Executive Conversations: Building Resiliency with Kieron Branagan, CEO, OpenJaw Technologies
Kieron Branagan, CEO of OpenJaw Technologies joins Judy Pitchford, AWS’ Head of Worldwide Travel, for a broad-ranging discussion about the recent disruption faced by travel and hospitality companies – and his company’s response to that disruption. OpenJaw provides leading e-Commerce platforms for travel companies and loyalty programmes. They are helping transform travel companies into travel retailers — and build on AWS.
This Executive Conversation is one of a series of discussions held with industry leaders, where we seek to learn more about their resiliency, tenacity and capacity for innovation. The series follows the publication of the AWS Travel & Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run”. Filled with strategic observations, hints and tips, the E-book provides guidance for building a more resilient organization, potentially serving as a useful resource as travel and hospitality companies address both current challenges and those yet to come.
Judy Pitchford: While your business is recognized publicly by many, what’s one unique characteristic or feature that is either lesser known or understood about your company?
Kieron Branagan: Whilst OpenJaw is recognized as a leading vendor in the world of travel retailing with customers such as All Nippon Airway, British Airways, and Cathay Pacific, many people would be surprised by our strength in two unique markets.
OpenJaw is the major western travel technology player in the Chinese market. We are working with 17 airlines at present in China; just this month, we announced another customer win, Tianjin Airlines, who is one of China’s largest carriers operating over 290 domestic and international routes and carrying 15 million passengers a year.
OpenJaw is also a leading technology provider to loyalty programmes around the world. Travel products such as flights, hotels, and car hires are the most compelling products provided by loyalty programmes to their collectors, yet the technology to enable collectors to redeem their air miles or bonus points in a seamless way is quite challenging to build. This is where OpenJaw excels with customers such as Aeroplan, Air Miles, and Asia Miles, to name a few.
JP: Many companies across travel and hospitality have been managing through a period of unprecedented disruption. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced during this recent period and how have you managed through them?
KB: OpenJaw had some “insider knowledge” as we saw what was happening in China and Hong Kong faster than most as we have 17 Chinese airline customers. OpenJaw went from having its best year ever in 2019 to a situation where the world of travel simply shut down in a few short weeks, both in China and the western world.
Like everyone else, remote working became the norm. Luckily for OpenJaw, our existing commitment to cloud-based platforms for our human resources, financial management, and software development platforms made the transition to home working near instantaneous. As our business is distributed across five offices globally, OpenJaw has been using collaboration platforms for years based on messaging and video conferencing. And all of our international customers being hosted in various AWS Regions worldwide enabled our teams to manage these environments from home.
One particular programme of work that we were very happy with was our recent go-live with All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan. Both ANA and OpenJaw had been working together on a project to allow multiple distribution partners to directly connect to ANA so that ANA could provide consumers with a consistent retailing experience. Once the pandemic forced us all to make a decision to work remotely, both ANA and OpenJaw continued as before and the project successfully went live during lockdown. This was a huge undertaking for all concerned – and, even more impressive, that it was all done through distributed teams working remotely. The ANA Go-Live was very interesting from another perspective: back in March 2019 was when we at OpenJaw started the ANA NDC project in earnest, a multiphase undertaking with an initial go-live set for a year later in March 2020.
As with any large-scale project like this, we were expecting some surprises and difficulties along the way, and by partnering with AWS we felt well placed to mitigate or completely avoid at least some of them. However, just like everyone else, we had no idea how extreme the changes to come would be and how crucial having a distributed cloud-based approach to development and delivery would become.
Our NDC platform is a high-volume distribution system, so our solution had to be scalable, secure, highly available and cost effective. This was an obvious fit for AWS. To give you a brief idea of the topology of the project, the customer would still be running certain systems within their data centre. These would need to talk seamlessly to components running variously in Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Ireland. We used AWS services such as VPC Peering and Transit Gateway to achieve transparent connection.
So, not only was the ANA project a success from remote working perspective, it was a testament to our partnership with AWS as well.
JP: As we all prepare for the next phase of traveler or guest demand, what are some of the changes your company has taken (or plans on taking) to adjust to the current operating environment?
KB: OpenJaw is offering all of our teams across the globe the opportunity to either work-from-home as they were doing during lockdown or work in our offices. For some of our team, working in the office is the right choice – but many are just as happy to continue working from home. Regardless, the work processes that we have embedded for years in OpenJaw will continue as before – and we see no changes in that. You could argue that the transformation that many companies had to learn the hard way during lockdown did not matter for OpenJaw – we had already done it years ago.
JP: In the face of the current disruption to the travel and hospitality industry, we’ve observed incredible innovations coming from across the industry. How has your company innovated through these challenging times and what are you most proud of?
KB: At OpenJaw, we believe that it is our openness to innovative thinking, innovative products, and innovative work practices that enabled us to build a broad portfolio of products over the years that are addressing particular challenges and pain points in the industry.
An example of innovation that is very relevant to the pandemic and the resulting disruption is a new development called the t-Social Platform. OpenJaw invested in AI-powered conversational interfaces in 2018 and 2019, with a view to enable our customers to massively scale their servicing capability during times of major disruption. As we have seen in the pandemic, travel industry call-centres have been overwhelmed with phone and email-based customer queries.
Today, we are getting direct enquires from travel brands who have now realised that conversational interfaces through social media platforms are the only way to scale their customer servicing capabilities. Our AI-powered agent interface is so powerful that it can answer close to 90% of all queries very quickly and continue learning and improving.
JP: The travel and hospitality industry is incredibly resilient. As you look toward recovery, what role does technology play for your company moving forward? How do you see technology enhancing the customer experience and improving operational efficiency?
KB: There is a lot of virtual column inches about the “new normal.” However, I don’t believe anyone can forecast what is really going to happen. People talk about the “new normal” whereas “normal” refers to a pre-pandemic frame of reference. Too much has happened in a short period of time. As the CEO of Airbnb recently wrote, there are only two firm statements one can make about travel in 2020:
- We don’t know when travel will return to any level of passenger throughput like 2019.
- When travel does return, it will look different.
In the pre-COVID-19 world, we could argue that customers appreciated a high-quality engagement, interaction, and ideally, a personalised proposition tailored to their needs. For airlines, the key to success in a post-COVID-19 world will be unshackling themselves from their purely operational mindset. The old push-based model that referred to customers as “passengers” won’t suffice.
The competitive edge for an airline will come in seeing the world through the customer’s eyes, and looking at all the extra information, guidance and support to help the customer navigate the new world of travel. In the middle of a pandemic, new revenue streams are urgently needed for all airlines, as the passenger numbers plummet and fares remain static – or go downward.
The future for airlines needs to be based on thinking about what they can sell beyond the seat. After COVID-19, using technology to transform the airline will accelerate as airlines will have to focus on identifying, understanding, and mastering the customer experience – the complete end-to-end journey that customers have with the airline – from the perspective of the customer.
JP: As you mentioned, there’s much talk at the moment about how the flying experience has changed and there will be a “new normal” going forward. What does this “new normal” look like to you and how do you think the travel experience will look three years from now?
KB: Here at OpenJaw, we developed an internal framework to communicate both internally and externally how we are approaching the challenge. We created three phases – “Retrenchment, Recovery, Return to Growth” – to explain each stage of the response to COVID-19 and how this will, in turn, help us plan the future.
Let’s look at three R’s in detail:
- “Retrenchment Phase:“ March to May 2020 – lock down across the globe and shut down of travel.
- “Recovery Phase:” June to December 2020 – airlines increase scheduled flying but with lower load factors to address the challenge of social distancing. Some tourism destinations open to capture some holiday bookings. However, there are many uncertainties regarding the extent of travel demand and consumer behaviour.
- “Return to Growth:” 2021 to 2022 – talking to our customers, OpenJaw believes this will be in 2021 at the absolute earliest. We’re already seeing “green shoots” in China; OpenJaw have signed up three new airline customers in the last few weeks in this market. However, sustainable growth will be dependent on the availability of a vaccine for COVID-19.
We can already see the pattern of the “new normal” and how travel will shape up over the next few years:
- Domestic travel will return first. International travel will take much more time to recover.
- Travel sectors of countries that lack large domestic markets will recover more slowly and will open up first to travelers from nearby countries. European airlines have smaller domestic markets, are less profitable than US and Asian rivals, and are more exposed to rail and road competition.
- Air travel recovery will likely see more people flying for “visiting friends and relatives” (VFR) as the starting point. Business travel will only be for emergency requirements.
- When airlines think about investing in long-haul routes sometime in the future, the likelihood is a reversion to the sort of network that was in vogue before the 2008 recession. This means funneling passengers through major city hubs like Frankfurt, Seoul, and Tokyo and making passengers who want to go beyond change aircraft or take the train.
JP: What makes you excited for the future of travel and hospitality? As a traveler or guest, where are you looking forward to visiting next?
KB: To be honest, not having to travel has been good for myself and many of the team at OpenJaw. The prior level of travel across the world reflected our commitment to our customers. However, we have found new ways of working that are delivering great outcomes for our customers – and for the team – who can now spend more time with their families.
Personally, I am enjoying spending more time in Ireland. Visiting the beautiful Irish countryside and the Atlantic coastal regions are a good enough tonic for anyone who wants or needs a holiday!
Learn more about the new Travel & Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run”.
See more Executive Conversations and industry insights on the AWS Travel & Hospitality Blog.
Kieron Branagan is Chief Executive Officer at OpenJaw Technologies. Kieron has 25 years experience in the technology industry as a senior executive, technologist and venture capital partner. Before joining OpenJaw Technologies in 2007, Kieron was a partner at ACT Venture Capital where he gained extensive venture capital experience of building companies in both the software and semiconductor industries. Kieron has managed a significant number of venture capital transactions including fundraisings, exits and M&A.