With 85 global websites scouring 290,000 hotels across the world, 25 million downloads of its mobile app and 11 million user-generated reviews, Hotels.com packs a real digital punch. But, as part of the Expedia brand and without the tie of physical travel agents, the company is still striving for the perfect omni-channel experience that traditional retailers are so desperate to achieve.
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Chief technology officer Thierry Bedos says that although his web, mobile and tablet channels are joined up, he is keen to continue this momentum to achieve an omni-channel experience.
“Omni-channel is the experience on one device, which then continues when you move onto another,” he says. “But how do we make that a seamless journey?”
Bedos says Hotels.com realised this was necessary at an early stage and enabled its customers' searches to be saved on their online profile, so if they then log in using another device, their recent searches will appear. The company also has a loyalty programme that encourages customers to return again and again, but Bedos says customers expect a seamless experience when they visit on multiple occasions.
With customers able to create lists of preferences, Hotels.com was able to begin experimenting with big data.
“The whole idea is to try to understand what customers like – not tracking what they do,” says Bedos. “Then we can tailor choice to their needs.”
For example, from the thousands of hotels that appear from a search of Paris, Hotels.com wants to show those that are most relevant to the customer, he says. “We can understand what they’ve bought in the past, and infer their preferences to give a choice closely aligned to what they are interested in.”
The whole idea is to try to understand what customers like – not tracking what they do
Bedos, who has been with Hotels.com since 2010 and as CTO since April this year, says the company is doing a lot of work around big data, and is also trying out social proofing. Social proofing reaffirms customers’ choices when searching for hotels by providing information about how other customers are looking at the same hotel. This shows that the hotel may be better because other people are looking at it.
The company has actually been around for 25 years. It started as a call-centre business, then slowly evolved a web presence. It merged with Expedia at the turn of the century, growing significantly and investing in mobile over recent years.
In terms of technology, Hotels.com works closely with the rest of the Expedia team to handle similar functions, including the many websites, applications and mobile apps.
Bedos says mobile is key for the company, with a suite of apps for smartphones and tablets, including iOS, Android, Windows and Kindle Fire. It has also launched device-specific applications for the Samsung Galaxy Note series to make use of its dedicated S-pen.
In fact, mobile now accounts for a quarter of Hotel.com’s transactions, with the apps collectively running up more than 25 million downloads since the launch of iPhone and Android apps in 2011.
Bedos says the future of the business will depend on the convergence of three trends – mobile, big data and machine learning – and Hadoop and Cassandra will be core open-source technologies used by Hotels.com.
“It is about how you can adapt the experience of the user across multiple devices, understand what they are trying to do and help them recognise products,” he says.
But it is security that worries Bedos the most, and he points to the issues surrounding eBay and Heartbleed.
Using 100% outsource leaves us vulnerable, and 100% insource is not saving on costs. It needs to be a balance
“All these security breaches are really concerning,” he says, adding that Hotels.com has a dedicated group looking at potential security breaches, as more and more hackers go after big brands to try to steal customer information.
“It’s worrying to hear eBay was hacked into and a large number of user credentials were stolen – eBay is not a small startup, it’s a large business,” he says.
Hotels.com uses a mixture of outsource and insource, and recruits internal developers, because Bedos does not believe in only one option.
“Using 100% outsource leaves us vulnerable, and 100% insource is not saving on costs,” he says. “It needs to be a balance across costs, control and ownerships.”
Bedos says Hotels.com is a technology company, so has a lot of skills and management in-house. In July 2012, the firm brought part ofe its offshore development team in-house to cut software product cycles from 26 weeks to two weeks.
But the company still outsources some projects. Bedos says it tends to stick to startups and suppliers with a specific niche.
“We are not looking at large IT outsourcing organisations,” he says. “You’d outsource pretty much all of the IT to them. IBM and Microsoft, they would be interested in taking the whole IT away from you.
“What we need is an organisation to help develop on the side with a particular skillset.”
To find such organisations, Bedos says he goes to events and conferences, while Hotels.com’s in-house developers go to tech meet-ups and talk to engineers to find the “hidden gems”.
“But these guys will usually find you,” he says. “It’s just choosing the right one with the interesting proposition. We also love the open-source community.”
Hotels.com contributes to the open-source community by providing code for projects, or building something for the company in open source which it will then contribute back as long as the intellectual property is kept within the organisation.