As traditional online travel agencies and metasearch sites look to the future, Skyscanner is focusing on becoming a branded storefront for airlines to sell their products.

At Skift Forum Europe, Skyscanner CEO Gareth Williams discussed the process of integration following its acquisition by Chinese travel giant Ctrip and how online travel companies are embracing compromise between the online travel agency and meta models.

“Ten years ago, if you wanted to start a travel company, you then said either you wear jeans and start metasearch, or if you like suits you start an online travel agency,” said Williams. “So you know you had to compromise essentially, but the essence of where we’re trying to get to now is a full two-sided marketplace.”

One of Skyscanner’s biggest challenges has been bringing repeat customers back, especially since most flyers only book a few trips a year. But Williams thinks the company’s technological edge over its competitors gives it a leg up in the crowded metasearch marketplace.

“The big problem in online travel is one of frequency,” said Williams. “There was a certain point in Skyscanner’s journey that I [realized] our most loyal user might have used our service and said, ‘I’m going to come back next year.’ That’s not a great recipe internally. Overall we see very regularly in the internet economy that all else being equal, the better software company wins. This doesn’t mean the only jobs are in software… but it seems to play out that way.”

When asked whether Hipmunk’s soft landing in an acquisition by Concur shows that engineering isn’t the answer when facing competitors’ daunting marketing resources, Williams demurred.

“You can build great software that people don’t want,” he said, referring to the impression that Hipmunk’s product was more robust than its marketing.

For now, Skyscanner is looking to integrate technology tools, like chatbots, that are popular with Chinese travelers into its service.

“We’re at more than 60 percent mobile now, and that’s a more intimate experience; the facilitative booking is flowing through really well so it just leads to greater connection to the service,” said Williams. “In the long distance future we’ll be a personal travel assistant. You’ll be interacting with a bot or in exceptional cases with a person, so that’s the direction of travel and another way China is a leading indicator. The consumer in China expects to have instant realtime communication if they need it.”

Photo Credit: Skyscanner wants to become a branded storefront for airlines. Skyscanner co-founder and CEO Gareth Williams (left) speaking with Skift's Dennis Schaal at Skift Forum Europe in London on April 4, 2017. Russell Harper / Skift