In this CIO Vision Series interview, Barry Vandevier, CTO of online travel site Travelocity, and CIO of the company's parent Sabre Holdings, talks with Dan Farber about his company's efforts to deploy Web 2.0 technologies for the next generation of online travel. He also discusses Travelocity's green strategy -- a program that allows users to purchase "carbon offsets" when booking travel.
Dan Farber: Barry, thanks for joining me.
Barry Vandevier: Thanks, Dan, for having me.
Now Sabre Holdings has been around for a while in the travel industry as an infrastructure provider to many other travel companies, and it seems to me that in the travel industry there are some big players such as yourself, Orbitz, Expedia, and others. How do you differentiate yourself from a technology perspective?
Vandevier: We focus very much on customer championship and making sure that we're there to support the customer from when they begin dreaming about their trip, all the way through their travel and beyond post travel. Our goal is to really ensure from a technology perspective that we are able to support our customers early on and we have been very focused on the dreaming, planning, and shopping aspect, and we feel we have done some very innovative development. But then we've also been very heavily focused on the customer during the travel and post travel. So we put a lot of focus on technology within our call centres, for our agents to support the customer -- a lot of automation for our customers. For instance if a customer is travelling to a certain location, and we find that there is an issue with the hotel, we can contact and help not only that customer but all customers heading to that hotel.
So basically the fundamental technology that all online travel companies use is fairly standard but it's that customer relationship management on top of it that gives you some unique differentiation?
Vandevier: Our focus at Travelocity is to ensure our product from the perspective of inventory, air, car, hotel -- all the different extras that you'll find at a destination. And we package all that together into a product and differentiate based on the full experience well beyond just the product itself.
Now what's an example of this full experience and how you used technology to give yourself an edge over your competitors?
Vandevier: We are in process with a product in beta we call Experience Finder that is very focused on the destination and the experience of the destination. It's much more than how you get to the location and where you are staying, it's the full experience of that destination. And we're putting a lot of effort into content, into reviews, into multimedia photos, and providing the customer the ability to view the entire destination and all the different activities. We do it by theme, so whether you're in Las Vegas, whether you're there for a gambling trip or you're there to tour the city, we can provide various themes and content associated to those themes in order to give a broad variety of choices to our customers.
From a technology perspective, you have a very data-intensive application -- performance is a big issue, I would assume. So what do you do on the back end to ensure your performance is one where the customer comes in and they don't have to wait and then leave?
Vandevier: As you know in the travel space, you're talking to hundreds of carriers, 70,000 hotel properties, 40 different car rental companies; you're aggregating a lot of content not only around the product itself but all the descriptive content -- and we have to be very focused on performance. To do that we do a number of things: we optimise our code; we're very focused on ensuring the data is easily accessible through the use of caching mechanisms that allow quick access to the data. We also focus on performance testing, performance tuning. One of the nice things that's evolving in the industry is that we can accomplish a lot more with faster CPUs, now that we're working with and starting to see multi-core CPU capability. We're able to leverage the power of that and the pricing of that to really scale out a lot more content and performance, and then we put our products through rigorous performance testing before we ever launch them into operation.
So my question would be then, how do you create a culture of innovation among your staff and how do they process all the ideas that are coming in and get ideas and then turn them into product?
Vandevier: First and foremost is empowerment -- really empowering your employees to bring forth ideas and leverage them. We do this in traditional ways such as research and we have a labs environment where we can test out new technologies and experiment with those technologies in a beta type presence. We also do it by providing our employees will a little bit of time on their own to explore new technologies. Yahoo introduced the Hack Day concept and we participate in Hack Day in our Sabre environment -- across all of our global locations, every year. On one day Hack Day in particular, employees are able to go in and experiment for 24 hours. We turn it into a contest, and so that's an example. In fact recently we had an employee out of one of our offices in Sydney who won the contest with a mash-up -- when we talk about Web 2.0 one of the big buzzwords is mash-up, where you are combining multiple content, maps, various different content. The business liked the mash-up this employee created so much, that we're actually working to get it incorporated into a product.
And what was it?
Vandevier: Well, I don't want to -- we haven't yet launched it publicly, so I don't want to talk too much about it. It's really about using maps and content and really being able to provide our customers more capabilities in terms of where they're going, their destination, and what they can see.
It would be kind of interesting to have a map and then just pinpoint on the map where you want to go and then have the software just bring you back results.
Vandevier: Absolutely. And we do have the ability, we have a lot of mapping capability already on Travelocity. But absolutely that's something we'll continue to focus on. In fact, with the Experience Finder product I told you about, we're very focused on the destination experience. The map component of that is very important to what we provide our customers -- where they know exactly where they are and what facilities are available, what products and capabilities are available, at their destination.
Now that kind of Experience Finder, is that something you're going to provide on mobile devices, so I can be walking around in any city and be accessing that over some 3G network, Edge network or whatever it might be?
Vandevier: Yes, for sure. Mobile devices, as everybody knows, are just expanding in use and capability every single day and our goal from a travel provider is to provide our customers as much information as we can on a particular destination -- whether it be flight information, information about the destination or tickets.
"Green" is another one of those hot topics right now in terms of technology. From a datacentre perspective, what are you doing to make yourselves more green and is that something you consider to be important from an economic standpoint as well as a public policy?
Vandevier: We do. In fact, I'll give you a couple of examples. From a datacentre perspective, absolutely, we are interested in reducing server footprints and moving towards CPUs and hardware that use less power and require less cooling. Those energy costs can take up a big portion of our spending. So focusing on smaller footprints and products that require less energy is a big issue for us, but there's another area that we're very focused on at Travelocity: our Go Zero program which is a carbon offset program. It allows our customers to donate money that goes towards planting trees in order to offset the entire trip. So if you take a trip and schedule a trip, you can donate 10 dollars and that will apply towards a carbon offset for that entire trip. That's been a big success for us in the US and in Europe and a big focus for us from an environmental perspective.
You must collect a lot of data and I'm interested to know what you do with that data -- the feedback loop -- and some of the tools that you use to take yourself to a higher level of efficiency, and to help improve the user experience?
Vandevier: Yes, absolutely. We have been focused on data acquisition and warehousing since in the '90s. Currently we load about 40 gigabytes of data a day into our warehouse. That's only focused on the shopping and booking data that we can use to provide our customers with better experiences. So we can use this to provide much more personalisation around not only the CRM and e-mail campaigns but also personalisation on our home page -- providing content to support exactly what that customer is interested in. We have found that the more we can provide our customers valuable responses that are specific to what they are interested in, we provide not only much more value to our customers but to the product itself. So that's been a big focus for us.
As you look out into the future and from what you've been talking about, it sounds like the notion of a travel agency -- an online travel agency -- is really changing. It's involving rich content; not just planning and ticketing for various services. How do you see this evolving into the future? I mean it almost sounds like it'll turn into an immersive kind of game at some point.
Vandevier: Well it's certainly going to get more interactive. You hear a lot of the buzzwords around Web 2.0. Now you hear about Web 3.0 -- relating to search and semantic Web content. All this is just going to continue. It's not just the software, it's the hardware too, and we can leverage all this to provide a much richer experience to our customers -- a much more interactive experience.
Finally, from a software development perspective, what are you using on the backend to ensure that you can be very rapid in incrementing your development?
Vandevier: It's very important for us that as we build out our products and services we do so in a service-oriented architecture approach and that allows us much more flexibility as we roll out new features and functions. We need to do it within the components of a specific service and so it enables us to divide and conquer because we can build out a structure of our services. This is another example of where the technology has improved enabling us to pull together various services from different places in the travel business. We can take different products, whether it's air, car, hotel, destination experiences, content, travel reviews, and pull all that together into a cohesive product for our customers. Building that in a services oriented architecture allows us to do so within each component [and] gives us much more flexibility in terms of new features and functionality. And it allows us to move faster as the product technology and our customer needs evolve.
Barry, thanks very much for speaking with me.
Vandevier: Great. Thanks Dan. I appreciate you having me.