Mike Croucher tells Lee Hayhurst why after almost 40 years in the sector he remains excited about the promise of technology
Despite approaching four decades in the aviation IT sector, Travelport chief architect Mike Croucher’s enthusiasm about its prospects remains undiminished.
His optimism about a sector that is often accused of innovating too slowly or being a barrier to progress rests with a more positive assessment of its record and the promise of new technologies.
Croucher first joined the sector in the early 1980s and having worked for Scandinavian carrier SAS spent the following decade and decade-and-a-half respectively at GDS Galileo and British Airways.
His career spans the formation and spinning off of the GDSs – “the original Software-as-a-Service cloud system,” he says – as well as BA.com, dynamic packaging, Heathrow’s T5 and BA’s first mobile apps.
He joined Travelport, which today operates the Galileo GDS, in 2014 to spearhead the firm’s transformation and reinvention of its technology stack as it moved towards its IPO.
Croucher sees digital transformation of travel businesses as not just a technical exercise but one that requires just as much strategic business and cultural and social change.
“My view on digital is that a lot of people talk about digital but are not really sure what it is,” he says. “We have been doing digital in the travel industry ever since its birth.
“Originally the GDS was in some ways a cloud-based system, it was service as a software. What’s new?”
In what is being described as the fourth industrial revolution which today’s emerging technology is said to be enabling, Croucher identifies five key forces.
The Internet of Things, mobile, Artificial Intelligence (AI), data analytics and cloud computing are combining, he says, to forge a future that’s more customer-centric than anything that’s gone before.
“For two generations in travel we have built systems that were systems of record – Passenger Name Record (PNR). What we have done is expose those processes to our customers and called it online.
“We have made customers follow the processes of the industry, rather than coming at it from a customer-centric angle.
“The next generation of systems are not going to own the system of record, but will own the system of intelligence, using data analytics to intelligently connect supply with demand.
“The likes of Uber and Just Eat are all doing exactly that, not always owning the system of record. The PNR goes back into the background.”
Croucher said the 30-year-old technology on which airlines and much of the travel sector is built remains “reliable” and “strong”. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” he says.
But he adds: “But where we do our innovation now is above that. You still need those PNR systems to record availability, to store customer bookings securely, reliably and quickly.
“They are great at that, but the next players are these new technologies that are going to give you that intelligence on top.”
Croucher said this will enable travellers to consume travel product in completely different ways to how they have done to date.
They won’t be required to break out of their day-to-day digital behaviour and interfaces to specifically visit a travel site to research and book their next trip.
So, a leisure traveller may be able to do everything within the confines of their favourite social network or messaging service like Facebook or WhatsApp having been inspired to travel.
The corporate traveller will be automatically offered travel options via Salesforce or Microsoft Office when they book in a meeting.
This is travel moving to become an integrated part of consumers’ “systems of engagement” and using digital to “redefine business processes” and the way firms interact with people, says Croucher.
“What we are seeing is younger generations tend to not do emails, they do everything in chat. We need to redesign our businesses around how the consumer wants to consume our products.
“Customers today, particularly younger generations, are coming at this from the perspective of they want to have an experience.
“That’s the first thing they are looking for and then they decide they want to travel. The journey is part of the need to get to that experience.
“If you come at this from a customer-centric angle, the question is what’s the un-met need of the consumer? The un-met need is they haven’t got enough time to research 300 options on a desk top.
“So how do we provide that trusted experience on mobile? How do we use data and analytics to really get the customer to trust the brand and what you are serving up.”
Travelport believes travel’s inherent complexity will always ensure there is a role for knowledgeable professionals and technologies that take that complexity and make it simple for the end consumer.
AI will support that process enabling travel firms and their employees to combine product to create travel plans in real-time so the customer can do accurate price and product comparisons at scale.
Increasing demands in this new, highly mobile digital economy has seen activity on Travelport’s systems spiral so that it now handles 13 billion searches a month.
“The amount of people looking for stuff has gone through the roof over the last few years. So, we are using AI and analytics to fine tune our platform every day for every single one of our customers.
“Speed of delivery is getting faster and relevancy better while conversion rates and accuracy have remained very good,” says Croucher
Improving performance while maintaining efficiencies is a huge challenge for travel, and Croucher believes this is where blockchain could play an important role.
Travelport has been working with IBM on uses cases in travel for the distributed ledger technology, one of the first being a settlement tool for hotels to match bookings with commission payments.
But Croucher sees the potential for a much broader role for the technology using smart contracts to bring together content from disparate suppliers, something which today is complex and costly.
And he also sees more of a customer-facing role with customer data being stored securely and made available via a ‘crypto-key’ wallets to trusted brands offering travel products and services.
And he says you will see tokenisation of customer data. “These debates have been around in the industry for a long time, the question is how to implement it easily and simply. Blockchain could be one answer.
“It’s going to take off faster than we think. In a world that’s disrupting as fast as it is today do we really think it’s going to take five years. We will start to see the early stages in the next 18 months.”
Croucher believes travel could prove to be a leading use-case for blockchain. “The consumer does not want to feel as though they’ve bought 20 individual items.
“They want a seamless journey. We all talk about seamless journey’s but have never really worked out how to provide it. What we do essentially is join products together to create a trip in one place.
“We orchestrate that trip, that’s where blockchain could be really disruptive. With a traditional package company, tens of thousands of other people are going on the same holiday.
“That’s not very exciting, but if you offer self-build bespoke packages they still need to be managed centrally and orchestrated, the consumer still wants a concierge element.
“Customers today want personalised experiences and younger generations want something Instagram friendly, something maybe their friends have not done.
“And today, there is lots more social travel than there ever was with families, extended family groups and social friends. So, the first challenge is how to become inspirational in how you sell.
“Let them do the fun bit and build a picture of what they want to do and once they’ve done that why not put that out and reverse auction it, let travel professionals critique it and add recommendations?
“Travellers should not have to spend six hours on a PC looking for flights. They should select what they want and get experts to improve it using AI to build the cheapest and best way to do it.”
Croucher said the fact that no one has yet managed to achieve this sort of true customer-centricity means everything is still up for grabs for all players in the sector.
And he says his continued optimism about the future stems from Travelport’s technology investment in emerging technologies over the past four years.
“Everything is changing, but we are not worried about this new world, we are excited. Having been in this for 40 years I’d have left a long time ago if that wasn’t true. There’s always something new.”