By Stephani Hawkins
Making flexible solutions a reality:
A conversation with Rodrigo Celis, senior vice president, commercial solutions, Sabre
By Stephani Hawkins
Making flexible solutions
A conversation with Rodrigo Celis, senior vice president, commercial solutions, Sabre
In our last issue of Ascend, we featured an article titled, “Creating a brand experience: Putting the ‘person’ back in personalization." The article discusses how flexible technology gives airlines the freedom to build business practices and workflows that meet their business needs without being boxed in by a single provider. It’s a technology model that provides a one-stop shop for airlines that want it, while allowing the largest, more sophisticated ones to build their own unique capabilities.
Following up on that article, in a recent interview, Rodrigo Celis, discussed some of the challenges in airline marketing, sales and distribution; how airlines can become intelligent retailers and how flexible technology is a game changer for the successful airline.
Question: What are some of the most prevalent challenges facing airline marketing, sales and distribution departments?
Answer: From my perspective, I see a few key challenges for airlines.
First, I think airlines are challenged with finding ways to differentiate their brand, as well as being relevant in today’s competitive environment. A big part of the challenge is being able to effectively serve today’s tech-savvy consumers. They have knowledge about and access to various types of modern technology before airlines have an opportunity to catch up. So now, more than ever, it’s critical that airlines find ways to differentiate themselves to create the unique experiences that interest customers and keep them coming back.
Second, airlines clearly have a vast amount of data at their disposal, but they don’t always know how to use it. Generally, the data they have only gets used in parts of their organization. They need to harness the data and analyze it, so they can better understand the customer they are trying to serve. And once they understand the target customer they are serving, they can start making better decisions about the products and services those customers really want, how to price those offers, when to offer them, etc. This not only provides exceptional customer experiences across the entire customer journey, it also generates additional revenue that is often being left on the table today. So, there’s still a lot to learn about data.
Third, airlines need modern, flexible technology to be able to use the best-in-class solutions that leverage data and provide the latest user experience technology and interfaces that truly advance an airline forward. Today’s systems can be rigid, and many airlines are held back by the systems they use. Flexible technology would enable them to quickly innovate.
Because of these three trends I’ve listed, airlines are constantly burdened by how to deliver consistent experiences across all channels. Having a multitude of distribution channels is ultimately beneficial, yet, increasingly complex when airlines want to be able to deliver a unique experience across every touchpoint. Most systems just aren’t where they need to be to distribute and deliver products like travelers expect. Today, we rely too much on the information the customer is willing to give us rather than us being proactive in how we approach them with offers and services. Moving forward, for airlines to be able to successfully retail, distribute and fulfill on all offers, technology and data will be key.
Q: Retailing has been a buzz word in the industry for a while now. How do you believe airlines will become intelligent retailers, so they can remain competitive in this dynamic environment?
A: Travelers are looking for that unique, personalized experience across their entire travel journey. No longer can airlines set out to determine how many flights they can pack into New York’s LaGuardia Airport to make the most money. Now, they must consider what types of customers are traveling to LaGuardia to then determine what types of schedules, products and services they should be funneling through this airport. Intelligent retailing means that airlines need to be able to tailor their products and services to match the desires and expectations of each individual customer. Now, more than ever, I believe airlines must really understand their customer base and apply data-rich insights to offer products and services that drive an exceptional customer experience. In addition, it’s vital to determine the exact time to present the offers and ensure they are distributed and fulfilled as promised. To achieve this, airlines will need to take advantage of the intelligent technology solutions that will allow them to gain actionable insights in real time and ensure they reach the right customers at the right time with the best offerings and at the right price points. Simply put, it’s really about an airline having a deep understanding of its customers and their needs and preferences so it can provide the best possible end-to-end travel journey.
Although, for an airline to execute on this ideal scenario, it must also be flexible. Flexible in how it packages and distributes offers and, perhaps more importantly, flexible with the types of technologies it leverages to make the offers a reality. Intelligent retailers of today don’t put themselves in a box and only offer cookie-cutter solutions. The aspirational retailers of today (Amazon always comes to mind for me), have flexible user interfaces that give you options, flexible customer service that makes you feel valued and flexible delivery options that give you the choice to have it today or have it next week. Coming from the tech world, flexibility is a word that used to make me cringe. At face value, it can get mixed up with customization, but that’s not it at all. Flexibility can be delivered efficiently and effectively today because technology systems are more flexible today than ever before. Knowing your customers and delivering what they want is intelligent retailing and is quite possible today.
One of the best examples of this is what we’ve seen with on our North America-based carriers. Through data intel, they were able to see that they have a segment of customers that is “no-frills.” They want the cheapest ticket that isn’t bundled with any other products or services the day that a consumer purchases it. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity to up-sell to that segment later in the journey. For example, once they get to the airport, they decide they need to take an extra bag or they cannot take a flight that doesn’t have Wi-Fi. These are the types of opportunities airlines have, to not only uplift revenue, but also to create a great experience for one of their target segments. Of course, knowing what to offer and when to offer it is key to being an intelligent retailer.
Q: Sabre believes that airlines need “flexible” technology solutions. What specifically does this mean, and why is it important to airlines?
A: Most airlines don’t use a single IT provider to power their entire ecosystem. They typically use a combination of technology partners, as well as in-house systems, which has worked well for many airlines. By leveraging various providers, they can use best-in-class systems across the board. However, with the good comes the reality that standard system integration and communication across the entire enterprise is nonexistent. That’s where flexible solutions come into play. They enable an airline’s systems to connect and communicate regardless of their origin. Flexible solutions complement an airline’s current systems, provides capabilities the airline doesn’t have and accelerates innovation.
Basically, an airline ecosystem is a big puzzle, and we provide some of the most critical pieces with our flexible technology. Ultimately, all the pieces need to come together so an airline can operate at top efficiency while enhancing the customer experience and achieving total revenue optimization.
In addition to incorporating flexible solutions from a technology architectural perspective, we must also think about the consumers and employees using the solutions. When we think about some of the next generations joining the workforce, they are accustomed to flexibility. They’re used to simple. And they are used to technology adapting to their needs, not the other way around. I think it is very important to acknowledge that the world we live in today is not the same world as it was years and even decades ago when airline technology was being developed to accommodate the industry. Today, solutions need to accommodate the users and conform to who the users are, what the users want, which devices they want to use and which operating systems or apps they prefer. So, I think it’s the other way around where it’s more user-centered flexibility versus the user adapting to the technology.
Q: How can airlines begin to incorporate flexible solutions into their current retailing strategies?
A: To start, I think it’s essential for airlines to re-examine their customer, product and technology strategies and build a framework with intelligent retailing and flexible solutions in mind. Naturally, this won’t happen overnight. It requires a logical, methodical approach. In addition, we aren’t just talking about technology solutions … there’s a lot of business-process transformation and people transformation that airlines need to think about as they incorporate some of these flexible solutions. There’s a lot of organizational changes that airlines need to consider, specifically as they think about revenue management and retailing coming together. They must also evaluate their current structure and determine how to restructure so these two areas can work collectively as a team, complement each other and support the goals of one another, as well as those of the airline.
At Sabre, we believe the aligned strategies of organizations, processes and technologies can be most effectively achieved with a digital commercial platform. We’ve taken a platform approach that brings together flexible, open and intelligent technology solutions that accelerate airlines to achieve intelligent retailing, as well as easily support the organizational advancements that need to take place to truly take a commercial organization to the next level.
In terms of solutions, we have introduced several flexible solutions such as Sabre API Hub, SabreSonic Digital Workspace and SabreSonic Digital Experience.
For example, Sabre API Hub gives airlines total control of their IT innovation. With this technology, airlines can leverage third-party or in-house solutions, as well as that of technology providers such as Sabre to plug and play where and how they see fit. Our API technology removes complexities and has been simplified to align with current technology that is being used to develop modern mobile and commerce solutions, significantly reducing time to market. You get this working across an airline’s entire operation, and it is game changing.
Q: Looking forward, what excites you most about the future of the aviation industry?
A: There has been a lot of acceleration in airline technology during the last few years, and that’s extremely exciting to me.
At Sabre, we are really moving the dial and leading the way in many areas as opposed to just following other industries. For example, while airline retailing has been a hot topic for several years, we’re on a mission to help airlines become intelligent retailers. We’re making the solutions they use smarter by incorporating artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data and analytics into our solutions. We’re building flexible, open and intelligent solutions that work in any environment regardless of the systems airlines use. Our investments are helping airlines better serve their customers by providing personalized experiences from the time they begin shopping to the time they deplane at their final destinations.
In addition, future innovation and disruptors are something we are constantly thinking about across the company. We have a strong partnership with Sabre Labs to drive new products and prototypes, as well as test and learn from new technology as we look at our long-term technology strategy. For example, as airlines face an extremely complex distribution environment, new technologies are providing increasingly sophisticated tools to provide flexibility for personalized offers and to intelligently connect with travelers. Airlines are well positioned to leverage emerging technologies to streamline the customer journey to minimize traveler friction and maximize memorable experiences.
It’s an exciting time in the air travel industry, and I feel fortunate to be part of it. /A
Rodrigo Celis, senior vice president of commercial solutions for Sabre, has more than 20 years of experience in the areas of product management, software development, e-commerce, business development, account management and large-scale implementation deliveries. In his current role, Rodrigo is responsible for the P&L, product strategy, management, marketing and operations of the Airline Retailing product portfolio. Rodrigo attended Santo Tomas University in Santiago, Chile, and Harvard Business School Executive Education Program.