Skyscanner boss talks Asia as tech trendsetter, mobile-first and branded storefronts

The travel industry should look to Asia, or more specifically China, to determine where commerce technology is headed.

This was the view of Skyscanner chief Gareth Williams as he presented his keynote session at ACTE-CAPA in London last week.

Williams says there are already advancements in Asia today, which make purchases simple and secure, that have enjoyed broad adoption.

Williams sat down with tnooz to discuss the company’s latest paper on technology trends in the travel space, and how addressing the needs of Asian consumers is key to the future of commerce around the globe.

The key driver is mobile, moving the consumer away from search as the point of origin. As Williams explains:

  “We have a long history of search and search engines, but search is not an authentically mobile experience. Even Baidu has struggled a bit in China.

“So what are the alternatives to search that are genuinely, authentically mobile? I think Asia, both India and China, and a number of different markets there, are better placed to actually build the new experiences that are authentically mobile.”

Mobile transactions

In Asia, consumers are already rely more on their mobile devices for everyday transactions. Williams gave an example of dining at a restaurant in China where the order was placed simply by scanning the bar code of the desired dish with the mobile device, the food delivered to the table, and payment made via mobile.

He expects that, increasingly, transactions will move away from our type-to-search habits and towards more intuitive and simplified digital interactions.

  “There’s a phrase I’ve heard that the phone camera is the new keyboard. I think speaks a lot to how that transition happens.

“You look at Instagram and Snapchat, and you bring in all of the AI around recognizing objects, and deriving intent, and you can see that will be a generational shift. The new generation becomes the main generation pretty quickly.

“Over the next 10 years, we’ll see that authentically mobile experience being pretty much native everywhere. Voice is part of that. It’s not normal thing yet to speak to a device. I think Alexa gives some insights on how that will all pan out. [Voice] will be ubiquitous. You’ll have something listening at all times.”

Mobile-first will also be key to service and disruptions management, something we are already seeing play out in the marketplace, and which Williams believes will only intensify as traditional the established query-the-search-engine-for-help model breaks down.

“I think if you look at customer service, the integration of bots and the more transactional interactions will be a big part of future customer service. Yet internet companies try to avoid customer service as far as they can, because it’s seen as difficult to scale.”

Another area in which Asia is showing us the future is payments, Williams believes, with established forms of payment, like credit cards, becoming less useful and cash going the way of the dinosaur.

“I think credit cards are totally unsuitable for the internet environment. And they’ve solved that in China and in India, and that is going to come.

“I don’t know exactly how, but those models are better for consumers and recipients, payers and payees, than the current model that has huge amounts of fraud and additional burden on consumers.

“With PayTM in India and Alipay in China [consumers] are comfortable that [the transaction is] secure and efficient.”


Skyscanner is considering all of these technology trends as it evolves to meet the needs the company has identified for the future of airline distribution.

This future sees metasearch evolving into a dynamic, branded marketplace, in some ways similar to China’s TMall, giving consumers a broad range of options while preserving the unique brand identity for the storefronts listed there.

Skyscanner is also shaping the platform around evolving consumer habits, from desktop to mobile to voice search. At the same time, the company aims to make the transition for the future easier for airlines, through NDC and GDS integration, and better ancillary sales workflows.

Williams explains to tnooz why Skyscanner opted to offer branded storefronts to its partners:

“There are so many suppliers in online travel across all the different sectors that I don’t think it make sense to require a Skyscanner brand front and centre throughout the booking experience.

“Actually, we can make the person who is doing the actual work, taking someone around Lock Ness, or putting planes in the air safely, or making hotel beds, we can put those brands front and centre and be an enabler, an access point, to those brands; just making it more connected, with fewer layers of intermediaries between the person doing the work and the traveller that is experiencing that work.”

“If you think about what we’re doing, we’re bringing things like branded seat selection in our direct booking experience, branded by the airline. We’re bringing 3D-secure [to payments].

“There are unseen benefits as well. For instance, with a particular airline we were converting on a particular ancillary much better than they were.

“So they examined what we were doing and they did their workflow on their website, and saw the same uplift in terms of their ability to sell ancillaries. That was great news because it doesn’t hurt us and it’s good for the airline.

“Airlines tend to see things in terms of it’s either first party distribution or third party distribution. I think the point is that of the universe of third party options some are better than others.

“Their prioritization and investment should reflect their assessment of the long term benefits of different forms of third party distribution. Part of that is the willingness of partners to encourage airline app installs or supply analytics data that helps them answer their questions.”

On whether moving to mobile first, establishing useful apps, is in anyway a defence against the growing scope of Google, Williams says:

“We focus on our app for a number of reasons but one of those is that to avoid strengthening Google’s ability to shape traffic how it sees fit.”

That said, to keep a hold on mobile real-estate, apps must be inherently more useful to the consumer, something that Skyscanner believes it already offers and continues to improve on.

“Fundamentally, it comes down to repeat customers, repeat users. If people willingly choose use you again and more frequently, then you have business. Otherwise, you have a short or medium term arbitrage situation.”

Related reading:

How WeChat and Fliggy are keeping one airline awake at night

Image by Li Yang

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