Big Interview: The partners in automation helping travel firms survive the rebound

Big Interview: The partners in automation helping travel firms survive the rebound

Lee Hayhurst spoke to the bosses of travel technology firms Traveltek and Traverse about their joint-venture that will introduce ‘digital helpers’ to travel firms as they battle to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic impact

The UK’s roadmap out of lockdown and COVID-19 vaccination rollout has given the travel sector renewed hope that it won’t face a potentially devastating second summer of serious disruption.

But as restrictions are rolled back firms now face the challenge of surviving the recovery as they start to again incur the costs of doing business while government support is gradually scaled back.

This is the backdrop for a new joint venture forged by Traveltek and Traverse, two technology firms headed up by former colleagues of mainstream tour operator My Travel.

Mal Barritt and John O’Neill went their separate ways after MyTravel merged with Thomas Cook, but were soon working together again after the former co-founded World Travel Holdings (WTH), parent of Cruise118, Six Star Cruises and River Voyages.

Despite building its own tech, due to the plethora of suppliers all of which have different processes and distribute their products in different ways, Barritt found there were many manual processes.

So, he turned to O’Neill who by that time had founded Traverse, experts in data, automation and systems integration in travel.

“We asked John to come in and look at automation of manual documents because we were finding it very laborious to manage and we were adding headcount into the business,” says Barritt.

O’Neill carried out an audit and provided WTH with automation tools to increase efficiency, improve the quality of work and reduce the number of mistakes made using manual processes.

The forging of a joint venture

Fast forward to August 2019 and Barritt, now chief executive of Glasgow-based travel technology developer Traveltek, was looking at how the software developer needed to enhance its offering.

He identified two key areas: Data insights, and comprehensive automation technology that firms can overlay on to their core systems to provide that greater level of efficiency he achieved at WTH.

With COVID-19 hitting shortly after Barritt’s arrival at Traveltek, helping travel firms to operate more efficiently became an even greater priority and the partnership with Traverse, first announced in February 2020, has become a joint venture.

Last week the partners announced the launch of xFlow Studio, a free entry-level suite of robotic business automation technologies, described as a ‘digital helper’ for travel firms.

Barritt said the technology addresses not just a need for automation in the core operating systems which Traveltek specialises in but throughout a business in areas like finance.

He said the partnership with Traverse allows both firms to focus on where they add value though their expertise. “At Traveltek we know what we are good at and we know what we do.

“In every business you have to keep focussed on what you are good at rather than do many things and dilute your energy on you core proposition.

“I was conscious of that when I looked at what the needs were from our customers. This is a collaboration of two entities that complement each other.

“We are trying to help the industry recover as a technology partner to tour operators and travel agents who have been under extreme pressure and stress during the pandemic.

“As demand returns resources will probably be even tighter, and you will want the people in your business adding value rather than doing manual processes.

“This is giving something back to the industry to help firms automate tasks and free up their time to dedicate to serving the customer.”

The challenge of doing more with less

O’Neill said 15 years’ experience automating just about every part of travel means Traverse now has a set of simple tools that can be made available for firms to integrate into their businesses.

XFlow Studio is a free user version of Traverse technology aimed at small to medium sized businesses that will bring robotic automation to many firms for the first time.

O’Neill said in the COVID-19 recovery everyone is going to be challenged with doing more with less resource, so automation will have to do some of the heavy lifting.

“People are sometimes put off by the technology,” he says. “In reality, all we are doing is building digital workers.

“There has always been a bit of a misunderstanding about automation. The number of times people have said to be this is too complicated, we would not be able to anything like this.

“People do not realise the extent to which we can automate things. Nearly everything can be automated, it just a question of is it worth doing.

“The really big change now is people are not going to be able to do their jobs because there won’t be enough people. There will be certain pressure to do more with less – that’s inevitable.

“This was always coming but the adoption now with COVID will be that much quicker because there is no alternative.”

O’Neill, whose business also works with clients in other sectors of business, says travel often beats itself up about how far behind it is when it comes to technology.

However, he disagrees saying most businesses are “reasonably sophisticated” and that there is a considerable skill base and knowledge in travel.

However, he sees how due to the pandemic firms are losing some of that in-house expertise and, while that won’t recover quickly, they can make up that loss by deploying the right technology.

“Travel is complicated,” he says. “People tell me its complex, and I agree, but that does not mean you can’t make massive headway in automating it.

“You have to automate, you have to bring in machine learning and artificial intelligence. That’s one of our big growth areas and the next focus of automation – hyper-automation.”

Are you ready for the travel rebound?

Traverse and Traveltek are keen to shape the technology in collaboration with the travel sector community and will be encouraging users to feed back their ideas, swap ideas and ask questions.

A ‘scratchpad’ will be made available on the Traverse website for industry users to share their thoughts and leave their ideas for potential future developments.

Barritt said in a sector that prides itself on its human touch, automating manual processes should be seen as a way to free up employee time to focus on building relationships with clients.

“People sometimes get a bit nervous about this and wonder does it mean I will have fewer people in my business or even whether my own job is vulnerable,” he says.

“But this is about freeing up people’s time to add value elsewhere in the business. It’s all about people and relationship and freeing them up from pushing paper around, filling in spreadsheets or checking documents.

“We are all optimistic that demand is going to increase significantly when we get more clarity about when we can travel against when we see the travel roadmap on April 12.

“The question is will you be able to cope with that demand, will you survive the rebound?”

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