WTM 2012: ‘Innovation is difficult but we’re working on killer mobile app’, says Lastminute

Massive complexity in the travel industry makes innovation costly and difficult and no more so than in large organisations, according to lastminute.com.

The claim might seem strange coming from a director of innovation as he seeks to re-instil innovation at a firm steeped in online travel pioneer heritage and which is now a part of global technology giant Sabre Travel Network.

But that was what William Beckler told an International Federation for Information Technologies in Travel session at World Travel Market, although he added Lastminute had not given up innovating and was working on a “killer” mobile app that will “change the lives of frequent travellers”.

Beckler said: “Lastminute.com used to be the cutting edge .com of the UK, not just in travel, at the birth of the internet. It symbolised the .com revolution, but since then it has not done that much you would consider innovative.

“We have had a labs team but what they have produced has not really become mainstream. Our offering is today very similar to what it was six years ago. So we decided to change things. My job is to find out how you innovate in travel in a company that is an extremely large business.”

Beckler said Lastminute’s huge overheads make it not a “very fast moving place” particularly in an age in which the internet is rapidly embracing social, local and mobile, offering opportunities for competitors to “completely disrupt our industry”.

“How do you become that way in a company that’s worth €100 billion, that has spent its seed money 10 years ago, that has departments that are crystalised and that don’t really talk any more? That’s the big challenge. I would say that travel has that challenge everywhere.

“If you are in travel you are in technology. You cannot buy travel without going through some of the most sophisticated technology in the world. The complexity in travel technology is mind blowing, the number of products you sell is mind blowing. Travel is an infinity of possibilities, an infinity of opportunities, that’s why innovating in travel is harder than in most other verticals.”

Because doing something innovative in travel always requires someone else in the process to enable it, like making inventory available electronically or supplying customers with hardware, Beckler said the sector is “highly networked”. This means doing anything always requires cooperation and building relationships.

“You are a networker; it’s a specific type of activity. People who are good at travel are not necessarily the right kinds of people who would be the next generation of innovators. How do we find the overlap there?” said Beckler.

He added he believes trying to innovate on the back of huge amounts of academic research means “you are essentially painting yourself into a corner” and that firms should build their concepts in real time using small groups of genuine customers to test their riskiest assumptions and get out of the office to prove their ideas work.

“Travel innovation is not necessarily going to come from the big guys like booking.com. They have a way of making money that’s so specific, that’s so directed, that they are incapable of breaking through these challenges. Lastminute is in a similar situation – we have functions that do not talk to each other. We have accumulated companies and strung systems together. Our infrastructure is too huge. Expedia is not about to pivot quickly and do something like Airbnb.

“It’s start-ups that comes up with something, but in order to make a splash they are going to need the Expedias etc. – you need to get into the hands of the large companies.

“Start-ups are going to come up with products, prove them with customers on a small scale then you are going to have to become part of the global travel infrastructure and the only way you are going to do that is partner with the Lastminutes of this world.

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