Hundreds of the travel industry’s most technology savvy executives will gather for our first Skift Tech Forum in Silicon Valley on June 12.
Skift Tech Forum, which will take place at the United Club at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, will focus on tech disruptions in retailing, distribution and merchandising of travel as well as on timely debates such privacy versus personalization. Expect insightful conversations from a broad range of speakers, including CEOs and top executives from United Airlines, Southwest, Uber, Accor, Sabre Corp., Hilton Hotels, Alibaba, and Kayak.
The following is part of a series of posts highlighting some of the speakers and touching on issues of concern in the technology space.
As the chief data and strategy officer for HotelTonight, Amanda Richardson leads the company’s data analytics, corporate strategy, and data engineering. Her job is to inform and find solutions for the growing hotel distribution platform, not only making HotelTonight a better way to book hotels for consumers, but also making it easier for hoteliers to get those bookings, too. Prior to assuming her current role, she also served as HotelTonight’s vice president of product.
At the inaugural Skift Tech Forum on June 12 in Silicon Valley, Richardson will go beyond the hype surrounding data science to discuss what really matters to brands and to travelers today.
What follows is an edited version of a recent Skift interview with Richardson.
Skift: Everyone in travel has known for a number of years about the importance of data science, but few companies have been able to really interpret the data that they have. What’s the first step to interpreting and understanding the data that travel companies have on hand?
Amanda Richardson: It’s such a great question because, with data, especially as a marketplace business, it can be an “embarrassment of riches.” There are a few key steps to turn data into insights. First, you have to structure and organize the data. It sounds simple, but having data that is clean and organized is the only way to make sure you’re going to get any insights from it.
From there, the next important step is to ask good questions. At HotelTonight, we spend a lot of time thinking about the questions. In fact, good questions are more valuable and important than good analysis in my opinion. They’re the foundation to good analysis.
For a question to be good, it must meet these criteria: There is a clear business problem that is solved by knowing this (versus fun facts or interesting tidbits, but they don’t really help move the business forward). Analysis can provide a solution, but it all starts with a problem. There is an action you will take once you know the answer. If you won’t change anything, do anything differently or stop anything based on the answer, then the question doesn’t matter.
We use these criteria for any analysis we do, as well as for any data we share with users and partners. We have a ton of data, but it needs to be distilled and provided at the right time. For our hotel partners, this means giving them insights into how the market is pricing or actions they can take to improve their production. For bookers, it’s similar: What do you need to know right now to make a better decision on where or when you want to book?
Skift: How is the growing popularity of mobile providing the industry with different insights than what we’ve had before mobile existed?
Richardson: Today’s traveler — especially the on-the-go, savvy traveler who we serve — isn’t just comfortable booking on his or her mobile device, they prefer it. To them, the thousands of returns they get for a hotel search on a traditional OTA [online travel agency] aren’t helpful, they’re a nuisance.
More than half of millennial business travel hotel bookings are on a mobile device and nearly half of U.S. consumers are comfortable doing all of their travel planning and booking on a mobile device.
What that means is that, for our segment, mobile is no longer a different animal, or a different use case. Increasingly, it is travel.
The reason we all love our mobile devices is because they’re easily accessible, they know us, and they anticipate patterns. Our customers give us enough information through their own choices, hotel reviews and booking behavior that there is no need to encroach on their privacy. What hotel they booked, what time, how far out, which category — these simple choices tell us a tremendous amount without needing to know anything about their identity. Through machine learning, we’re able to create groupings of hotels and bookers by like characteristics and in turn, continually improve our personalization.
As an example, we look beyond hotel categories at things like what types of neighborhoods do you generally like to stay in, what types of amenities did that hotel offer, what hotels in X market did someone else with similar taste also like?
Skift: How does HotelTonight use data to inform its hotel partners and drive bookings?
Richardson: Our data is rich thanks to our customer base and the reasons mentioned above. We collect anonymized, aggregated information about location, hotel preferences, popular hotels and market pricing. All of this collectively gives us a lot of options to aggregate and analyze, and give our hotel partners the best and most actionable insights.
For example, we provide reporting to our hotels that doesn’t just share what happened in the past week or month, but also what we’re seeing in today’s marketplace and what actions they need to take to capture more market share. We also equip our market managers with data to help give guidance to hotels on how to price to maximize the number of rooms sold as well as hotel net revenue.
Skift: How does HotelTonight use data to improve the booking experience or improve the overall customer experience?
Richardson: We are continually testing and honing ways to improve the booking experience, shaving off fractions of a second at a time — every millisecond counts when you pride yourself on having the fastest, simplest booking experience in the industry.
Some key uses of data are thinks like being able to recommend the best hotels for you based on where you are, the pricing in the market, and where you have stayed, and liked, in the past.
Or insights into what’s going on in the market — why are rates high? Is there an event in the market or a reason to go? Or insights on when to book and how the market inventory and prices are changing. And the routing and directing of FAQs based on what we know about your booking and what the issues might be.
Skift: In what ways do you ensure that HotelTonight can personalize or better customize the customer experience without necessarily encroaching on privacy?
Richardson: Our customers give us enough information through their own choices, hotel reviews and booking behavior that there is no need to encroach on their privacy. What hotel they booked, what time, how far out, which category, price points — these simple choices tell us a tremendous amount without needing to know anything about their identity.
Through machine learning, we’re able to create groupings of hotels, markets and bookers by like characteristics and in turn, continually improve our personalization. As an example, we look beyond hotel categories at things like what types of neighborhoods do you generally like to stay in, what types of amenities did that hotel offer, what hotels in any particular market did someone else with similar taste also like?
We also look at what’s going on in that market right now — what hotel is closest to you, what the best deal is — as what’s best for you isn’t independent of pricing and variety in the market.