Setting up a site for selling plane tickets is fairly easy. Building a startup into a globally recognized travel agency is much harder. Kiwi.com's CEO Oliver Dlouhý believes his company can defy the odds. But what comes next may be the toughest part of the journey.
Travel's most forward-thinking insiders will gather September 18–19 for our annual Skift Global Forum in New York. In just a few years, Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
Skift Global Forum 2019 will take place at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York. This year's Forum speakers include CEOs and top executives from Booking Holdings, Delta Air Lines, Expedia, Air France-KLM, Marriott International, Amtrak, and many more.
Oliver Dlouhý co-founded the online travel agency Kiwi.com in 2012 as a price-comparison website for cheap airplane tickets. Dlouhý has since expanded the mission of his startup to become a broader online travel agency and technology services company.
In June, U.S. private-equity firm General Atlantic took majority control of the company, based in the Czech Republic. The deal suggests the business has a shot at becoming a global household name in travel. On Monday, it appointed Daniel Finnegan, the former chief financial officer of Booking Holdings as an independent Board Director.
It’s been a wild ride for the 31-year-old Dlouhý. Last year, his company processed $1.21 billion (€1.1 billion) in gross bookings. Today, Kiwi.com has more than 2,900 workers.
Kiwi.com’s signature service is what it calls virtual interlining, or connecting airlines which do not cooperate. It lets shoppers mix-and-match transport into a single itinerary that it backs with its own customer service.
Controversially, virtual interlining sometimes involves throwing away part of a ticket involving a layover. Some of the world’s largest airlines warn that throwing away tickets violates their rules.
But Kiwi.com’s CEO isn’t worried. “The sole purpose of Kiwi.com ever since its beginning is to serve the traveler, not the industry,” Dlouhý said.
Kiwi.com recently expanded its search to include trains and buses, which it can usually combine with flights. “We’re getting closer to our goal of becoming the ultimate booking tool for travel between any point A and any point B,” he said.
Dlouhý will speak Sept. 18 at the Skift Global Forum in New York City. We’ll ask him about his vision for the company. Here’s a preview of the discussion.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Skift: What’s new at Kiwi.com?
Oliver Dlouhý: Hosted stopover programs are a new innovation from Kiwi.com. In the past year, some airports, such as London’s Stansted, St. Petersburg, Cologne/Bonn, Nice, and Budapest, have said they would work with Kiwi.com. The goal is to help travelers who have to transfer baggage on their own between airlines. The programs are in various stages of development.
The programs are designed to ease and optimize passengers’ virtually interlined journeys and to increase both traffic and revenue for airports. In any case, for passengers, it means more comfort and convenience.
Let’s take the example of London’s Stansted Airport: Here, bags are transported through the airport the way passengers are used to — on airside — with no need for them to carry the bags through security and check-in again. Together with the airport, we are working very intensively to go live soon and have actual passengers testing the service.
In the case of Budapest airport, we’re focusing on the passenger side, with a new transfer assistance service. We’ve opened a dedicated transfer desk, operated together with the airport.
Both projects are showing how successful our cooperation model works with the airport world.
Dlouhý: AeroCRS launched, based on Kiwi.com’s technology, virtual interlining white labels for airlines. This tech enables an airline to display mixed itineraries, meaning legs on one or more other carriers, on an airline website. Currently, 15 carriers are live, including Auric Air and FlyWestair.
Skift: Kiwi.com is based in Brno, the Czech Republic. Brno is not as well known worldwide as a development hub as, say, Berlin, Barcelona, Oslo, Paris, or London. Tell us about that.
Dlouhý: Brno likes to call itself the Silicon Valley of the Czech Republic. The official long-term strategy of the city officials is to bring and maintain international talent as well as to harness the thousands of students finishing their studies here.
The main force driving Brno’s technological boom is technology zones. Three large technology parks were established in Brno with more than 14,000 IT workers employed in the South Moravian metropolis. Hundreds of workers join each year.
The city of Brno is an exciting place. Lonely Planet says “the thousands of university students here have always ensured a lively club and entertainment scene, but a wave of next-gen cafes, restaurants and cocktail bars in the past few years has put the city on the map and even invited positive comparisons with Prague.”
Skift: The theme for this year’s Skift’s Global Forum is Travel’s Responsibility to the World. What’s your view?
Dlouhý: I agree with many of the issues on sustainability and accessibility that other speakers have cited. I especially agree that travel has a responsibility to help foster engagement with different cultures, which helps to reduce prejudice. I think that if more people traveled, the world would be a much better and more peaceful place. And Kiwi.com obviously supports that as a mission.
As for carbon footprint, Kiwi.com’s virtual interlining is capable of routing passengers dynamically on flights with empty seats. That effectively increases the load factor and thus decreases emissions per passenger.
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Photo credit: A view inside the Kiwi.com offices in Brno, Czech Republic. Oliver Dlouhý, Kiwi.com Co- Founder and CEO, will speak at Skift Global Forum in New York City in September 2019. Kiwi