The Future of Travel

October 27, 2020

Interview by Tahnee Perry, VP, Marketing

Tahnee Perry:

Hi. Welcome. I'm here today with Deem CEO John F. Rizzo, and we'll be talking about the future of travel. Welcome, John.

John Rizzo:

Hey, Tahnee. Glad to be here with you.

Tahnee: Great. Let's get right to it. So, I'd love to talk about how Deem is changing its priorities given what's happening in the world today. Can you talk a little bit about that?

John: Absolutely. So, what we what we obviously – all of us – have discovered in the context of business travel is that there's a couple of really challenging problems that need to be solved. The first is an overall economic problem which is that companies under financial pressure. They may not be allocating the same amount of money for business travel they would have otherwise because they've decided to place those resources elsewhere.

On top of that, travelers themselves in the whole environment, given quarantines and safety issues, it's really challenging to travel and feel comfortable. And companies have a responsibility, a fiduciary responsibility, to provide the right care for their employees when they travel.

And so, the combination of these two things are really putting a lot of pressure on the whole the travel business. And, clearly, we're all aware of what's going on with service providers and airlines and hotels and the pressure that they face.

So, our roadmap has really been adjusted because we want to place in the hands of travelers the kind of real-time data and technology which enables them to make choices based on where they're going to fly, how they're going to fly, and where they're going to stay, and what cars they're going to ride in, based on their preferences around safety and based on the company preferences for policy.

So, we put a bunch of new technology into our roadmap where, in less than 90 days, we've made fundamental, additional changes to our Deem Work Fource travel management platform, to allow travelers to have more control and more data, and more visibility and more facts into the way that they travel. So that's been a significant change in our in our position.

And, unlike a lot of the technology companies that are around in the travel space, we've got probably twice as many people in the company now than we did a year ago. The vast majority of those are on the engineering side, and as a result, we can really add more features and functionality with this notion of safety and duty of care in mind.

That helps travelers, and if it's helping the travelers and it's personalized and automated, then it's also helping the travel managers who are extraordinarily overworked because they're having to deal with all these issues about the future of travel in addition to their normal day jobs.

Tahnee: So, you talked about how we're changing the road map around our traveler, the end user. Can you talk a little bit about how we stay relevant for travelers today?

John: Yes, I think it's a systemic, fundamental change in business travel and I'll just sort of harken back to the story in my early career, during the time the dinosaurs ruled the earth. I was involved in the early Macintosh in 1983 and spent several years at Apple there. And my cubicle was 20 or 30 feet from Steve Jobs’ office. And he would come in and make comments often about what we're doing, which is where his style – that's a whole other story – but one of the things that he was constantly pushing on was the notion of what does the Macintosh packaging look like? What happens when you open it up?  How do you know how to make the thing work correctly?

And he was just extraordinarily involved in this down to the microscopic detail. And I, finally, at one point, just didn't understand this because I come from the semiconductor business at Intel, where you don't really care about the end user because they're not interacting with your chip.

And he said well, look, every time somebody calls us because they don't know how to make the Macintosh work, that phone call wipes out the profitability on the sale of that computer. And so, your job is to stop the phone from ringing. And if you can make the phone not ring, then our customers are able to use their products in a way that don't involve us very much.

Like us, today, in our, you know, consumer lives, Tahnee, I don't think you called Amazon recently and probably haven't called Netflix recently. We just don't call these people because the software and the technology is designed to not require us to do so. And the travel industry on the business side 20 years ago didn't get that memo.

And so, the problem today is that historically you had to involve a human in a lot of these travel related issues, whether or not it was booking or trip repair or issues that related to flight disruption, when you really don't need to. Technology designed properly allows the traveler to effectively solve their problems with the technology, providing an aid without having to call anybody.

And given that there's fewer people in the travel industry today than there were six months ago, both on the service provider side like airlines and hoteliers, and fewer travel agents around to answer the phone, to the extent that we can be relevant by helping the travelers solve their problems without having to call anybody, that's a huge win.

So, our focus is very heavily on the notion of bringing the consumer-like technology that we’re used to in our personal lives to the business travel industry, which is a really great way for people to think about the business moving forward.

And despite the really disastrous, challenging painful problems that Covid[-19] has brought the world, it's forcing the business travel industry to accelerate transformation about, probably, five to ten years, because we don't have a choice. And, fortunately for Deem, we've always been on the on the trajectory of focusing on the traveler at the center of our universe, and making the traveler experience while traveling in business to be frictionless, simple, automated and personalized. And that's what we're doing. So, we're just doing it faster.

Tahnee: So, compliance and adoption are one of those age-old issues that travel managers deal with, and I think we talk about a lot in the industry. But can you talk a little bit about what our philosophy at Deem is when it comes to compliance and adoption?

John: Yes. So, our point of view with respect to compliance and the adoption problem is that travel managers and large corporations have a responsibility to their employees while they travel to keep them safe. And so, on the one hand, complying with the travel program is useful with respectable safety benefits and also economic benefits, historically.

Though, most of the technology that's been used by corporate travelers has been antiquated and has been based on how best to capture expenses for an expense report, not how best to travel efficiently and make good decisions.

So, our point of view is that if you design the software, design the technology, so the traveler by design makes the right decisions because the software is designed correctly. Then, they're being compliant. But they don't really think that they are, meaning that there's no real forcing function to say “You must follow step a, b, c, and d” because the technology sort of guides them through the right process. And during the booking and management process, the right choices are made both from a safety perspective and from a cost and budgeting perspective.

So, this really is a is an important point for us. We want to create freedom within a framework. And the framework is the software platform that allows the traveler to make the right choices when they're going through their process. And so, this is also a benefit with respect to the travel manager because, again, you know Covid has been dramatically significant in affecting global travel.

It's just not travel in one place, it's global travel. And to the extent that if you're a travel manager and you've got travelers traveling to a place and it becomes a hot spot for an outbreak, and you want to get them home immediately, to the extent you can press a button and have itineraries auto-generated to bring them home – or if you're an employee and now you're in a place that you feel that it's inappropriate or not safe – you can get home immediately.

And if you're an employee in a certain region, for example, if you're female and you're traveling to Kennedy airport and you arrive at one o'clock in the morning and you're gonna head into midtown – when you're traveling again – there's probably better ground choices for you, that are safer for you than it might be, that if you're an old male like me, that doesn't have those concerns.

And so, personalization and automated delivery of services based on who you are and your preference, your policy becomes really helpful across the board for compliance, safety, duty of care, and so on.

Tahnee: How is Deem innovating in the current environment, given there's a lot of restrictions and we're in a very uncertain time? Can you talk about how we're approaching that?

John: Yeah, so, the innovation challenge these days becomes more interesting if you view it through the lens of Deem as a technology provider. We have been a globally distributed business for 20 years and we've got a development center and innovation center in Dublin in Ireland. We have a development center in Bangalore in India. We've got offices in the South Bay and the East Bay in Northern California, Silicon Valley, and a bunch of employees who work remotely.

So, the notion for us to transition to a remote working environment was easy because we've already been doing it. What it does, though, is it puts pressure on us to collaborate more efficiently with each other, because it's harder to collaborate on creative ideas and new product ideas and innovation ideas when you're doing it entirely remotely.

So, we've changed the way we do things in that regard. And because, as I said earlier, that our head count is almost doubled in the last year, we have a lot of resources to invest in the innovation side that many other companies in the travel technology space don't have.

This is also a result of us being a part of the Enterprise Holdings business, which, as you know, Enterprise owns Alamo, Enterprise, and National car rental brands, extraordinarily profitable rental car business and mobility and ground transportation business. And because of their brand reputation, the scale of their business, the respect that they have among business travelers and then travelers in general, we're able to leverage this innovation momentum into a larger entity that helps us and helps our customers feel comfortable about doing business in this environment, because whether or not we like it or not, travel pre-Covid and eventually – it is a mission critical application.

If your email doesn't work in your company or your electricity doesn't work, it's a big problem. And road warriors are, in many ways, the most expensive and most highly leveraged employees because they get deals done. They raise capital, they help customers. And to the extent that they're relying on a travel platform that's not stable, or is unreliable, or not from a trusted source with financial resources, they don't want to take the chance on a company that doesn't have the resources to continue to build mission-critical technology.

So, our innovation pace has actually accelerated over the last year, even though we're doing additional things with respect to safety that we didn't plan on doing a year ago. So, it's been a really interesting-slash-challenging time to that to adjust all these things. And frankly, not just for us.

It's certainly been a challenge for all of our customers, for people in the world who've been dealing with Covid and dealing with work-from-home and dealing with kids and all the things that we're very well familiar with in terms of the economic and global political and health environment.

Tahnee:  Yes, I agree it's been an uncertain time there's been a lot of challenges. But it is inspiring to see what we're putting on the roadmap and how we're serving our customers. So, with that in mind, how are you feeling about the future?

John: Well, it's a provocative question and maybe this is just, in a tiny way, about who I am as a person. I've always sort of felt that human transformation is generally enabled and accelerated by crises and tragedy. I had an old boss in a company that I was involved in early in my career, that we took public, who said the only path to heaven was actually through hell. Which meant that you could never really get to the promised land unless you experienced a lot of challenges in trying times.

And so, if I think back to 9/11, and the great recession, and now the pandemic, this is an extraordinarily difficult time for everybody on the planet for a variety of reasons. And I think that forces all of us to think quite differently about the future and forces a level of transformation and disruption of the status quo that ultimately is beneficial. I think if we can again harken back to 9/11, in the United States an extraordinarily trying time, but the travel industry is much larger five to ten years later than it was before.

And I believe that this pandemic, while extraordinarily painful for millions of people, is ultimately, when we look back on this 10 years from now, we're going to say the world is has become a much better place. We've sort of built in systemically the ability to deal with the next pandemic or the next global crisis, because this is not the last one of these we're going to face.

And so, I'm extraordinarily optimistic about using this time as a way to invest in transformation. And I'm always sort of looking forward to the way the world is going to be better in the future, even though you know in the moment it's sometimes extraordinarily hard to consider that given all the pain and challenges that that people are going through.

So, in short, we're going through an extraordinarily painful, difficult transformational process. But in the end, transformation is good, in my view.

Tahnee: That's a good note to end on. Well, thank you very much for joining me today, John. And thank you all for watching.

John: Thanks, all. Take care. Thank you, Tahnee.


Tahnee Perry
VP, Marketing

Tahnee Perry is a marketing executive with 15+ years of travel industry experience. She fosters a passion for excellence in execution and builds high-performance teams. Previously, Tahnee drove creative and marketing strategy for B2B information solutions company, Northstar Travel Group, and for travel research authority Phocuswright. She's a frequent industry speaker and guest lecturer at Stanford University.

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