Beating your customers won’t help beat the competition (part 1 of 2)

This is part one of a talk I gave at the 2017 Travel Tech Con in San Francisco. I am very humbled to have had a chance to join the discussion alongside with some of the greatest industry leaders, such as Travelport, Amadeus, Skyscanner, JetBlue Ventures, Hipmunk and many more. 

It starts a bit dorky, but bear with me, please.


I bet many of you traveled to be here today from near and far, you took the plane, the car, the train, and as much as I’m flattered to see so many of you listen to me speak, I must ask: why?

Why are you here?

You do realize that your presence here is not required, right? You can get these slides online, you can stream the conference, connect with virtually any person in this room, start a business, send them money, invest in their company without ever having to meet in person or leave your office.

But these slides, this information, these speakers – that’s not the only reason why you’re here today. In fact, that’s not even the primary reason. You choose to be here today, because being physically present, in this room, on Treasure Island, is exciting, it’s an entirely different experience and a different feeling.

And sure – some of you do travel for work. But I also think that any business manager who’s honest with themselves will admit that most business travel is a waste. Why do business managers travel? To attend an industry conference? You can see how engaged they are by the number of people standing around the snacks section. An intracompany meeting? But you work with these people, why do you have to travel thousands of kilometers to sit in the same room for a couple of hours, pretending to listen while typing away on your phone? If business travel is supposed to be for doing business and hence purely transactional, then information is all you really need, and there are plenty of ways to get it without actually going anywhere. Finally, there’s, of course, travel to sell. And although that’s probably more plausible, it’s worth noting that startups close pretty big deals without spending a dime on travel, simply because they can’t afford it. So a lot of business travel is also experiential and is done for socializing and networking.

So back to the question: why do we spend an enormous amount of money on travel, eat terrible airplane food and deal with the TSA? Why do we travel more than ever in an era, where we can achieve the most with the least amount of travel?

After 20 years of research, Prof. Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University came to the conclusion that the one thing which we can buy to make us happy is experiences, such as travel. That’s because experiences provide a long-lasting benefit, which can increase over time, while tangible goods like a house or a car tend to exhaust themselves rather quickly. So I will boldly paraphrase a well-known quote and say that

Travel is the only thing we buy, which can make us happy.

Think about this for a second.

Think about what this means to your business and to your vision. We may be thinking that we’re in the business of travel, tech, aviation, but essentially, we’re in the business of happiness.

Now, as a consumer, as a traveler, how much is your happiness worth? How much is price a decisive factor, when you’re shopping for the experience of feeling happy?

Your customers will shop on price alone if there’s no other way of differentiating you from the competition. Startups, which rely solely on operational efficiency and the reproduction of existing services only cheaper will have a hard time not only scaling but probably sticking around for too long. So there’s more than price. Instead of price, we can try to be the best, to give something away, to engage – to nurture our audience before selling them.

This is a graph of the number of passengers carried annually.


In the past 15 years alone, it has more than doubled reaching nearly 4 billion people. IATA predicts that this number will hit 7 billion over the next 20 years. In 2016, travel accounted for over 10% of global GDP and one in every ten jobs was in tourism and travel. So travel has never been this big, and it has never faced such a high number of equally big challenges: unions, taxes, regulation, demographic shifts, the volatile cost of fuel, poor service, lack of trained personnel, infrastructure, poor marketing, security, etc.

As a startup, how many of these can you really control? How many of these challenges are low-effort-high-impact to your business?

I think these two: service and marketing. And I use service very liberally here, including customer service, care, and customer experience as a whole. I will try to show that they are essentially two sides of the same coin.