How is your CEO style different from that of John Brown?
John (former CEO, now Chairman of Agoda) is super smart and ‘presidential’ – he is inclusive, approachable, the perfect CEO for the times of Covid as he has all the leadership qualities we needed during the crisis. I try to be that, but I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as John.
Ah, but you have your own strengths. Which is the biggest?
I was an entrepreneur and grew up in technology – all of that is beyond me. I can talk to an engineer in a way that John probably can’t, just because I understand exactly what the engineer is saying. Not that John hasn’t, but I can take it to the next level by pushing innovation and making a difference.
What I hear from Booking Holdings (Agoda’s parent company) is that they chose me (as CEO) because they like Agoda’s technology approach. We have a fundamental belief that we win with technology. There are a lot of things to do (to be successful in business) but in the internet space, ultimately the winners are those who understand users fastest and experiment/develop technology fastest. It’s what I stand for and one of the things I brought to Agoda.
Technology is going to be what we live and die on during my period.
What technological innovation do you want to crack?
The one I really want to do is what I call “persistent” booking.
Basically, few people sit down and book their entire trip – flights, hotels, attractions, transfers, etc. – once. They can book the flight but don’t know where to stay yet, or know the hotel but can’t confirm the travel dates. They may also want to book experiences later in destination.
Where we as an industry have failed is in building technology good enough to allow people to persistently package, i.e. book and build their itinerary on a period of time, on a platform that supports their travel planning and booking and, over time, realize savings as they book a package.
AirAsia has just launched Air Asia Holidays – flights + hotels + activities in one booking at one price – but only in Malaysia and the Philippines for now.
Yes, you can buy packages even on Agoda, but still only a minority of people in Asia do, compared to the US.
If you want to bring it to the masses you have to decipher the time component, make the route something that survives over time and over time people can keep adding what they need and see the savings achieved by purchasing a more individual package. Components. We didn’t crack that and I can tell you we’ll give it our all. You will see a lot of movement on this from us in 2023.
We have just introduced a shopping cart on our platform. But that’s just the ability to add, like in an e-commerce website. This is our first step in creating a user experience where your itinerary persists over time and continues to receive package discounts.
If I can crack that, I can retire.
Why is it so difficult?
It’s a matter of both technology and user experience. You can find yourself in all sorts of trouble. For example, I book a flight and now I want to add the hotel but the booking failed. I cannot cancel the flight as it is non-refundable.
So we have to be smart about understanding the order in which people book travel and developing interfaces such as allowing them to cancel or make changes. Or let a customer know they need to decide. It’s a huge technological change.
Then there are other areas such as customer support training.
The hardest part is changing customer behavior. If you make it too complicated, it won’t work. It has to be intuitive.
But to me, that’s the billion dollar question about what separates a travel platform from a great app. Everyone wants to be a super app providing all services – a kind of WeChat. But I don’t necessarily see travel platforms becoming great apps. In fact, some great apps have become travel platforms, like Meituan, but outside of China, I don’t see (the concept) as a success.
I don’t want people buying me groceries or a massage unless it’s part of an experience or attraction while on their trip. And if they’re traveling with me, I want to help them build all the components over time and take advantage of the aggregate discounts in the itinerary.
I think that’s enough work to do, but if not, what other innovations are you playing with?
We are experimenting with many services that we will release in 2023. I am very excited.
For example, the price freeze. If you’re worried that the fare you’re considering will change, pay a little more and Agoda will lock in the fare for you. If it goes down, you will get the cheapest price. If it rises, the price remains as it was locked.
Another is a kind of insurance when you have to cancel a reservation. You pay a bit more for, say, a non-refundable room reservation, which is cheaper because it’s non-refundable, and in return Agoda will take the risk and refund you if you have to cancel. Flexibility and the ability to cancel is really important, as we have seen during Covid.
In the B2B space, the white label is a lucrative space (to be doubled). We are already empowering the online assets and extranet of companies like JTB.
More interesting is the distribution technology. Big chains continue to have problems with discounted wholesale rates coming online when they’re not supposed to. We want to provide a platform for chains to distribute to wholesalers, but with us we monitor distribution so that chains don’t have to play the mole. It’s also important to give channels visibility on where the booking is going, to whom, and ask any questions they have. This open platform does not exist.
Was the job of CEO your dream when you joined Agoda in 2014 after selling your start-up Qlika to Booking Holdings?
I don’t think anyone – maybe some, but not me – is considering becoming a CEO (laughs).
I remember before Booking acquired the Israeli company, they took us to see Rob Rosenstein (who co-founded Agoda in 2005 and was president and CEO for over a decade). I remember going into his room. He had a lot of TV screens and tons of data and I was like, ‘Oh, that person has a tough job!’
It was certainly not planned.
A technology-focused CEO. Should competitors be worried?
Nor were they concerned with John as CEO (laughs).
We have incredible competitors. One of the values we talk about a lot at Agoda is being humble and for me that means recognizing that our competitors are smart people and have their strengths. I’m not shy to say it – very often we learn from them.