Yes, Ireland’s notorious low-cost carrier wants to be the Amazon of the retail world and has learnt quickly that the customer must come first.
Kenny Jacobs, chief marketing officer of Ryanair hasn’t been on happy pills since he joined the airline 18 months ago, but he is feeling pretty pleased with how the company’s digital turnaround is going.
Jacobs, who was being grilled by Tnooz editor Kevin May, told a packed conference hall at EyeforTravel’s European Travel Distribution Summit:
"In 2014, we got our shit together. We caught up."
Customer numbers are up from 81 to 90 million, the airline has seen a 6% increase in load factor and profits are up, which is good news for shareholders.
Quite simply, Ryanair has engineered the turnaround by grabbing the low hanging fruit; 18 months ago, they had no mobile app, were unresponsive to customers, did no retargeting, and were getting plenty of bad press.
But it’s all change at Ireland’s notorious low-cost carrier and Jacobs says success has been down to responding to what matters to customers and implementing those quickly and in a low cost fashion.
Unsurprisingly, mobile has been central to this and "everything going forward is going to be about mobile".
Come the end of 2015, Ryanair will be a mobile first company; the native app, which will be “very strong” by the end of this month, has proved popular and a large number of customers now never visit the website.
That’s a big shift for a company which not that long ago had a cumbersome and dated online presence.
So where to next?
Well aside from mobile, the word is ‘retail’ and Ryanair is aiming big – to become the Amazon of the travel world.
And Jacobs is confident that when travellers are looking for short-haul flights in Europe, the airline will be top of mind, and for this reason they have a much better chance to own more of that relationship and secure more of the travel wallet.
Lessons have been taken from how booking.com uses data to ruthlessly convert its customers, but other brands admired by Jacobs include John Lewis and, of course, Amazon.
Ryanair has always been ruthless with costs which, for better or worse, has enabled them to build a huge customer base.
Now the plan is "to be ruthless with data".
However, what Jacobs is clear about is that digital should not be used to paper over cracks, that there still needs to be a fundamental business proposition.
That remains low-cost flights but Ryanair is now starting to take a much wider view of the whole travel experience.
This could include everything from how the customer gets to the airport to what they do at the airport, whether they buy travel insurance, how they find an English speaking doctor on trip, events at the destination and the list goes on.
Even a Ryanair branded family holiday package now looks possible.
"Airlines have been held back by technology but now we are really getting back control of our own travel front end."
While to date, ancillaries have been a "bolt on", after the official launch of the retailing website later this year, this will be done in a very different way.
"We will be far more targeted about when we insert ancillary offers into the customer journey."
Trust, transparency and strategic moves
They aren’t there yet, but a major goal is to build consumer trust. “The new Ryanair is about being far more transparent,” Jacobs says.
Trust will not come from any corporate social responsibility “nonsense” but rather by delivering customers with they what they want.
"Customers don't want us to be lovely guys, they want to trust us to give them what we promise."
Speaking of not being a lovely guy, Ryanair has had a chequered relationship with intermediaries like the OTAs, metasearch players and the global distribution systems (GDSs).
"We continue to be picky with metasearch but we no longer have a ‘we absolutely won’t work with anybody rule'..."
Indeed, Google Flight Search, which filters fares to display the lowest price first, plays very nicely in Ryanair’s hands.
In another volte-face, Ryanair is once again working closely with the GDSs in certain areas (Travelport in March 2014, Amadeus around six months later, and Sabre this week)
The airline wanted to grow in certain markets such as Italy and Germany (where it aims to grow share from 4% -15%), and also to grow it corporate customer base, and to do this having a relationship with the GDSs was crucial.
While Ryanair is open to working with OTAs, Jacobs insists that they simply don’t need OTAs to get direct visits to their website which already run into "big, big, big, big numbers".
However, what Jacobs remains very uncomfortable with are the OTAs that scrape Ryanair’s site.
"Those that tart up their site to dupe customers into thinking they are booking through an airline is something that I fundamentally disagree with."
On the subject of white label partners, Ryanair said they would continue to work with them to create a retail platform, which will be ready by September later this year.
What Ryanair is not interested in is building a traditional frequent flyer programme.
"We’re a democratic brand so we don’t need to do that. But what we do want to do is deliver customers with a more personalised experience."
That means being smarter with digital and it could mean more A-B testing – which has never been done by the airline before – to relentlessly test different formulas.
To end the session on a lighter note, May asked Jacobs to engage in a game of word association.
For Jacobs, SouthWest Airlines, "used to be a low cost airline", metasearch is "something we need to understand more about", EasyJet "looks a little bit like a low cost airline", transatlantic is "a few years off" and on the eve of the UK’s general election, "David Cameron".
NB:Ryanair image via Shutterstock.