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In an exclusive interview, Pamela Whitby talks Chinese ambitions, pragmatic investments in technology, the need for transparency and the smartphone curse with Eurail.com’s chief executive officer

If there is one thing that Brenda van Leeuwen, Eurail.com’s chief executive officer could bring back from the golden age of rail travel what would it be?

Well, it’s a little ironic that someone who has been tasked with steering an e-commerce firm that sells rail passes online to non-EU residents would want smart phone free travel!

“Crisscrossing Europe by rail in Europe can be a Zen-like experience but the smartphone…well it’s a blessing and a curse. Whether you are travelling by train, plane or car, it is, of course, indispensable but it’s also distracting when there is so much in the way of nature, architecture and people to absorb,” she says.

As someone who did Interrail – the rail pass for EU residents – in the 1990s, Van Leeuwen remains passionate about rail travel but she is also focused on delivering a great experience to Eurail pass holders.

Brenda van Leeuwen, CEO, Eurail.com

Ahead of EyeforTravel’s European Summit early next month, Van Leeuwen, shared some of the milestones and priorities of her first two years as chief executive at a company which gives the global traveller access to flexible, unlimited train travel in up to 30 European countries.

Most significant milestone

Van Leeuwen cut her teeth at multinational Phillips, where she built experience in numerous commercial fields including IT, marketing and HR. This, she argues, has been invaluable in helping her navigate her first two years at Eurail.com, where “there is constant need to evolve, adapt and improve in all domains of our digital operations”.

While this is still “work in progress” what she is most proud of is growing the firm’s presence in China, where content is shared on platforms including Qyer and Youku. “To cater to the needs of Chinese online purchase behaviour, we opened the first European flagship store on Fliggy in 2015, which was previously known as Alitrip,” she says.

A sharp focus on the look and feel, tone of voice and aesthetics for the Chinese market is considered a “major achievement for a small company serving the world”. [There are approximately 85 - 100 employees at Eurail.com, depending on the season and 30 at parent company Eurail Group]. “We see this is as the first step in our ambitious plans to conquer China,” she says.

We see this is as the first step in our ambitious plans to conquer China

With 90 million people expected to travel from China in 2017, 10 million will visit Europe. Of those, 2.6 million fall into what can be referred to as ‘free independent travellers’, a key target segment for Eurail, and one that is expected to grow.

Another achievement has been the shift to data-driven decision-making, achieved in part by the creation of a new data warehouse. By really “listening in to customer data“ to understand the customer’s web, travel and purchase behaviour, Eurail.com can now start to deliver a more authentic, personalised experience.  An important step here has been to connect all data and intelligence systems within the company, and between stakeholders, so that everybody is speaking the same language. According to Van Leeuven this has been about achieving greater transparency across the organisation and beyond, and moving away from a one-size-fits-all in customer interaction as a result.

Biggest challenge/s

In a word, says Van Leeuven, technology. “The current rail sector is a bit limited in terms of technology and, of course, we at Eurail are part of a bigger community,” she says.

One of the challenges is diversity of technical infrastructure within different European railways, making it a real challenge to deliver a consistent experience for the customer. For example, not all railways are ready to replace paper tickets with e-tickets and since Eurail is dealing with multiple companies, in multiple countries, with multiple technologies and rules, this presents a huge challenge. “At Eurail we can’t reinvent or dictate the total environment, and so cooperation with the entire community is really important. We need to find smart solutions to deal with these circumstances and to ensure an excellent customer service regardless of technology”.

Eurail.com has a two-pronged approach to technology, which involves both in-house work and partnerships with tech firms.

Priorities for investment

While Van Leeuwen is excited by new technologies she is also pragmatic: “Why build a Ferrari, when you just need a Volkswagen?”

This seems to sum up her approach to the hype around new technologies like AI, VR and chatbots. Yes, she agrees, that Eurail absolutely has to be focused on (and doing!) the “big things” that everybody in travel is talking about she is also very clear of the need for continuous enhancement of the user experience and design of new and existing platforms. Because it is this that will make purchasing passes easier and drive consumer engagement.

One example for work underway is the development of the so-called Passfinder, which will make it easier for customer to find a pass to suit their precise needs – these can vary widely! 

Personalisation

For non-European residents – Eurail.com’s customer base – access to information about where they are travelling is important. For example, a Eurail customer, the data reveals, spends more time researching and planning a trip than somebody buying an InterRail pass (the pass for EU residents).

Helping Eurail customers to understand why they should take the train in Europe requires more focus. “We see the questions that people ask on customer service are very diverse. Customer service staff need to be trained in handling those diverse customers and not just hit standard reply button,” she says.

Having the right data can really help deliver value to the customer and to companies like Eurail.com. (See EyeforTravel’s recent The State of Data in Travel Report 2017)

So, the right content is crucial, which brings us to…

…the brand and commercial clout of social  

Van Leeuwen is a strong believer in the power of social media because the customer decides how or what to share. This authenticity carries more of the weight of “true experience”, she believes, than agency or brand-driven campaigns.

To this end, Eurail.com also works with a network of bloggers who are offered a pass to generate user-generated content that they are inspired and encouraged to share in social channels. “We believe social media networks, which are evolving in terms of functionality, are very important in future developments in customer interaction - to express the brand but also from a commercial perspective,” she says.  

…social media networks....are very important in future developments in customer interaction - to express the brand but also from a commercial perspective

Speaking more broadly on the opportunities for digital marketing, Van Leeuwen argues for closer interaction within internal departments but also across the wider rail industry. Coordination between IT, commerce and customer service is becoming more and more essential to understand the customer. It is also essential to the effective implementation of new technologies like bots and AI.

“It can’t just be only IT saying it needs to be done because it’s about how tech can contribute to customer service, so the link should be intense,” she stresses.

Flattening hierarchy

Achieving coordination can be tricky and one of the first things she did after joining Eurail.com was to flatten hierarchy (more on this in Science + Simplicity: the travel industry’s honey pot). Among her objectives were to avoid silo thinking in a relatively small company, improve the speed of decision-making and drive cooperation. “On the one hand this helped to bring management and leadership together with employees, which generates a different atmosphere, but it also created some problems,” she says. Not everybody is used to the CEO turning up randomly for a meeting!

“I’m proud to say we overcame these obstacles by openly expressing our views and talking about it,” she says.

The result is that Eurail.com is now moving into the next phase, where not only software is developed in an agile way, but commercial teams are more nimble in their thinking. Though one person is in the lead to prioritise, their aim is to do things in ‘sprint cycles’, using cross-functional teams, which openly bring ideas to the table.

“We are really moving away from big massive projects run by one department and doing smaller iterations for content releases or bigger announcements on our platforms – in true collaboration,” she says.

Driving transparency

As long as other players are talking about rail travel, Eurail believes this is positive for the sector. As a distributor of passes, rather than point-to-point journeys, however, right now it’s a matter of wait and see what happens with rail-related developments at firms like Expedia, Google, Airbnb, as well as new multimodal players like Rome2Rio and so on.

“Our product is a bit of a different cookie, so for the time being, we follow what is going on, and wait for the right moment in time to step in and cooperate,” she says.

In an industry, where partnership and cooperation is essential, this is inevitable, but Van Leeuwen believes transparency between players will be crucial if the customer interests are to be served.

…transparency between players will be crucial if the customer interests are to be served

“Sometimes non-transparent low [point-to-point] prices are advertised by competing modes of transport but because you need to add costs for luggage and insurance and meals and so on that adds up to total price,” she says.

This is something that customers need to be aware of. So on the one hand, rail sold online brings greater transparency, openness and availability but when evaluating other transport options from air or car rental operators for instance, the price isn’t always what it first seems.

Having said that, while Eurail.com has its own website and shops, she understands they need to be where the customer is, and parent company Eurail already works with intermediaries like Thomas Cook in India, C-Trip in China and Hana Tour in Korea. Eurail.com is also taking “first baby steps” to work with airlines like Emirates.

On being a woman CEO in the travel industry

Van Leeuwen is one of the few female CEOs heading up a household name European travel brand, so what does this mean? “Oh, this is not my favourite topic! For me it’s about having the right skills set and personality for a particular role.”

As someone who Inter-railed in the early 90s and is passionate about rail travel, it’s about “moving forward, growing, challenging others and being challenged, and continuing to be inspired”. 

And, in a sector worth €300bn, but with just 20% of tickets booked online, there is still plenty to be excited about.

One piece of advice

 “If you’re travelling by train, put down your phone and connect with the real Europe. Look out the window, chat with your fellow travellers, soak up the experience. Enjoy the journey as much as the destination.”

 

EyeforTravel Europe 2017

May 2017, London

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