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Priceline on acquisitions and ‘staying humble’, Google ‘the elephant in the room’ and the value of data and innovation were just some of the themes on Day 1 of EyeforTravel’s European Summit. Pamela Whitby reports

Dependency on Google is not a good place to be when its starts to compete with you. This admission, in the closing morning session on Day 1 of EyeforTravel’s European Summit yesterday, came from Momondo CEO Hugo Burge. Though it hadn’t always been easy, Burge said through hard work, continued innovation, creative marketing and a great team, Momondo was now a company that people genuinely ‘loved and wanted to come back to’.

A company so ‘special’, that industry behemoth Priceline decided to acquire it in 2016 for $550million. Priceline CEO Glenn Fogel, who took centre stage in the opening keynote, couldn’t talk about the Momondo acquisition, which is undergoing regulatory due process, but he did say they only acquired companies that were truly “synergistic” with its “humble” corporate culture.  Another requirement was that new additions to the Priceline family should teach them something.  

The Google factor

Reading between the lines, Priceline’s acquisition of yet another metasearch company could be seen as a defensive move against Google’s growing dominance in search – clearly a worry, even if they won’t say so on the record, for many firms.

One vocal critic of Google is Bobby Healy, CTO of tech firm CarTrawler, which works with about hundred airlines. He said Google’s drive to dominate the top of the trip-planning funnel was ‘the elephant in the room’ and a ‘big threat to everybody’ and especially the airlines.

There was a slightly awkward moment as Healy took a swipe at the German carrier Lufthansa, which is already participating in Google Flights, as a “major player in how this is unfolding”. Lufthansa’s Roland Schütz,EVP and Head of Information Management & CIO Group Airlines, admitted that Google was “both a partner and a competitor”.

A 'bloody difficult' business

Getting the digital experience right for customers “ is bloody difficult”, a phrase that Arnaud Masson, CEO of Voyages-SNCF, the e-commerce arm of French rail company, used more than once in his address.

 

  
Arnaud Masson, CEO, Voyages-SNCF
Image Credit: Artstudio23 @Atrstudio23  
 

Voyages-SNCF.com, which turned over €4.1bn and sold over 86 million tickets in 2016, approaches tech development as a startup, has tried to address complexity by creating small streamlined teams that develop new products or services in two-week sprint cycles. Testing and learning is a crucial part of getting it right; the first version of Voyages-SNCF’s website, for example, was tested on 300,000 volunteers, with feedback from 18,000 integrated into the final tweaks.

A technology innovator, the company was one of first to create a chat bot with Facebook messenger for customer service. “Social media,” stressed Masson, “needs to be an extension of every website or app”.

Social media needs to be an extension of every website or app

Arnaud Masson, CEO, Voyages-SNCF

On the subject of apps, Paul Barnes, Northern Europe and Middle East Territory Director, App Annie, said that globally people spent 900 billion hours in apps last year, representing a 100% increase since 2014. People are also using travel apps a lot more, and pointed to Ryanair and Marriott as two success stories in the sector.

Also a on a mobile note, later in the day, in a session on Asia, the point was made that 900 million Chinese people are using messenger service WeChat to transact, leading EyeforTravel MD Tim Gunstone to conclude: “Conversational commerce is going to happen and it will happen soon”.

Tech trends

In a snap poll of delegates, 33% said having right systems and technology in place was most important.

“It’s easy to build technology, but it’s hard to build a huge dataset and that is the key to a proper digital relationship,” said Healy. He added that building robust datasets is what companies should be working on. On this Schütz, whose company has embarked on a series of data-driven digital programmes, agreed: “The quality of the data is key. Having the best data is your only chance of being the customer’s preferred travel company”.

That new technologies – chat bot, Amazon Echo, VR, machine learning and more – are coming is thought to be a given but the weight people attach to their value varies. One view expressed by Rome2Rio CEO Rod Cuthbert in the lunch break was that, yes all these things are coming, but ultimately technology is entirely secondary to the customer experience.

However, if there was any doubt of the potential for new technologies, Edwardian Hotels’ chat bot Edward, which the hotel group developed in house, certainly got delegates thinking (more on this case study, which was presented by Michael Mrini, Director of Information Technology, Edwardian Hotels, next week).  

Keeping it simple, personalisation and API partnerships, driving ancillary revenues, sourcing the right skills, being omnipresent, flexible and relevant were the other buzz phrases of the day.

In the end, however, as Richard Lewis, who was formerly chief executive of Best Western, and now Partnerships Director Travel and Tourism at What3Words (which today won the EyeforTravel start up awards) put it, it is all about: “Doing what you do well, very well.”

Day 2 kicks off this morning with more insights from leading travel brands including Rome2Rio, NH Hotels, lastminute.com, Eurail.com and more. Missed EyeforTravel Europe? Missed this European conference? Check out our 2017 line up

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