Aidan Brogan, CEO
Listed on the public markets and a champion of the travel retail marketplace, Datalex works with some of the biggest airlines in the world.
Steering the company over the last five years (with 17 years before as one of the senior management team), Aidan Brogan knows a thing or two about how quickly and, also, how slowly the world of aviation evolves.
You've been at Datalex for over 20 years now, five years as the boss. Has it got easier with experience or harder because the industry is always evolving (or likes to think it is)?
I am very proud to be the CEO, leading the team at Datalex with every day presenting a new challenge.
We are very privileged in Datalex as we combine the excitement of the global airline industry with best in class digital technology.
The airline industry is going through a digital transformation and the pace of change is getting faster and faster.
Our focus is on scaling the business, which we have more than doubled in the last three years.
To position Datalex as a global leader in airline digital commerce we have defined a clear strategy and vision and have aligned the leadership team to execute this at pace.
What would you say has been the most important development both at the company and in the wider industry during that time?
The single most important development in the last number of years is consumer digital technology.
Consumers are now empowered and they want relevant, contextual data in real time via any and all digital channels.
Technology has and will continue to reshape the industry and value chain for the better.
Datalex is a critical component that helps our customers to transform as fundamentally digital retailers.
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Airlines now have the control to present relevant offers at every touchpoint to allow the customer to tailor their experience while maximizing revenues and margins for airlines.
During this time, we’ve moved from being the "internet booking engine" website to becoming the platform for offer and order management across all airline customer channels.
Our customers are evolving as true digital retailers, willing to challenge and reinvent to compete and differentiate in a rapidly evolving and multi-sided marketplace.
Would it be fair to assume that there is less educating about the ecommerce opportunities for airlines needed now than, say, five years ago?
The emergence of new digital players such as Airbnb, Uber and Amazon is educating the industry.
All airlines are not equal and view the opportunity from the perspective of their market, customer and business model.
We are working with our customers to keep legacy systems and processes humming while allowing for a refit suited to digital scale and performance.But at some point airlines need to start making choices across people, processes and systems to shift gear.
Some have not moved beyond the website or basic air and ancillary offerings.
Meanwhile others are investing to drive new revenue and profit sources by extending products and services beyond the shop and book stage to day of travel, inflight, advanced customer servicing, payments and relevant loyalty offerings.
From a distribution standpoint, I think we are in for a period of "experimentation" in how the airline digital retail ecosystem interacts with the travel industry value chain.
While gains continue to be shared with channels and partners of value, the airline will increasingly compete direct for the retail opportunity.
Yet, still, education doesn't necessarily turn carriers into instant customers. How do you convert them?
Customer success is a key strategic pillar in our business.
When we engage with a new customer, for us it is a multi-year partnership in which we share risk and reward for the desired business outcome and in which we are continuously invested to extend and enhance our product and service in line with the airline’s retail strategy.
Do you see a general trend around adoption of your type of services amongst certain types of carriers or regions?
I see the distinction of network, hybrid or LCC as quite opaque in the digital age.
As a general trend across all, we observe a shift from channel-centric strategies to customer-centric strategies.
This requires more ownership and control of the customer engagement across the value chain. Our platform is a critical component of that.
Our Chinese airline customers have been industry first movers in taking a mobile-first approach to commerce.
In Europe and the US, our customers are accelerating investment in data and AI technologies to enhance dynamic pricing and offer creation for a much more expansive set of products and services, i.e. beyond air and traditional ancillaries to include new travel and retail offerings.
Also, we are working with our customers to keep legacy systems and processes humming while allowing for a refit suited to digital scale and performance.
But at some point airlines need to start making choices across people, processes and systems to shift gear.
Datalex was one of the first third party tech companies to champion IATA's NDC standard. What's your analysis of the overall progress of the initiative?
We are committed to supporting IATA NDC and ONE Order initiatives and ensure ongoing compliance with latest standards, as well as contributing to the working groups and task force.
Datalex was an early enabler of unified offer and order management capabilities.
We deliver these as APIs to our airline customers in support of an ever-expanding portfolio of airline, travel and retail products and services in an ever-expanding digital supply chain ecosystem.
Every one of our customers uses the Datalex API capability to support their direct channels and to connect to trade partners such as Ctrip, Qunar, Tmall or Skyscanner.
Plenty of talk about retailing and the supposed "Amazonisation" of airline websites in recent years - but do you sympathise with those who suggest carriers should just stick to what they're (hopefully) good at?
The point is, companies like Amazon are platform businesses - with technology at their core – they deliver products and services with exceptional precision, optimizing their operations while engaging directly with the customer to leverage the network effect – i.e. the more participants on the platform, the greater the value produced.
A shocking failure will be if the airline does not see the platform play at all.
If it never gets past the idea that they sell flight operations when they could be building powerful retail brand ecosystems.
Are there elements of how distribution and ecommerce are handled in other parts of the industry that the aviation sector could learn from?
Airlines need to carefully determine how to participate in a multi-sided digital marketplace.
Customers and partner distributors may need equal attention from the outset – for example in the case of managed travel, or because you’ve been convinced a distribution partner has built a better storefront or customer experience to sell your products.
But airlines need to make some new decisions as the owners of precious inventory and valuable brand equity.
The reality is, the airline remains the poor cousin of the supply chain in terms of profitability and EBITDA – it needs more revenue and profit sources from more customers, products and services.
A successful digital commerce platform will foster exchange and co-creation of value with partners but the supply chain should accept that the airline can be both supplier and retailer!
What is the most critical component of your business (after the things that people always say: team, customers and technology)?
We are ideally positioned to address the market forces driving airline adoption of new digital commerce technologies. We continue to invest in data, machine learning, payments and cloud technologies to set new standards in digital commerce, and we’re continuously thinking about where airline retail might be in the future.
I think we are in for a period of "experimentation" in how the airline digital retail ecosystem interacts with the travel industry value chain.
Earlier this year we announced the launch of ‘Datalex Labs’ in Silicon Valley, in partnership with JetBlue Technology Ventures.
One of our first major initiatives was the launch of a unique approach to open innovation called "API Airways".
API Airways is our vision for an airline of the future in the API (‘Application Programming Interface’) economy which allows us to accelerate new digital innovation with our partner airlines, technology providers and high-potential startups in a realistic airline environment.
So, what is it about Ireland that has seen the emergence of a travel technology scene over the years?
Ireland is often cited as a "nation of aviators" and consistently ranks highly for its technology skills base.
So I guess our performance as travel technology providers seems to be in our DNA.
And a couple of questions about you - on a scale of one to ten, how lucky are you in your professional life?
I consider myself lucky and I have a positive and optimistic outlook.
That said I do follow the golfing analogy: “The more I practice, the luckier I get!"
When faced with two equally qualified people, how do you usually select the right candidate?
Organisational culture is a fundamental cornerstone to a modern digitally-focused business.
It is all about collaboration, agility and the courage to take risks.
So I would select the person who is most aligned to this approach and someone who will challenge us to constantly strive to be better.
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