WTM 2015 Interview: Comtec’s Mike Russell on firm’s 21st century upgrades

WTM 2015 Interview: Comtec’s Mike Russell on firm’s 21st century upgrades

Comtec is celebrating a move to new offices and upgrade to its Travelink system following a change in ownership

Overpromising and under delivering is a problem that has beset the travel technology sector, admits Comtec managing director Mike Russell.

So the fact that this year Comtec is promoting its presence at WTM with the strapline ‘Hey Good Looking’ means the Welsh developer must have something to show off about.

Having recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, a move to new offices in Cardiff, return to profitability and the millionth booking on its core Travelink tour operating system, Comtec has at last been generating some positive noises after a difficult period under its previous owners.

Travelink upgrade

At WTM the firm is showcasing its new user interface for Travelink which brings the technology, still widely used across the industry despite its “legacy” status, firmly into the 21st century.

“It’s beautiful now, cutting-edge, hence the ‘Hey Good Looking’ strapline,” said Russell. “But more than that it’s fully developed and is set for rollout to clients in the first quarter of 2016.”

Visitors to Comtec’s WTM stand this year will be able to experience it in a live environment – no PowerPoint demonstrations, promised Russell.

“This has been a big investment for us,” he said. “It makes it an incredibly responsive user experience, but also adds more functionality around filtering and searching to cut call-handling times. Staff have to love the product; if they won’t use it we have no chance.”

The new system has been designed with customer feedback to address any resistance to change and Russell said it is the sort of modern system that will appeal to a new generation of travel industry employees who are used to slick consumer OTA websites.

Eradication of unnecessary pop-ups, and a generally more streamlined and intelligent feel is promised and the technology architecture will allow for much easier upgrades in the future, added Russell. “I feel we have kept the best of the historic features and upgraded them,” he said.

Company transition

Comtec’s well-documented problems before it was reacquired by founder Simon Powell from private equity hands in 2014 overshadowed the fact that Comtec’s technology remained robust, said Russell, who was brought in by Powell from Vertical Systems.

He believes this is a crucial factor in why Comtec has been winning business back from rivals, who were on hand to pick up the pieces as Comtec shed some of its mid-sized clients prior to 2014. Luxury operator ITC Classics is one of eight it has picked up this year.

“I’m absolutely delighted ITC has chosen to come back. They are absolutely the type of customer that’s in our sweet spot. It’s about upmarket, high-quality, bespoke holidays which is what our product is best at.

“So much of the aggregated and re-aggregated XML stuff adds so little value to the customer. What adds value and long-term profitability is the quality of the people, knowledge of the product they are selling and the passion and quality contracting.

“We deliver billions of pounds worth of business every year. While there are some parts of the travel technology sector which are very sexy, businesses such as Comtec are the ones who continue to bring home the bacon day after day, year after year.”

As well as developing the new Travelink interface, Comtec has been hard at work behind the scenes consolidating all its hosting in a data centre in Newport, completed in just five months with no customer down time, and putting all of its API calls through a new technology stack.

By Easter next year the firm plans to have a new stock-loading system that will improve the user experience.

Staff retention

Russell is delighted with how much progress Comtec has made since he took over but admits its ability to keep growing depends on retaining talent.

The office switch to Cardiff from Cwmbran saw only a small number of employees opt not to make the move, and headcount should swell to around 90 next year from 70.

On top of that, Comtec has struck a fruitful partnership outsourcing to specialist DataArt and now has developers in Russia with whom it works closely. It will also look to establish a development team of its own overseas.

This increase in resourcing will be required to keep pace with clients’ demand for bespoke work, which is expected to double next year.

“Our ability to grow will be determined by our ability to retain and attract quality staff,” Russell said. “It’s so easy in this sector to over-promise and under-deliver but if we do that we will be back to where we started.

“Last year was all about sorting out the financing, and this year was meant to be about the office move and hosting, but the reality is we have really bounced back and grown quickly. I’ve been surprised by the speed.”

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