It’s perhaps an exaggeration to say COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation in travel by five years but it's hard to find much that hasn't been touched by the pandemic.
Not least is the role of the chief technology officer, who might've thought they worked in an agile environment two years ago but is now seeing their operations through entirely new eyes.
Travel CTOs have had to acquire new skills, upend their priority list and think carefully about how to combine new technologies with legacy systems and practices, for maximum efficiency.
John Morhous, chief experience officer, Flight Centre Travel Group, says: “Anyone in a leadership position in the technology arena throughout all of this, if you’re not changing how you approach the way you build and deploy solutions by listening to the changing needs of the customers, you’re doing something wrong.”
Morhous recognizes that new skills had to be acquired as travel companies reacted to the fast changing environment when the virus hit.
“Coming into March of last year as things started to close down, the ability for people to think different, with how they would make decisions, how they would prioritize stuff and to predict how to do something before it was clear how to do it, there have definitely been some new skills we’ve all had to pick up.”
Morhous says he’s spent a lot of time studying infection numbers and vaccination rates “trying to predict what we think will happen so from a skill set perspective that’s brand new.”
He adds there’s a bit more “trying to read the tea leaves and a refinement of existing skills.”
“Everyone says they’re agile but until you have to stop your full development process and pivot on a dime to do something totally different because they just changed the rules and you’ve got to be able to support that in your environment. You really stress your ability to be agile and being agile in today’s world is much different to what we thought agile was two years ago.”
Milena Nikolic, CTO of Trainline, agrees that technology leaders have had to be more agile in their approach to react to rapidly changing customer needs.
Other travel CTOs highlight different elements of what changed as the world shut down.
Tom Kershaw, CTO of Travelport, says: “It’s hard to find anything that hasn’t changed as result of pandemic. The CTO is certainly in that category but probably top of the list simply because of the mix of technology and how we rely on technology has gone up and relationship between face-to-face and virtual discussions has also changed dramatically.”
He adds that while the pandemic changed travel and accelerated some trends that were already there, the role of technology is now to ease the transition as travel returns.
He says that trends in infrastructure efficiency and engineering productivity that existed before in travel as well as technology in general have been accelerated.
Kershaw elaborates: “Our engineering velocity in using infrastructure like cloud to improve performance, using machine learning and data to automate processes and take decisions from people and into machines and giving humans tools to be able to analyze data at greater rates than they ever could in the past.”
Kershaw is only about two months into the role at Travelport but sees his career spanning internet and infrastructure-related technologies as very applicable to travel’s recovery.
Similarly, Peter Gianusso, Flight Centre Travel Group’s new global CTO for the corporate division, says his background in financial services will help in travel in terms of efficiency and economies of scale.
“In financial services it’s all about efficiency and once and done type of approaches. It’s about data quality upfront and catching that as quickly as possible.”
Both bring a fresh perspective to the industry which Kershaw believes is needed to shake up the industry.
But while many currently talk of the opportunity that comes from crisis, travel CTOs are not going to get a clean sheet to work off.
Kershaw says: “It’s actually in some sense the opposite. We still have all the legacy systems out there in the world and still have to transform those things. The pandemic just brought a new set of challenges - shortage of labor, challenges around travel and the legal and regulatory challenges. I would love to have a clean slate but the slate is anything but clean.”
Morhous points out that there has been an opportunity to get ahead on some projects while transaction volumes were low across systems.
“A bunch of programs we had going on accelerated and we wrapped up key projects six to nine months ahead of schedules. It’s the old analogy of the best time to pave the road is when there’s no cars on it so used the opportunity of having no material transactions flowing through our system to really uphaul and implement some of these platform changes.”
Prioritizing technology projects in travel, never an easy task with many clamouring for a share of budgets, will be more important than ever.
Nikolic stresses that it’s the needs of the customer that need to be prioritized.
“The digital experience for the customer is going to be a crucial part of the travel industry’s recovery – we need to continue to make the experience of travel easier and more convenient to encourage more passengers to return.”
The need to look forward
Morhous believes that it’s about having a good plan in terms of where resources are going to be allocated.
“Early on we went through a regimented revaluation of of core philosophies and strategies as a business. If you have that plan articulated around what’s number one versus what’s number ten, then applying the technology projects to them is not difficult.
“The biggest challenge is that this has forced a really rapid transformation and it’s not so much executing on the projects it’s actually the change management and the human transformation that comes with that.”
And Kershaw says that while it might not be background experience that necessarily helps in prioritzing, having a fresh set of eyes on the industry does.
“It’s very tempting to look back too much and say ‘you can’t do this for this reason’ and to some extent we have a license to be more innovative.”
His advice for newer CTOs is to try not to be constrained by the past.
“Don’t dig holes deeper. We should be using the newest technology, building for cloud, being data driven and using machine learning tools like Spark to automate processes. Think about where the industry is going to be in five years not where it has been, experience can be really helpful but it can also hold you back.”
But a question remains over whether technology and digital priorities might slip once revenue starts coming back.
Kershaw believes the priorities become “amplified.”
He says there’s a false narrative around getting on a plane versus jumping on a video call and that a new mix will emerge.
“It will be fairly complementary going forward. We are very happy to embrace digitization and automation because one of the problems travel faces is demand coming back a lot faster than a lot of the industry is going to be able to ramp. If you try to ramp with people and people making decisions you’re never going to get there.
"It’s critical we automate these processes and use machine learning to improve productivity of the employees we have rather than try to rely on human hands for everything.”
Budget constraints might also be a challenge but says Gianusso, having come from financial services, "budget has always been a constraint based on managing money."
"It's always top of mind in terms of managing the business while delivering on promises to customers from an expectations point of view. The good news is that Flight Centre is getting ready for that travel bubble that is coming and moving forward from a technology point of view."