30 May 2018

Takeaways from a day on the Irish travel startup scene

Ireland has produced some solid startups over the years from CarTrawler to Datalex and OpenJaw.

Enterprise Ireland, the venture capital arm of the Irish Government, sees itself at the heart of the travel startup community, and as such helps companies get off the ground and scale through funding, partnerships and advice.

The organisation recently pulled together executives from established global players such as JetBlue Ventures, IHG and Facebook as well as some newbies on the home startup scene to discuss innovation, disruption and other developments in the industry.

How JetBlue Ventures thinks about innovation

Lumo (formerly Flightsayer) was recently announced as the latest startup to attract investment from JetBlue Ventures.

But, what makes an investment target for JetBlue Ventures? Christina Heggie, investment principal for the fund, shared some insight as well as some trends the company is seeing.

She highlights data, artificial intelligence, voice, distribution and blockchain as the five overarching themes that are driving the next wave of disruption.

Lumo probably already fits nicely into two, if not three of those.

Heggie looked back to how consumers researched and booked travel in 1990 (travel agents and call-centres), fast-forwarded to how much had changed in terms of the customer journey 20 years on (DIY via the web) and then projected forward to what we might be seeing come 2025.

She says if we look at how long it took social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter four or five years to go mainstream as an indicator for how quickly new technologies take hold. It was a similar story with on demand services such as Airbnb and Uber which really hit the mainstream around 2013.

So, what that means for AI, the Internet of Things, AR and VR, according to Heggie, is that we can expect them to hit the mainstream in five to seven years.

“When websites came, hotels said ‘Websites, who uses websites?’, I don’t want that to happen for our industry. The amount of progress made is significant and I want us to move forward.”

Heggie also points to the massive shake up in recent decades of terms of the Fortune 500 companies. Only 12% of the companies there 50 years ago are still around. She adds that the companies there now are much younger and doing different things. In addition, how companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google swap places in the rankings is a testament to the “sheer pace of change.”

And, when it comes to JetBlue Ventures strategy, Heggie says that the company is looking at five areas or themes where it might invest:

  • Seamless customer journey – the experience whether by plane, train or other transport mode
  • The technology used to drive incredible service
  • Asset optimisation
  • Innovation in distribution, loyalty and revenue management
  • Regional travel – routes where airlines might be disrupted so JetBlue still has “a seat at the table.”

She rounded of by talking about the importance of data going forward and how it will impact how we research, book travel and interact with brands.

“What happens to the billions spent by Expedia and Priceline (on advertising) in a world where I’m given three recommendations? The relevance of those three will mean I either use you again or I don’t. Who is going to win? Who is in the three?”

On the Amazon of travel from the ground up

Bobby Healy, chief technology officer of CarTrawler, put datas at the heart of everything going forward.

He spoke of the need to think of conversational commerce as not a channel but a “way of life” as it is in China where the many have grown up knowing only mobile and live through services such as WeChat. But, he says, conversational commerce is not about talking to Alexa or other virtual assistants but talking to customers in a “natural way.”

“Taking advantage of it means do you understand consumers? What consumers want and how they want to transact with you?”

A starting point for conversational commerce, according to Healy, is the “cheap, pervasive availability of processing power to run deep learning” which has not be accessible up until now.

But he adds that the Amazon of travel is not about AI or deep learning, but more about knowing what consumers want, offering a breadth of product and backing it up with a solid consumer interface.

He advises companies not to move straight to using conversational commerce as a sales channel but to take time to learn about the technology involved, build an expert team and let them play with the technologies available.

Similarly, for AI, which there’s a lot of hype around, what’s really important is the data set.

“If you don’t have the data set, you don’t have AI. I keep seeing startups coming into the market talking about the fantastic problem they are solving with AI but they don’t have data sets. It takes years to build a data set.

“Anybody who tries anything with AI or who claims to be, unless it’s Google or Facebook, it’s not going to be true AI.”

He adds that CarTrawler is in a fortunate position when it comes to data because it is within the flight funnel of the 100 airlines it works with and as such gets data on the customer.

That said, even as a 10-year old company, he believes CarTrawler is only “touching the surface” when it comes to customer data.

And so, back to the Amazon of travel, it is only with the data, the most information on customers, that companies can truly connect with their customers in a relevant way. And, Healy adds, communicating with customers is not necessarily about selling them a product at every point in time.

He finished with a call for airlines to start retailing like Amazon and personalising for their customers now because of the imminent threat of  Google, Facebook and others eating into their direct distribution.

Blockchain myths

With a very detailed session on blockchain, John McQuillan, a co-founder of OpenJaw and now TravelTechLabs  sought to dispel some of the myths surrounding the emerging technology.

It promises much when it comes to travel distribution as well as its potential around traveller identity but there is a long way to go – some say as much as 10 years – before practical applications for travel.

Some of the misconceptions, according to McQuillan, include that it’s all about cryptocurrencies, it’s anonymous and that security is an “inherent quality”.

McQuillan adds other commonly held beliefs about the technology to the list including the fact that it is slow and it is becoming expensive.

 “The cost of transactions is starting to climb. It probably will get cheaper but as of now, it’s volatile.”

Starting out

The final word goes to the startups that presented on the day, pitching for Enterprise Ireland’s first Pioneer Travel Tech Award. Campsited, a marketplace for booking campsites won the award.

Other participants were:

Bonflite – an online platform enabling consumers to purchase duty-free items at any point in the journey.

Indigo – a ground transport service aggregating transfers from airports.

OpenBack – delivering messages to customers via mobile device at the right time to ensure optimal engagement.

Sanctifly – a members club seeking to change the habits of business travellers by providing access to health and fitness facilities at airport hotels.

Trav Tab – mobile products such as payment solutions for the traditional travel agency market.

Photo by Mark Dalton on Unsplash

*Reporter’s travel to the event was supported by Enterprise Ireland.*