Technology

Our exclusive chat with Expedia CEO on travel agents in an online world

Tara Harrison

Tara Harrison

Expedia has launched its Usability Lab in Asia-Pacific, signalling an increased investment in this region, with facial recognition technology steering improvements for users and suppliers.

Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was in Singapore for the launch and told Travel Weekly that Expedia’s success as a company is largely reliant on their success in APAC.

In addition, a growth rate larger than the US doesn’t mean you’re doing well in Asia – such is the opportunity available.

That realisation was brought home to Khosrowshahi by AirAsia’s Tony Fernandes, who he said “kicked our ass”.

Khosrowshahi believes Expedia is well positioned to take advantage of the Asian appetite for experiences and travel.

“We think the emerging middle class in Asia is making a transition from the search for retail branded consumer goods to the search for unique experiences. They are valuing stuff less and valuing experiences more and as an experience company we can be the foremost,” Khosrowshahi said.

The “fortunate circumstance” of the travel industry today is that money spent on travel is growing 3-5% faster than the country’s GDP, he said.

As for competitors, Khosrowshahi sees Airbnb as a gateway product, creating demand among millennials and those who previously couldn’t afford to travel.

“We think it’s a good entrée to the travel space,” he said.

“We’re much more of a volume player and we think it’s going to find this millennial traveller and then they’ll move up in the world and start booking through Expedia,” Khosrowshahi said.

Despite this, Khosrowshahi signalled increasing competition with the share economy accommodation provider.

“Our largest acquisition has been Homeaway – you will see us go head to head with Airbnb on a global basis,” he said.

The future focus for the company is geared around artificial intelligence and voice activation.

“I do think that voice and AI are an interesting opportunity and difficult challenge as they are going to introduce much more complex travel queries than what we’ve had in the past… in the past we have been able to train our customers to do what to do,”

In that vein, Expedia seeks to cater for the complex enquiries that travel agents field.

So what is the role of the travel agent in a time of intuitive travel technology?

“The human travel agent will always have a role… even in Asia 36% of APAC travel is online, which means the majority of travel is booked with agents,” Khosrowshahi told Travel Weekly.

The Expedia CEO also conceded that most of the time they fail with technology.

“Two thirds of what we build out of hypotheses don’t work. They allow us to come up with new solutions that work, and experiment on a continual basis,” Khosroswshahi said.

Expedia also gestured toward future acquisitions in the APAC region.

“We are pretty opportunistic on the acquisition front,” he said.

Similarly to the acquisition of Wotif in Australia, Expedia looks for local players and brands they can hook into their technology platforms.

Despite this, the company has invested heavily in acquisitions recently.

“We have come off an era of historically significant mergers and acquisitions and for the next year or two the majority of growth will be organic,” Khosrowshahi said.

Khosrowshahi is not shy on the political front, being notably outspoken on the Trump administration.

“Despite what the President might say we think the more travel there is the better we will be. Ultimately what Expedia is about is making it easier safer and cheaper for people to get to places and ultimately that is about changing the world.”

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