, creating a one-stop-shop for quick and easy journey planning. The benefit for the consumer is clear, but there are also significant benefits for airlines in terms of the ancillary revenue derived from offering a full retail experience: “One line of code pulls our widget code in, and that integrates directly with the airline’s system to get all the details on the passenger, on the journeys they’re about to make or, for example, when they’re checking in. That one line of code enables the airline to provide the entire shopping experience for their consumers.”

And it’s all done by CarTrawler: “Ancillary revenue is further down the priority order for our customers’ in-house technology teams, so by making it a simple thing to do, they don’t need to undertake a big IT project themselves. That decoupling of the technology problem from the revenue opportunity is what we do.”

Providing technology (and revenue) solutions for their partners requires a focus on innovation, and Bobby agrees that this is critical for CarTrawler: “The best customer a B2B business can ever have for a new product is their existing customers. So the more products we can invent, the more revenue we’re going to make from the existing customer base.”

A recent example of this is a taxi hailing product that the company developed, which was imediately switched on for existing customers, including Emirates Airlines. Bobby adds, “That was a natural extension of our existing relationship with them. Innovation is our pipeline and we have two ways of looking at that – new customers for existing products, and new products for existing customers. We absolutely have to get the R&D and the innovation right.”

Growth market

CarTrawler works with partners all over the world providing this unique suite of high-quality products, “Our focus has always been Europe and the bulk of our business is in Europe, but Southeast Asia and Australia and New Zealand have been very good markets for us. We power the largest low-cost carrier in Southeast Asia, AirAsia, across eight different markets. Japan has also been very strong for us. Car drivers and car hire penetrations are lower in Asia than in Europe or North America but they’re growing and so too is the use of online engines to book ground transportation.”

The company also has plans to expand into a market they have not previously focused on: “We’ve recently signed some major partnerships, including the second largest partner we’ve ever signed with, in North America, and that is going to get a lot more of our focus over the next two years – we’re building a sizable team in North America to really deliver a lot more from that market.”

As the largest, most successful company in the world at what they do, CarTrawler’s team has a lot to be proud of: “Ryanair, Emirates, Virgin Australia and Hawaiian Airlines – one hundred plus airlines around the world depend on us for a major source of their profit, and that’s a pretty amazing achievement, all from Dundrum in Dublin.”

Bobby’s also very proud of the company’s commitment to diversity: “I’m particularly proud that there are more women working in CarTrawler than men. We’ve been really good at getting that balance right, being a really good opportunity for people living in Ireland to build great careers in one of the most entrepreneurial businesses in the country.”

For the future, CarTrawler’s new management team has a strong growth plan for a business that, even with the scale it has achieved, is still just scratching the surface of what’s possible: “Most people still book those products directly with providers and so our aim is to shift those customers to a proper retail experience where they get better choice, better value, better information on their products and the transaction is easier. We want to be the biggest channel as well as the biggest operator. Currently, the biggest channel is direct to suppliers, and that’s the huge opportunity for our business, to change that mix.”

Founded in Dublin in 1984, Inflight Dublin is now the world’s third-largest provider of inflight entertainment content to airlines. The company provides a full range of movies, TV, and music content to airlines around the world, and in recent years has moved into the wireless streaming of entertainment content and other services to passengers’ own devices.

Today, Inflight Dublin has 43 customers in 36 countries, including Ireland, Vietnam, Nigeria, Germany, Kenya, US, Denmark, and Saudi Arabia. The company has 70 staff and is represented in five countries around the world.

At the forefront of a changing aviation business

Innovation has been at the heart of this impressive growth story, according to CEO John White. “The company was founded by two entrepreneurs, Damian Fannin and Jerry Hughes”, he says. “They were involved in music production at the time and were approached by Aer Lingus to provide content for a new audio entertainment system it was installing in its long-haul fleet. Their Aer Lingus contact also had a contact in Iberia, which led to a contract there. And the business grew from that point.”

In the 1990s, video became the new standard for inflight entertainment and the company’s ability to adapt to new technology allowed it to move into that area swiftly. “That’s when it changed its name to Inflight Dublin from Inflight Audio, to reflect the changed nature of the business”, says White.

John White joined in 2009 following a recommendation from Enterprise Ireland, the national export agency, for the company to strengthen its management team. “The opportunity came to buy out the company in 2012. I did that with a private equity partner and we exited from that in 2016”, White adds. “Our main service is still content provision. We acquire content on behalf of airlines from Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood, European and Arabic cinema. We also acquire TV series from around the world. We compile and edit the content to meet the system specs on the aircraft. We also do safety videos and ads for inflight shopping.”

Pivoting to software development

Three years ago, the company started to develop software to stream content to passengers’ own devices. This represents a major growth area, as it expands the potential market for the company’s services from long-haul jets to aircraft of almost any size.

“Our traditional focus was long-haul aircraft with screens built into seatbacks”, he explains. “With wireless, we can put a small server on a plane with wireless access ports, and stream content to more than 200 passenger devices. There are hundreds and hundreds of airlines with no long-haul aircraft in their fleets and we are enabling them to offer inflight entertainment to their passengers. We have developed new areas like onboard retail. Passengers can order and pay through their own devices. We also have partnerships with organisations such as TripAdvisor and Groupon to distribute deals, and we share revenue from those sales. Another service we offer allows passengers to book ground transportation tickets.”

Enterprise Ireland has played an important role in connecting Inflight Dublin with international partners. “Enterprise Ireland has been supporting us for the past 15 years and has been particularly helpful in overseas markets. They help set up meetings with airlines and other partners. It is very important to have a State body like Enterprise Ireland backing us. Many airlines are still State owned and like to see that backing. Enterprise Ireland also supported us in the development of our software offering on the wireless side of the business.”

Looking ahead, White is targeting continued growth for both sides of the business. “We see the content side growing steadily, but the wireless side has the potential to grow exponentially and we see it equalling, if not surpassing the profit level of the content side of our business within the next few years. The wireless services give us direct access to the passenger spend and that will be strong growth area for us. That’s our focus for the next three to five years.”

Register your interest for

Fill in your details below to be notified about the Irish [sector] advantage, read in-depth customer success stories and to find the ideal [sector] partner for your business.




Register nowRegister now

Thank you

for registering to our newsletter