Travel’s movers, shakers and newsmakers of 2023

Date:

The end of the year is often as
much a time of reflection as it is for new year predictions.

Reflecting on the
past 12 months in the world of travel tech, we consider what a fascinating year
it has been. We’ve seen every sector of the industry and companies from
startups to legacy brands wrestle with when and how to use generative
artificial intelligence – a concept that was largely unknown just one year ago.
Industry leaders have also caught our attention on topics such as NDC, hospitality
tech, sustainability, digital identity and more. 

These are some of the people
PhocusWire has identified as playing key roles in the past year — and who figure
to be among those to watch in the year to come.

Sam Altman, co-founder and CEO, OpenAI

Altman may be the most obvious choice on this list – and the only one who a year ago was virtually unknown within the travel industry. A fitting juxtaposition for someone who has become the face of one of the most seismic developments in technology – generative artificial intelligence – that has captivated the world in the past 12 months.

Altman helped co-found OpenAI in 2015 while he was president of startup accelerator Y Combinator. In 2019 he left that role to become CEO of OpenAI – which at that point transitioned from a nonprofit to a “capped” for-profit – and remains in that position today, following a five-day period in November when he was fired and then reinstated.

Travel is, of course, just one of many industries that has been delving into the potential of generative AI, but adoption has been relatively slow. Some companies, such as Trip.com, Expedia Group (where Altman was on the board from 2019 until June 1), Kayak and MakeMyTrip jumped in early while others – notably hospitality and airline brands – have been relatively quiet. As some of the hype continues to die down and concrete results emerge (see Tripadvisor CEO Matt Goldberg’s comments from the company’s Q3 2023 earnings), expect to see more travel brands finding ways to put the technology to use, both for internal and customer-facing applications. 

With Altman firmly back at the helm of OpenAI – and with others, notably Google, ramping up efforts to compete and even monetize their generative AI offerings – he and his company will continue to be one to watch for the foreseeable future.

Aloke Bajpai, co-founder and group CEO, Ixigo

Bajpai co-founded India-based online travel agency Ixigo in 2007 to improve the travel booking process through technology.

While the company’s original focus was on flight metasearch, it moved into solving friction for travelers on India’s train system. It later expanded into train and bus ticketing platforms with the 2021 acquisitions of Confirmtkt and Abhibus, respectively. The focus on trains and buses was consistent with an approach Bajpai described to Web In Travel in 2021 when he said “building the leading travel company in India will involve going to the smallest of towns and being relevant for travel there.”

After becoming India’s biggest train travel booking platform, the company reported turning a profit for the 2023 fiscal year. In August it announced plans to launch its own hotel booking platform instead of redirecting customers to Booking.com.

“Entering the hotel segment is a natural progression for us as an OTA,” Bajpai told the Hindu Business Line. “While we have been partnering with Booking.com for hotel accommodations, we believe it’s time to develop this segment on our own from a business economics perspective.”

Alix Boulnois, chief digital officer, Accor

Boulnois has achieved a lot during her relatively short tenure at Accor. She joined the hotel giant as senior vice president of digital and innovation in early 2020, with responsibility for the group’s digital transformation as well as digital products and services development.

Boulnois added engineering and innovation to her digital transformation role just over a year later when she was named chief digital factory officer and joined the company’s executive committee. Then at the beginning of 2023 she was appointed CDO, adding distribution and loyalty to the mix, and joined the management board.

Going forward, she will be at the center of Accor’s augmented hospitality strategy to increase non-room revenue and “provide a bigger experience than just a stay.”

Boulnois’ CV was impressive even before she joined the hotel industry. She started out at consultancy McKinsey and later spent more than six years in roles at Amazon in the United States and Europe. In product and innovation roles with the e-commerce giant she was involved in the launch of Prime Now and other projects. It’s clear that with this experience, Boulnois will help bring a more agile approach to Accor as it further develops its websites, mobile apps, loyalty program and wider digital initiatives.

Brian Chesky, CEO, Airbnb

Chesky has become something of a household name with the fame that comes with starting a multi-billion dollar company like Airbnb. But hitting that mark hasn’t slowed him down at all. The 42-year-old Airbnb co-founder and CEO has been an innovator in the space since he and his roommates founded the company 15 years ago.

This year Chesky led the company through regulatory challenges – most notably in New York City – and to its most profitable third quarter in the company’s history. On the Q3 call, Chesky promised more to come in 2024, including international growth, a new marketing campaign, new features on the platform – and a conviction that the company could have double-digit revenue growth for many years.

And he’s been talking about many ways the company will integrate generative artificial intelligence, including its potential to create “a whole new interface” that will make the Airbnb app like an “AI concierge.” That goal may be the reason behind the company’s November acquisition of  GamePlanner.ai for a reported $200 million. The startup’s founders have joined Airbnb to “focus on accelerating select AI projects and integrating their tools into our platform,” according to a statement. 

The transformative potential created by generative AI, the growing popularity of short-term rentals and Chesky’s record of contrivance create an interesting mix that will no doubt keep Chesky in the headlines in the year ahead.

Heather Dahl, CEO, Indicio

Dahl is a global thought leader on online privacy and security issues. Since helping to found Indicio in 2020, Dahl has served as CEO and positioned the company as a leader in the creation of open source, verifiable, decentralized identity solutions.

This type of identity technology enables individuals to control their own digital IDs while also enabling others to verify and trust those credentials without needing to check with any third parties or to store personally identifiable information.

It’s a complex topic, but Dahl is skilled at explaining it in simple terms – possibly a credit to her early career work in media.

Indicio builds these “Trusted Digital Ecosystems” for clients across travel, finance, health care, logistics and more. Its work with SITA and the government of Aruba started during the pandemic as a way for travelers to share proof of a negative COVID test, but now the solution is much more broad, enabling travelers to visit the island without needing to show a physical passport upon arrival. Eventually, Aruba’s “Happy One Pass” will function as a comprehensive digital ID for tourists useful across a variety of activities such as hotel check-in or car rental. 

That successful launch is drawing interest from other governments, airports and airlines around the world, so in August Indicio and SITA signed an agreement to accelerate deployment of digital identities for travel. That, coupled with related developments such as four large-scale pilots testing the European Union’s Digital Identity Wallet and other initiatives in parts of Asia, Africa and North America, could mean decentralized digital identities will soon be mainstream – a vision Dahl has been promoting for some time.

Ben Drew, president, Viator

When Tripadvisor announced
in 2020 that Viator would operate
independently with Drew as its president, some industry
insiders speculated that Tripadvisor
would sell Viator. That seemed like more of a certaintly n early 2022 when Tripadvisor made a confidential filing with the
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that revealed it was
exploring a “selling a minority stake of
the Viator business to the public market.”

But
then the tide turned, as under Drew’s leadership Viator became Tripadvisor’s
growth engine. By Q3 of this year the experiences online travel
agency was posting revenues that nearly match that
for the rest of larger company and gross bookings of $1.1
billion. 

While Viator has benefited from the larger trend of experiences’ increasing role in driving travel decisions, much of the credit for the company’s recent growth has gone to Drew, who came to
Tripadvisor in 2012 as head of business development for vacation rentals after
nearly three years at Expedia Group. Now nearly four years in as president of Viator, he’s something of a standard-bearer for
the sector. Early on, Drew led a push to improve the quality of
operator listings, saying he saw long-term success in having “both
the biggest choice but also the best quality.” He’s also an outspoken advocate for getting
more experiences business online.

“We’re talking about ChatGPT and robots taking over the world,
and we haven’t even got three out of four people using the internet in tourism
experiences yet,” Drew said during at session at Phocuswright Europe in June. Looking ahead, Tripadvisor CEO Matt Goldberg has said the Viator team is focused on “driving app downloads and loyalty and has been testing a rewards program” – all interesting concepts and opportunities for Drew to lead Viator into new territory.

Steve Hafner, CEO, Kayak 

Hafner has helmed Kayak since he co-founded the
company in 2004 and after nearly two decades, he’s still showing a willingness
to experiment. Examples from recent years – some that have come and gone –
include being one of the first companies to launch a
chatbot for Google Hangouts in 2018, voice
capabilities for Alexa, the opening of a Kayak-brand
hotel in Miami Beach, the creation
of an in-house content agency in 2021 and becoming one of the first
companies to create
a plugin for OpenAI’s ChatGPT last March.

But Kayak’s entrance into business travel may be the best
example of its culture of innovation. The company launched Kayak
for Business in 2019 in beta with a free tool for small- and medium-sized
businesses, with the full
launch and addition of expense integration and price prediction in 2021. In
the midst of that Kayak
began quietly working with Blockskye, a PhocusWire Hot 25 Travel Startup
for 2024, to develop the booking tool for its new blockchain-based solution for
corporate travel. The success of that solution in the last year with its inaugural
client PwC has prompted Hafner to push the company deeper into business travel with
the launch
of Kayak for Enterprise. At The Phocuswright Conference Hafner
announced the next two customers for the Blockskye-Kayak solution – Diageo and
Tripadvisor. 

Hafner has big ambitions
about what the Enterprise product can offer – including the possibility of
new blockchain-managed payment capabilities that “cuts out the credit card
companies” –  and plans for a business
travel product for companies that sit between SME and enterprise segments. So look for the innovation to continue. 

Vanessa Hudson, CEO, Qantas Group

Glance around at pretty much any airline conference and what you see is still predominantly men in suits. So for the fact she has broken through that alone, Vanessa Hudson is to be applauded. However, that is not to take anything away from the newly-appointed Qantas CEO who, when it comes to airline business, has covered a lot of ground.

Hudson has spent 28 years across roles including distribution and customer experience at Australia’s national carrier. Along that journey, she served as chief customer officer overseeing much of the carrier’s distribution strategy, including the launch of its distribution platform in 2018. Hudson rose further through the ranks to become chief financial officer in late 2019 and saw the airline through the pandemic before being announced as CEO in May 2023 and taking up the role in September.

One of her first actions in the top seat, a public apology to customers acknowledging that the airline “could have done better,” is perhaps a signal of her desire for change. She added, “We want to get back to the national carrier that Australians can be proud of.”

The coming months, and years, will be challenging for Hudson as she repairs reputational damage done to the airline over allegations it sold tickets for flights it didn’t intend to fly and is also accused of laying off employees while paying large sums to its directors. 

Robert Isom, CEO, American Airlines

Talk about airlines’ new distribution capability has been ongoing for more than a decade, but it was American Airlines and new CEO Robert Isom who made it a priority in 2023 — with plans to keep pushing in 2024. Under Isom — who assumed the role of CEO in March 2022 after serving as the company’s president since 2016 — the carrier implemented a controversial shift April 3 to remove 40% of its fares from traditional Edifact channels and then began offering full NDC content through Sabre, Travelport and Amadeus.

Despite pushback from travel agents, travel management companies and others, American doubled down on the strategy. It seems to be paying off. In the third quarter, more than three-quarters of the carrier’s bookings came from its website, mobile app and NDC-enabled channels, up from two-thirds the previous year. “These are the most efficient distribution channels in our ecosystem, and we expect to see these trends continue into the fourth quarter and beyond,” Isom said during an earnings call.

And under Isom’s leadership, American is fighting back against complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation by the American Society of Travel Agents that American’s NDC strategy is harming “travel agencies and consumers.”  American has asked the DOT to dismiss the complaint, calling it “a frivolous compilation of rhetoric and unsupported allegations.” The dispute will continue into the new year, as we continue to watch how Isom and American advance the carrier’s NDC strategy.

Ethan Lin, co-founder and CEO, and Eric Gnock Fah, co-founder and COO, Klook

Klook’s founders Lin and Gnock Fah have not been shy to adapt and embrace change. The friends and business partners with a background in investment banking, who met around 2007, have grown the company to $3 billion in annual gross booking value.

Early on in the pandemic the pair looked at the needs of its markets and the potential for recovery and quickly unveiled virtual, home-based activities called Klook Home and shifted to domestic experiences. Over the course of 2021 the company secured $200 million in funding and reached more destinations with its experiences.

Fast forward to early 2022 and Gnock Fah and Lin decided that a rebrand was in order as it sought to expand its product offering to include hotels, car rental and other travel elements. It also unveiled Flickket, a software-as-a-service product providing technology to merchants.

And now as 2023 draws to a close, and after nine years in business, the founding team has reached profitability and recently landed a further $210 million in funding.

What’s next? On top of the three-pronged strategy laid out for the funding, Lin recently said it would be about “building a well-oiled engine” as well as looking after its people and keeping a watchful eye on its impact as a corporate citizen.

Rathi Murthy, chief technology officer and president of Expedia Product & Technology, Expedia Group

Murthy has led technology strategy and development for Expedia Group since June 2021 – and has decades of prior experience as CTO for Verizon Media and Gap and in leadership positions at American Express, eBay, Yahoo and more – but it’s not a stretch to suggest 2023 may have been her busiest year ever. 

Expedia Group had three major technology projects in varying stages of development in 2023: the reconfiguration of the company’s tech stack into a unified platform and the creation of the OneKey cross-brand loyalty program, both initiated in prior years but completed in 2023, and the integration of generative AI – one of the first major travel brands to do so – across multiple products. And as Expedia Group has highlighted its B2B work as a strategic priority, Murthy’s teams are also making AI solutions available to partners across the industry.

No doubt there will be new integrations of generative AI across the company in 2024, potentially out of some of the experiments currently running through its new “EG Labs” program that invites consumers to test new products and services. That in itself is an innovative strategy, and one that we applaud. 

With the unified tech stack and OneKey launch in the rearview, Expedia Group CEO Peter Kern said the company will focus on new ways to grow and drive revenue: “with so much important platform work behind us … we will out-innovate in the space for many years to come.” That sounds like Murthy will continue to be busy.

Andreas Slettvoll, co-founder and CEO, Chooose

Andreas Slettvoll joins this year’s lineup for the growth the climate technology platform has achieved with him at its helm as well as his role in raising awareness of the need for travel to reduce its carbon footprint.

Slettvoll has been outspoken on greenwashing in the industry and highlighting that carbon offsetting is not the solution but one of many. He has also urged caution because of the lack of transparency around many offset programs and likened carbon markets to the “wild west.”

Chooose, a PhocusWire Hot 25 Startup for 2023, has managed to rack up a number of impressive partnerships since its launch in 2018. Airlines including Air Canada, Air New Zealand, British Airways and JetBlue are using the company’s climate programs. Additional partnerships with Booking.com and American Express GBT can only bring greater focus on the carbon impact of travel choices. Alongside the Chooose team, which he praises as “some of the truly top talent across Europe and the [United States],” Slettvoll has also sealed investment deals for the company, including an undisclosed investment from Amadeus last year followed by $15 million in funding announced earlier this year. Look out for further moves and growth from Chooose in 2024 as Slettvoll and the team plan to build an enterprise grade product suite.

Johnny Thorsen, vice president of strategy and partnerships, Spotnana

While Thorsen has found success in his current role at Spotnana, his impact on the travel industry has been in the works for some time, particularly in the arena of modern corporate travel systems and sustainability.

With his expansive skillset – including marketing and code writing – and more than three decades in the industry, Thorsen has worked with players including GetThere, Concur, SAP, Travelport, Sabre, American Express Digital Labs and more. A respected industry voice on topics like sustainability, tech and corporate travel generally, Thorsen spoke at 29 events in 2022 – and is never shy about challenging his colleagues and the wider industry whether face-to-face or in his regular posts on LinkedIn.

Since Thorsen joined Spotnana in 2021, the company has seen numerous successes. Last year, Spotnana received $75 million in its Series B funding round meant to grow its cloud-based travel platform. In 2023, Spotnana partnered with Southwest Airlines and conducted a “deep integration” of Southwest into Spotnana’s platform. Also this year Spotnana partnered with CWT. As disruption accelerates across corporate travel and concerns grow about the health of our global climate, we expect Thorsen to remain in the spotlight for some time. 

Richard Valtr, founder, Mews

A native of the Czech Republic educated at University College London, Valtr got his start in hospitality by working as a night receptionist while home from school. That experience, followed by a stint helping with a family project to develop a hotel in Prague, led him to develop an idea for a system that would remove the friction at the front desk and automate the back office.

The company he founded in 2012, Mews, is just that: a cloud-based property management system provider that works with more 5,000 hospitality brands around the world. The Amsterdam-based company has raised about $225 million as it has rolled out new products and services to streamline operations for hoteliers and to improve the guest experience. Along the way, Valtre and Mews have become symbols of innovation in the realm of hospitality. 

And Valtr, along with CEO Matthijs Welle, isn’t done innovating.

He sees hotel revenue management on the brink of a revolution. By no longer focusing only on rooms but on all that a hotel can offer, Valtr argues, hotels can broaden their customer base. From parking spaces to workspaces, event spaces to spas, the limits for hotels are only on what they can imagine, he said. Picture pop-up venues for karaoke, movie showings or even hairdressers.

“It’s really about getting the most of the assets you actually work with, the most of the people you actually work with and the most for the guests that you actually try to serve – it’s this concept of maximization of all the different things,” he said during an interview at the PhocusWire studio at The Phocuswright Conference in November.

Rose Yao, vice president of product management, Google

Yao stepped into a lead role for Google’s travel practice in July with the departure of Richard Holden, who had led the product management team for travel for seven years.

Yao has been at Google since 2017, working on products including Maps, Nest, Pixel and now Search – “helping people explore the world near and far,” as she describes it in her LinkedIn profile. She has also worked at Facebook and did five years at Google very early in her career.

Now Yao is overseeing a team of product managers to launch new features and enhancements for Google’s hotel, flight and destination search offerings. As part of these efforts, she is involved with the application of new artificial intelligence capabilities that can help prospective travelers find inspiration and understand their options when they come to Google. Given the search giant’s continual updates across its travel products – just this year we’ve covered its free price guarantee for flights, improved browsing for hotels, a new social media content filter and price comparison for short-term rentals – as well as further integration of its generative AI solutions for travel and the full launch of its Gemini large language model, Yao is on our radar as one to watch in the year ahead.

PhocusWire Hot 25 Travel Startups for 2024 founders

It seems like each year it gets more and more difficult to pick just 25 travel startups to include in this list. This year we began with about 150 contenders – companies located around the world and creating solutions for every sector. Our selections for the Hot 25 Travel Startups for 2024, sponsored by Allianz Partners US, are led by men and women that we believe have the know-how, creativity and grit to succeed for many years to come. We’ll be tracking their progress closely, and we urge you to keep them in view as well.

 

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