Gunjan Verma, Chief Technology Officer of The Travel Corporation, discusses the role of technology in transformation and combatting COVID-19...
Last year, The Travel Corporation (TTC) celebrated its hundredth anniversary. The globe-spanning organisation incorporates around 40 brands as part of the TTC family, as well as a number of Hotels. “Each of those brands is known in their categories to provide exceptional customer service and travel experiences at their core,” says Gunjan Verma, Chief Technology Officer of The Travel Corporation, and previously of one of those brands, Contiki. “We’re passionate about making travel experiences personal, with a huge focus on sustainability. Whatever we do is with the aim of making travel matter.”
A large part of enabling that vision comes from technology. On the data front, the company is midway through a journey to maximise its data utilisation. “There are two key initiatives to further leverage our data underway,” says Verma. “We have made a significant investment in building a multi-system, multi-source data ecosystem. Over the next two to three years will see us taking data from Salesforce, from our reservation system, from our website, all coming into an AWS scalable platform for us to then start using that data to assist decision-making.”
AI is another emerging area into which Verma is looking to improve performance across the company, including the sorting of business leads. “We use some rules right now to prioritize some leads over others. We are now looking at how to use AI to say this lead is better than the other in order to take that to the next level. Of course we also employ AI in the customer experience space on the digital front. When a customer comes to our website, their experience is personalised. The first time they might see some inspirational imagery, but the next time we can detect that you have come before and, based on some rules, alter your web experience.”.
The customer experience is at the core of the travel experience TTC offers. “We have a platform called My Travel Portal,” says Verma. “We use it to build excitement even before a vacation has begun. What are you going to see? What are you going to eat including any dietary requirements? What are the local experiences that will be available to you? It also allows our customers to express their travel passions. For example, you may say you’re actually very interested in architecture, while your partner may say they're very interested in food and wine. We capture all of that detail.” Beyond that, it also has simplifying functions such as taking the stress out of juggling travel documents by storing all relevant data for hotel check-ins or flight boarding.
Verma points out that just as important as the new technology is the culture supporting it, however, with a new emphasis on supporting decisions with data. “18 months ago, we embarked on an AB testing framework with everything we do. Now, we don’t just say an image on our website looks more inspirational than another - we let data tell us. We’re shifting the culture from inspiration to inspiration and data, instituting a culture of testing, learning and continuous improvement.” Alongside that is an emphasis on trusting teams to manage themselves. Verma sees this as not just a trend but a permanent evolution. “It is actually well established now that self managing teams perform better. The question is how do you keep business objectives in mind, give them to your respective teams and let them get on with it, promoting that culture of autonomy with a few guide rails.”
Supporting TTC on its journey have been a few key partners, among them Salesforce. “They’ve assisted as we’ve transformed our business from being a legacy tour operator, to a omnichannel organisation. Salesforce of course has brought not just the technology such as Einstein, but the thinking which comes with being a digital-first business.” One of the areas Salesforce has particularly focused upon is data. “The professional services arm of Salesforce has been moving things forwards with our approach to data. Answering questions like: ‘What's the best way to unlock our data? What's the best way to market our first-party data? What do we do with third-party data?’ All the issues that have come up around adopting a multi-channel strategy, they’ve helped to answer.”
The travel industry has been particularly hard-hit by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leading TTC to adopt a number of proactive measures to ensure staff, customers and partners all feel safe. “That is the single most important thing we have to do,” says Verma. “Of course we have a very robust hygiene and wellbeing protocol in place for future travel. Governments will play their part with vaccination, but we feel that as a travel operator we also have to play our part in making sure that people are looked after and taken care of.” One such example of that focus is the institution of wellbeing directors to ensure social distancing at hotels and restaurants, akin to existing travel directors. As Verma explains, responding to the pandemic has allowed the company to learn a few lessons. “We’ve learnt that we can move fast if the organisation is focused on a single objective, and proved that legacy businesses can also be agile when it comes to it. The ways we were able to pivot and the nimbleness we were able to build into our operating model means that it’s served to accelerate existing efforts.”
Going forwards, Verma sees his department as continuing to fulfill the measures upon which it judges itself, namely improving customer experience, providing productivity improvements, focusing on security and compliance, increasing distribution and building a culture of continuous improvement. “TTC’s technology department will continue using technology and digital-enabled tools and processes to make our brands more successful in their respective, competitive marketplaces.”