Tiger Bay product director Carl Morgan tells Lee Hayhurst how a front end website specialist ended up building a new back office solution for travel firms, and how the company is helping some familiar names get to grips with opportunities on the web
When seasoned travel tech professional Carl Morgan joined up-and-coming Welsh software firm Tiger Bay he did so on the understanding that it combated what he sees as a “nasty” IT concept.
Release cycles, says Morgan, were what he was determined to do away with, and he claims the Cardiff-based technology firm has succeeded in doing just that.
Tiger Bay is run by a trio of directors with a wealth of experience of travel technology at Comtec, and prior to that, Travelink, which was bought by the former in 2005.
In the dynamic packaging market they were in at ground level developing the defining system for Flexibletrips, which quickly became one of Thomas Cook’s highest earning divisions.
However, with money hard to make in the dynamic packaging sector, Tiger Bay sees the future in helping tour operators push their curated quality-assured product through modern digital channels.
Morgan told Travolution that when he was approached by founder Rhodri Evans to join Tiger Bay in 2008, he had one key demand which was a deal breaker – to do away with technology release cycles.
“There is a nasty phrase in the industry known as ‘release cycles’,” he said. “All tour operators hate them.
“They have to wait three to six months for a release, and when they get it they get hundreds of other things that other customers [of the technology provider] wanted and the bugs they have too. We have been able to do away with release cycles.”
Morgan said Tiger Bay uses the latest flexible cloud technology and is set up so there are no technical constraints that prevent it immediately jumping on any requests from its customers.
He said: “The only restrictions we have is who we have sat at their desks”, said Morgan. “In technical terms we could be coding and delivering the same day.”
In practice customer demands are not that reactive and development plans are put in place around two weeks ahead.
Tiger Bay employs a “business ethic” with its customers under which a certain amount of pre-agreed development time per month is allocated to them to do with what they wish.
“Technically there are no barriers. They can tell us right up to the last minute what they want,” Morgan said.
“If the software is good it requires very little support and hardly any training. On that basis, using cloud technology, we should be able to distribute the technology to thousands of customers.”
This requirement to be quick and flexible is reflected in the technology Tiger Bay offers to the trade and the journey the firm has taken to get to where it is today.
When Tiger Bay was first established it focused on building a website platform, sensing a gap in the market for a good business-to-consumer offering for operators.
In 2010 the decision was taken to use revenues from the website platform to add functionality by building an entirely new back office system to underpin the front end.
Morgan said it took two years of hard work exploiting all the years of expertise within the firm built up working with dozens of tour operators over a decade to get it right.
Eventually the back office system was launched at World Travel Market in 2012 and within about a year 12 small to mid-sized customers were live.
“I’m not sure I know anyone else who has pioneered product over 10 years and had the chance to absolutely start again from scratch,” Morgan said.
The key was that the back office did not become the focus, that it did its job in the background, could be adapted to different needs and allowed resources to be directed to front end distribution.
Morgan points out that tour operators’ marketing spend is normally five times that of the budget for technology systems and yet so many tech firms get bogged down supporting the back office.
“One of the easy traps to fall into is you gain customers who want to keep spending money and all you can do it keep up with what they want, delivering features and milking the cow.
“What I guess is a bit different for us is that these requests that come through are predominantly marketing and website-focused rather than back office.
“Your back office needs to do 100 different things properly – tick the boxes, buy the system, you have your back office functions sorted.
“It’s all about making the back office not just do things but do them really well. We did not really focus on innovation, we focused on the simple everyday things but doing them really well.
“There are a lot of systems that do not do the fundamentals right; our focus was to get those fundamentals right, then go for innovation.”
As dynamic packaging took hold, Tiger Bay said tour operators with strong brands, like its customers Simpson Travel and Mark Warner, wanted technology that could still handle traditional packages.
“They still have committed stock and charter seats and they have to keep managing that – it’s the core of their business,” said Morgan.
“We found the combination of new technology, experienced people, plus traditional packaging is something that’s quite rare.”
Mark Warner has used the website platform for two years, claiming a 40% uplift in sales during that time, and it has recently also bought the back office having previously used Comtec.
Tiger Bay cites the specialist family activity holiday operator as exactly the sort of modern package operator that is making the most of its technology.
Tiger Bay says it has perfected rapid API integration so firms like Mark Warner can distribute through various online third parties with potentially huge customer bases such as Mumsnet.
It is this adoption of modern distribution and marketing strategies that Tiger Bay believes will be the real differentiator as opposed to marginal gains to back office technology.
Of particular interest today is Buzzfeed, the internet phenomenon which BA Holidays has a strong presence on, but very few other travel companies are yet to embrace.
Facebook, with its ability to define and target audiences, Amazon and eBay are also of interest in a fragmented online distribution mix that offers all sorts of opportunities to access clients.
Morgan said being able to integrate quickly as these sorts of websites emerge and grow in popularity “was what we started with, it was not an afterthought, it was a forethought.
“It was not easy; we spent three years building it and getting it right but it was all about making that really complex stuff actually really easy to use.”
In terms of API technology Tiger Bay is in good company in Cardiff with near neighbours in other sectors like Go Compare and confused.com heavily reliant on the technology.
However, even a firm that keeps on top of developments like Tiger Bay [Spritz text streaming has caught its eye for mobile] fears the day someone else comes along and changes the game again.
“At Flexibletrips we really defined what dynamic packaging was to become. We thought it was the answer, but it was actually just another step on the journey.
“On a daily basis we are paranoid that some kid in South Korea is going to come up with a product that will take away our business.
“The travel businesses that are really shining through now are ones that had retained the traditional packaging method but also embraced some dynamic packaging at the same time.
“We have made it seamless and the end user actually does not know any different. If you are pure dynamic packaging you need a massive technical platform to survive and overheads are huge.”
So much in online travel to date has required achieving massive scale to succeed.
Tiger Bay believes firms that simplify complex distribution, management of scarce inventory and pricing will be the new disruptors, and there could be some familiar names among them.