Expedia Inc has been busy integrating Travelocity since January 2015, when it announced it was acquiring the online travel agency brand.
Since January Brad Wilson, general manager, has spent about 35 weeks in Bellevue and London with Expedia's global teams, helping to oversee the transition of the Dallas-based brand.
Wilson spent the previous four years as chief marketing officer of Travelocity, focusing on customer acquisition, brand management, and building operations.
Since 2013, he's helped execute Expedia's marketing partnership that powered Travelocity prior to the actual acquisition.
Tnooz: Why was the acquisition in Travelocity's interest?
Wilson: I don't know how much people appreciated how we were truly disadvantaged. But we were materially lower than our competitors on conversion rates.
The biggest problem was that we had just a fraction of the supply. Adding Expedia Inc inventory has made our marketing engine much better.
Tnooz: What has been one of the biggest surprises during the transition?
Wilson: To measure customer satisfaction, we measure net promoter score (NPS), sort of the big piece for making sure we get it right.
Prior to the acquisition, I was always out on speaker circuit saying, "Compared to all the US retail travel brands, Travelocity is number one in NPS. We blow everyone away."
We thought our NPS was in the, say, mid-40s. But after the acquisition, we started measuring NPS the way that Expedia does, which is I believe a more proper way, but it fell into the mid-20s, so we were actually in the middle of the pack.
We would measure NPS right at the point of booking and Expedia would standardize NPS after the trip experience itself....
So, the idea there is that there is a lot that we don't control on that trip experience. We don't run the hotels or the planes, obviously. But we should be able to influence customer satisfaction better....
NPS is a very key figure for us and we're going to boost it.
We care about customer service more broadly. Excellent customer service is about personalization and urgency....
We've added real-time reviews so that hotel partners understand what is going right and what is going wrong with that guest experience in the moment.
We also added Routehappy reviews to the air shopping experience. Travelocity suppliers now get access to great tools via Expedia PartnerCentral.
We are trying to make that front-and-center and have them recognize that we can influence merchandising and the sort, based on the overall experience.
Tnooz: Travelocity has been North America-centric. Will it keep its North American focus?
Wilson: If you had asked me 12 months ago, I would say, yep, absolutely we are going to expand internationally.
Now I would say it is probably a little too early to talk about going global. We have to make sure we've enhanced a few more operational components on the marketing side.
I also think we have a lot more we can introduce near-term to take share in North America and differentiate our brand in a way that is a benefit for Expedia Inc.
We will expand our focus to outside of the US, but I just don't think it is going to happen that near-term.
Tnooz: How has the transition gone so far?
Wilson: We're now running completely on Expedia's tech stack, which has revved up all of our metrics.
Culturally it has been a good fit. We have no regrettable attrition....
Anyone who was incoming to Travelocity in recent years knew what they were signing up for and ultimately you wanted to land with a company like Expedia. So in our teams' perspective, it has been fantastic.
Tnooz: So the gnome wasn't laid off?
Wilson: We love the gnome. The gnome is forever.
Tnooz: What's been the focus of the past year?
Wilson: This year has been built around getting the operations right, getting access to all of that new supply....
We are setting our sights on how do we become truly distinct within the portfolio. You will see some new things from us in 2016.
Tnooz: Travelocity might approach customer acquisition in its own way, compared to the others?
Wilson: Yes. We have been a completely separate group, completely separate retail group, separate marketing group, a merchandising group that is globalized, but carved off.
So while we coordinate with the other sister brands and our brands within the family, I should say, we absolutely market.
Tnooz: At Travelocity, are you bringing Expedia Inc's test-and-learn approach to product review and development?
Wilson: We absolutely are. We were slow out of the gate, like the typical acquiree. But today our velocity is at par with brand Expedia at this point.
Tnooz: What else will differentiate Travelocity and other travel brands?
Wilson: Absolutely nothing. No, I'm just kidding.
It is important to note, that before the acquisition, we built this legacy around service....
It is important to note that as we come into the family and examine the customers across all the brands there is very little cross-pollination, actually, between the groups ...
In fact, it is very consistent with what we all know within the category for cross-shopping, so it is relatively small.
Now, what differentiates us from us from Hotels.com versus Expedia.com, has already been around service, as you know, we pioneered the Travelocity guarantee, 7 or 8 years back.
So, now we are looking to stand up and prioritize something new for next year that can help carry forward that legacy. When we measure it from a brand equity perspective, we still carry this legacy of stellar service.
Regarding service, many things we do is still largely the same today. But we are going to relaunch or reinvigorate around this concept of service.... We'll have more to say about that in 2016.
Tnooz: How does Travelocity do customer acquisition differently than other brands or how does it excel?
Wilson: The consumer affinity for the gnome helps us on brand direct bookings.
When you look at the classic traditional marketing metrics, we always were very high on the awareness and consideration scores -- often, you know, best-in-class in the categories -- in spite of our being a fifth of the size of our now sister brand, Expedia.
Once consumers transact with us, they say they have a great transaction experience, according to our own internal survey metrics. We are number-one in terms of, "Do people love us?"
Ideally that would translate down the line to more repeat business. That is where we need to work.
So at the top of transaction funnel, and at the bottom of the funnel, we're really good.
Where we have always had a gap is exactly the middle, at the point of consideration to the actual transaction. Always.
Why? We really didn't have a great transaction experience in the Sabre relationship.... Our speed was lowest in the category. Our conversion was lowest in the category. Supply was low in the category.
Now having a new backbone to kind of re-engineer that experience. That is really going to help us close that gap. We have not closed it significantly yet, but we will, as we continue to extend out into customer acquisition.
In the area outside of brand, we have a lot of improvement to gain, but we have a plan in place to operationalize a lot of the needed changes.
We'll apply a test-and-learn approach to our marketing. All of our e-mail, our search engine marketing, every single lever will be tested.
Tnooz: When Dara does his calls he often talks about the success of the loyalty program at hotels.com. Orbitz also has a well regarded loyalty program, and now that's part of the family. Is there anything coming on loyalty for Travelocity?
Wilson: I had anticipated this question coming up. Yeah. We are looking at it.... Prior to the acquisition, we were absolutely engineered around launching a new loyalty offering, to take some meaningful market share and add value to the existing customers we had.
Now, since the acquisition, we are rethinking it, so that we are not just grabbing market share from our family brands.... I think we will probably have something to say on this next year.
Wilson: The general attributes of customers that are more geared to booking through an online travel agent are ones that prefer a loyalty program. An offering is one of those things we have to have, but we are going through research right now to make sure we have the math right.
As suppliers are weakening their loyalty programs, OTA loyalty programs become much more interesting to customers. In Expedia's program, they're interested in how you can earn on air, car, hotel, cruise and redeem on all of those.
We want to make it different. We have three excellent case studies of how to do loyalty -- Expedia, Hotels.com and Orbitz, now, at least in North America and they are all very different. We want ours to be different and to add value.
Tnooz: Has it been hard for Travelocity's voice to be heard within the Expedia family?
Wilson: No. We get to operate autonomously. Plus, Expedia Inc has a culture where the truly best idea, backed by evidence, wins.
As long as we can present the evidence -- provided that it is the right hypothesis, structured with proper evidence -- we can move forward independently as a brand.
A Travelocity brand manager can have as much influence in a meeting as the representative of any other brand in the family.
The only difficult part for our team has been learning all the Expedia Inc acronyms for processes. (Laughs.) I'm joking.
Tnooz: About how many employees are in the Travelocity brand right now?
Wilson: We are structured a little bit uniquely, as you mentioned earlier. We are due to be 70 to 75-ish, by the end of the year. Today we have about 60. That is 100% dedicated to just Travelocity, people with Travelocity business cards.
As you can imagine, there is broader marketing organization help that supports Travelocity. There is a huge product and engineering organization and customer service team that supports Travelocity as well.
Tnooz: Are there any particular areas that you are interested in hiring for?
Wilson: There will be some engineering and technical components, but mostly it is going to be on the retail and marketing side.
Tnooz: What will you look for in new hires?
Wilson: I typically look for leadership and presence, in addition to the basics.
I want people who intuitively speak in a language of putting the customer first. By "customer," I'm including consumers and suppliers, by the way. Both sides of that marketplace equation....
I look for people who can translate their ideas into an argument with evidence of how it will improve our business.
Tnooz: In the past couple of years, how have you incorporated the idea of transparency into discussions about product?
Wilson: We've worked to get our influence into the wheelhouse of testimony on the product and tech teams. ...
There is a global retail sort of trading meeting, so to speak. Each week we mostly talk about the performance of the business, but it's also a forum to talk about things that have been introduced and how they're working.
There is a monthly, day-long product review meeting, where we go through every single thing that I happening on the site and the performance of individual pieces.
About every quarter we have functions where we introduce ideas. It is a forum of 100 to 200 people and we all get to share our views. ... It's a very transparent and meritocratic forum. You have to make the economic case as well as the customer benefit case.
We have much more testing and discussion than I ever saw while at Sabre. Across the Expedia Group, not counting Hotwire, there are about 2,000 tests a year. The pace is truly phenomenal.
The pace of testing at Sabre was much slower. We were constantly supporting all those custom products. So it was really tough to get any velocity on the business consumer platforms.
Expedia's approach is a meaningful difference. This company is the best I have worked for. It starts with the leadership.
Tnooz: What is your office situation like?
Wilson: We used to have a campus in Southlake across from Sabre's headquarters. A really Spartan office, as you can imagine, a temporary place. We all knew the score under Sabre.
But we have since moved into an amazing new office with Hotels.com in Dallas.
The thing I love about the new space: One, we are aligned in the same building with our supply organization, and, two, Expedia hired designers to make the space appealing to work in and to recognize our separate mission as a brand, with pictures of our own team's trips and journeys. It's fantastic.
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