Seera Re-Invests and Re-Engineers with AWS
We don’t work with AWS as a vendor or as a service provider, we work with them as part of the team.”
Head of technology, Seera
Seera, one of the Middle East’s leading travel and hospitality businesses, has worked with AWS for over five years and the relationship deepened and transformed when the World Health Organization declared the pandemic. Like every travel firm, Seera saw demand plummet suddenly as flights were grounded, hotels sat empty, and potential travelers everywhere faced a lock down. It faced dual challenges: navigating the pandemic and emerging stronger in a post-COVID world.
What started as a conversation with Amazon Web Services (AWS) about cutting costs turned into a broader discussion about how Seera could use the time to develop new services, increase automation, and improve security. Seera took advantage of this quieter period to work with AWS to re-engineer a large part of its internal operations, shift to micro-services, and optimize costs. It also took the opportunity to train and empower its team with the latest technologies to accelerate innovation so that it could be ready when travel resumes.
Dealing with the Initial Impact of COVID-19
As demand for services fell almost overnight, Seera’s immediate focus was directed toward cost reduction. The company used the money that it saved on spinning down under-utilized systems to invest in the improvement of Seera’s internal processes. Qais Amori, head of digital delivery at Seera, said: “With the arrival of COVID and the suspension of flights, we switched our focus to our internal technology and how we could develop products to try to predict what the travel business would look like after the pandemic.” Amori said the first priority was helping customers deal with the extra complications of travelling once restrictions were relaxed. Domestic trips became more important as more people chose to stay closer to home. When international flights did resume, arranging travel would be far more difficult for Seera’s customers. Amori said that while previously customers could be 99 percent certain that their flight would go ahead as planned, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic there was a 99 percent chance of some change or disruption.”
In response, Seera made it easier for passengers to change and amend flights as necessary and opened new communication channels. Thanks to its agile container architecture, Seera was able to introduce new features and services and cut the normal deployment time for new services from two months to just two weeks. Seera built its own COVID travel advice portal to help customers make sense of the complex safety advice and guidance for international trips. It introduced new services on WhatsApp and used chatbots to deal with common customer queries. While human agents are available to step in if the chatbots cannot answer queries, many routine enquiries are dealt with instantly and automatically. Customer response has been overwhelmingly positive, and WhatsApp is now the most popular way for travelers to contact the company. The service has been extended to include bookings as well as basic travel information, which helps create a more seamless customer experience both pre- and post-booking.
Putting Technology in Place For A Post-COVID Future
Seera has made full use of the unexpected quieter period. In addition to the work on its internal systems, it has invested in staff training especially in security and cloud technologies with plans for more in the next year. It is also using new technology to enable staff to understand the business better and do more.
Seera runs machine learning on AWS and uses AWS AI to spot any potential discrepancies in billing. ”Systems automatically compare what agents are billing with actual fares to ensure mistakes are minimized by anomaly detection. Machine learning is also powering a revenue-prediction tool for the travel agency that forecasts daily revenues. It can also create dynamic pricing models to ensure customers always get the best possible prices.
The company is also introducing intelligent classification of the images provided by hotels to make it easier for customers to find suitable accommodation options. Certain special criteria—like linked rooms—can be found more easily and without needing time-consuming calls to the hotel.“ What one hotel calls a standard room, another chain calls STD, or just ‘room’, so agents often have to confirm details with the individual hotel. We’re using AI to classify rooms instead,” explains Amori. In addition, the company is exploring AI to look at user behavior and for better balancing of its own systems.
Strengthening the Foundations
Seera’s technology is delivered on a continuous discovery and delivery, “infinite iteration” development process. Coupled with the pressures of the fast-moving travel business, this meant that some internal systems were put in place reactively and could benefit from re-processing or cost optimization. In addition, following an audit of applications and services, AWS and Seera identified further possible cost savings through service automation—75 percent of Seera’s apps were moved to a microservices architecture creating potential for more savings in future.
Seera has dealt with the threat to its business by leaning into the challenge. The group has re-allocated resources strategically to improve service for its customers and position itself to better manage demand when travel increases. To do so required using AWS to work smaller and smarter, rather than scaling up to meet high demand. It may be out of the ordinary, but it worked, says Amori. “To be honest we don’t work with AWS as a vendor or as a service provider, we work with them as part of the team. We have a kind of mutual benefit: they want us to succeed and because of that I’m comfortable with them. Of course, they are also a very capable technical team but they’re not just a vendor trying to sell us stuff—that’s what makes them different.”
Saudi-based Seera Group is one of the Middle East’s leading travel and tourism service providers. It has a 40-year history, having previously traded as Al Tayyar Travel Group.
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