May 8th, 2019 / Published in: Interviews
Harnessing the power of technology to enhance travel experiences.
Prior to this role, Utpal held several leadership roles at companies like Expedia and Nor1, Inc. Utpal is a frequent speaker at Industry conferences and is widely quoted in publications.
Dulce: Hello everyone, and welcome to DojoLive, the future from those creating it, we are live now on different platforms, from Youtube, or DojoLive website, and now from LinkedIn, I present myself, my name is Dulce from Nearsoft in Mexico and my co-host always nice you see you Tullio Siragusa from Los Angeles, how are you doing Tullio?
Tullio: I am doing great thank you, I’m looking forward to this interview I met Utpal in Miami a few months ago so I’m excited to have them as a guest.
Dulce: Awesome so well last but not least from Mexico City Carlos Ponce, Carlos how are you?
Carlos: I’m doing fine thanks a little struggling a little bit with my glasses here but everything’s fine.
Dulce: Okay, great, so thank you friends for being here to get to know our very special guests today he’s the global head of innovation and new product incubation at CWT previously carlson wagonlit travel and his current role he’s responsible for leading and nurturing and innovation culture so let’s give a big warm welcome to Utpal Kaul and thank you Utpal for being here with us today at DojoLive.
Utpal: Thank you for having me Dulce and thank you for having me Tullio and Carlos happy to be here.
Dulce: Great, awesome so we’re gonna have a lot of fun today but before I start asking questions so Utpal, please tell our audience a short brief about your background.
Utpal: Sure, yeah so my name is Utpal, it’s a little bit of a tongue twister so don’t worry to get it wrong and I’m responsible for leading the innovation culture here at CWT my roles specifically is to lead new chronic incubation that’s a part of our overall innovation strategy and what that means in layperson’s terms as we look at new technologies emerging trend startups that may solve a particular pain point within the travel distribution ecosystem and we then assess it in terms of the scalability or fit within this within our framework and within the general travel ecosystem and if it does meet those criteria then we tend to run you know pilots with the startups and we create what we call a Minimum Viable Product to see if it meets the performance criteria that were established earlier on or just hold to the promise and if it does then we essentially have multiple options to choose from we can license the technology from the startup or have some kind of a commercial agreement with them or it could even and be that we tested it it’s a good piece of technology but at this point attempts not the time at times not right and we move on so we have plenty of options to choose from so my role is essentially to facilitate that whole process and quickly in my previous life I used to lead the lodging vertical at Expedia I was responsible for the western region of the United States and parts of ski and I started started with Expedia and it was almost a start-up not quite but by the time I left they had 15,000 employees.
Dulce: So well, I’m talking about the experienced travel today specifically we’re gonna or today’s topic it’s applications of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies in travel so please tell us Utpal about what did you choose this topic.
Utpal: Yeah so a couple of reasons one is that you know no conversation these days is complete without talking about our real intelligence but more importantly Travel is one of those products that touches each and every one of us we’ve all traveled in the past whether it’s a personal needs or business needs and also travel and covers multiple verticals like our travel as payments you have to make a payment so famous technology is important, health and wellness a sustainability so these are all elements that resonate with every single person and and because this ecosystem is so fragmented we were always we’re always looking at ways to make it seamless and more you know painless for the travel or to make that experience more worthwhile and technology has a great role to play in that.
Tullio: [INAUDIBLE] so let’s try that again, recently replant it was that why did that happen was that also an initiative in lining with some of the things you’re doing is there some kind of new new approach to the market you guys are trying to accomplish give us a little background of sort of where you’re coming from and where you’re trying to go with your new rebranding strategy.
Utpal: Yes, so the new branding strategy is not necessarily something that was within my remit it’s a strategic decision that Causton CWT made to migrate from a URL called carlson wagonlit travel or the name call carlson wagonlit travel to more concise and also you know which are there’s plenty of considerations other than that but unfortunately it’s not something that was a product of the the new product development effort.
Tullio: [INAUDIBLE] what is your very customers [INAUDIBLE]
Utpal: Yes, Tullio your audio is fading in and out a little bit but I got the gist of your question, so CWT essentially is what we call a TMC or a travel management company so we manage travel for corporations so when you have the companies like General Electric or Amazon, Google or any other company they they spend a huge huge amount of money on employee travel or interview Canada travel or meetings and events and stuff so there has to be someone who can do provide a couple of services to them one is just [INAUDIBLE] anymore but you’ll get the gist one is just to provide policy compliance so different classes employees have different eligibility criteria someone has to manage that and if you’re traveling you get stuck at an airport you need to call someone to reroute you some has to answer the phone and give you option and then you provide you know also reporting and intelligence on how to optimize your spend so there’s a bundle of services that need to go with employee travel or corporate travel that someone needs to provide for and obviously it’s not the core product or the core competence of these companies to do it themselves so they contract out third parties in this case PMC’s us to to manage those services for them.
Tullio: [INAUDIBLE] so you corporate travel how is like the emergence of new applications and just putting things at the fingertip of the actual consumer what what is that introduced in terms of challenges for serving those end users I understand you said something about compliance right so it’s like you’re kind of forced if you’re in a corporate environment to use the platform but how are you addressing the ongoing needs of the end traveler who might have different tools that their accessibility is that some of the gaps or opportunities that you’re seeing that you’re looking to bridge.
Utpal: Sure, so regardless of you know whether it’s travel for business reasons or travel for your personal needs there are some elements that straddle both of these verticals or both at these dimensions which would be things like what happens if you if you miss a connection or your travel gets disrupted for some reason you still have the same problem to solve for and there’s a there’s a lot of technologies now that kind of provide that seamless completeness of continuity and travel and for example if we have a huge huge improvement now thanks to artificial intelligence in predicting the likelihood of an event so for example if you knew a day before your travel that your flight is most likely going to get delayed or you’re gonna miss an word connection even if the flight doesn’t get canceled but there is a 30 minute layover and you may not be able to meet that because of some reason it can have a huge impact not just on your experience but also your decision to travel so we now have the ability actually to to forecast with a very high degree of accuracy on what’s going to happen for your specific flight and if you have a non-word connection and if you can apply for both leisure travel as well as personal travel similarly there is technology now that can predict airfare volatility so which essentially provides the traveler or the user or empowers the user to make an informed decision on whether this is the right time to book your travel or should you wait a few days similarly there are other technologies that can ease the whole travel experience like facial recognition and so on and so forth that essentially eliminates the need for you to show your identification proof at every single check point during your experience you can simply use your biometrics as your access key so it has a whole lot of applications in in this industry.
Tullio: Well that suits [INAUDIBLE] which marks for adapting that faster than others I’m assuming you guys have clients worldwide this is a international business that you’re running where are you seeing more downtown biometrics and things like that.
Utpal: Well, I know for a fact that in US a couple of airline, Jetblue and Delta have piloted facial recognition as your identity or biometrics validation of your travel I think Atlanta is an airport where Delta is running this and JetBlue has started this and believe in New York I could be wrong on which specific Airport but this is this is a technology that has arrived it’s only a matter of time before it becomes mainstream whereby instead of you know having to show your identification every single checkpoint you simply use our biometric pass through security and onward to the to the aircraft.
Tullio: So is this [INAUDIBLE] or are you partnering up with third parties that are doing.
Utpal: So there are two parts of the question so some of the technologies that I want to talk about may not be things that we already are providing to our travelers so it’s generally what’s happening in this space and some of these solutions we are providing to our clients for example the facial recognition is not something that we are providing currently it’s an airport thing and the airline has to provide that so our existence or not doesn’t really impact that it’s coming there are so many things we can do with it but the the predictive analytics platform that can tell you if your flight is most likely to get disrupted or delayed by a certain percentage so that’s something that we do offer our clients and the way we do this is we partner with third parties and startups we help them build this product test that make sure that there is a product market fit and and provide consulting to startups entry so the product can be then eventually presented to the clients at that part we do.
Tullio: Right, [INAUDIBLE] if anybody [INAUDIBLE] I apologize that we are having audio issues, you can submit them on at DojoLive on Twitter or if you watch you on LinkedIn live there as well I have a follow-up question I’m curious to learn about how you’re going about prioritizing what you’re delivering what web initiatives of product or features you want to add and how you’re working with startups before we do that I just want to turn to Dulce in case you have some some additional questions first.
Dulce: Yes I do have a question so we’ve been hearing this word innovation since technology has been part of our lives in almost everything that we do so for you what’s innovation?
Utpal: That’s an interesting one, so what is in a way so technically anything that would improve an experience or a process would qualify as innovation now specifically in with with us and in our crew we are looking for essentially three things one is that anything any technology or use case and that can significantly improve the experience of the traveler would qualify as innovation or anything that can help drive operational efficiency significantly would qualify as innovation or anything that can help our our clients so we have a duty of care responsibility to our client so anything that can help them significantly optimize their travel spend would qualify as innovation and innovation could also be something that can totally disrupt this landscape tomorrow so and so we need to be ahead of the curve and be aware of what could be coming so those are the things that would qualify as innovation and in our world.
Tullio: How do you validate what your clients need how do you have some kind of a round table with some IT clients how do you go about getting feedback for planning purposes on in terms of how to best serve them what’s your process for doing that today
Utpal: We actually do we actually do have frequent interactions with with our clients whereby we do a couple of things one we we show them what we are working on and also present metrics around the performance of these projects and keep in mind once we know we only adopt a project once we go through a very careful analysis and do diligence so all ideas are good ideas so when a start-up comes to us clearly they have done their homework they’re solving a particular pain point but then it’s up to us to determine how big of a pain point is it value it can drive so we do assess startups based on the metrics of scalability and the total value it brings and then we adopt this you know the the idea of the use case and work with startups to then measure the results and part of the process is also to share with our clients what we are working on and how it’s performing but then we also ask for feedback on A) if it is relevant to them and B) if there’s anything that’s a pain point currently that they are seeing and we are not then we are we solicit that feedback and so it’s a it’s a two-way process to a dialogue.
Tullio: [INAUDIBLE] thinking about doing a start-up it has expertise in travel technology what does the process look like to understand your needs and requirements and build something that might be a good fit that could either become licensed or I think you mentioned you might even acquire a company that might the dry or create something that’s extremely valuable what’s the process for doing that.
Utpal: So there are two parts to your question one is around licensing and acquisition so acquisition is not something that’s within my remit so we look at we have a dedicated team of people that look at if there is a potential acquisition that will add value to CWT and they go through their own due diligence on that but the first part of your question was how should a startup work with us so the way we operate is more so than us telling a start of what to do we look at so we go with the belief that if you create a piece of technology you have thought through very carefully the problem that you’re trying to solve so if if startup and this is my personal view not necessarily CWTs view and my view is that if a start-up hasn’t done that homework I would strongly encourage them because we do interact with a lot of starts we see on average like 300 startups a year so if you you want to get so obviously it takes bandwidth to view the startup so if you haven’t gone through the due diligence my strong recommendation is do that and find out what what’s the problem that you’re trying to solve once you’ve identified a problem you’re trying to solve you can have you can build a piece of technology to solve it and that point of time communicate to us hey this is what you have we’ll we’ll review it I also have a team of people that to go through this exercise and we can provide feedback on what what needs to be done from this point on or if you already have everything that we need so it becomes more of a dialogue at that point of time.
Tullio: Very cool, [INAUDIBLE] questions or Carlos any questions from the audience?
Carlos: Sorry Tullio I was in mute, no we don’t have any questions from the audience.
Tullio: Dulce anything that you want to ask?
Dulce: Yes, going back to the innovation part how did you promote innovation during your own company?
Utpal: Sorry my phone ring, how do we do promote anyway innovation within CWT is that what you’re asking?
Utpal: Yeah that’s and that’s an interesting question, so we have a dedicated team called innovation and new product development that is headed by CTO and that essentially has kind of visibility throughout the organization and the executive sponsorship on initiatives like this is very important we do have a lot of encouragement support and visibility with with CEO and stuff so it does make a big difference when there is an executive level sponsorship and also what we do because we are such a large organization and we are global in scope so we do have very frequent touch points with the business leaders of with NCWT and showcase what we are working on and also seek feedback from that perspective so so that’s been very very helpful.
Tullio: Utpal, what drove the deceit to want to look at this model right there’s a lot of companies that have the build license or require model right there arts organizations and they have their reasons for doing that you know they just maybe not nimble enough fast enough where they’re looking for new innovation that they just can’t get to it out what drove that decision for you guys.
Utpal: So that’s a great question Tullio, I’m glad you asked so at any given point of time for a large organization there is a million things you could do and some of these things are that you know exist and some of these things you may not know exist but you learn about through third parties or even online or through press and you could be doing but the reality is every organization has to prioritize on where do you want to put your resources and there is no organization that has unlimited resources for unlimited ideas okay so then that’s where the product pipeline becomes important what is it that’s that we have already committed resources to and how much more time it’ll take and then how much else can we fit into this product roadmap and it’s a finite number of projects but if you want to test something that you want to test something learn fast and make a quick determination you cannot do that the only way we can do that is if we partner with third parties in this case startups because startups are nimble they’re hungry they can iterate fast and then some areas might be niche that they have discovered that we simply have and that’s how disruption happened as innovation happens so it allows us to run multiple products in parallel some of these scale some of them don’t manage to go past the first two stage gates and then we move on so that so we have deliberately chose this model so we can test more things more quickly and the odds are the more 10 things you test you will find something and that is scalable.
Tullio: You know, over the years, I’ve been doing a minute 30 years now over the years what I’ve noticed is that in front of companies you’ve got really good talented IT people right they can do a systems integration initiative using third-party software whether it’s a supply chain or your pea platform or table or whatever right but but building a product from scratch is a very different DNA do you think that this is a model that other companies shouldn’t that what’s your opinion in terms of how good companies that are sort of trying to be innovative trying to reinvent themselves trying to fill gaps in the marketplace is this an approach that could work for every company what’s your opinion.
Utpal: I believe yes, this model could work for all the companies and I’d actually I’ll go a step further and I would argue that this is the only sustainable way for organizations to drive innovation and I can explain to you why when you have if you build a product in-house regardless of whether it’s a good product or a great product or somewhere in the middle you you attach a certain amount of effort to it there is a lot of people involved and more time and effort you spend on a product the more I guess passionate you become but you also become kind of a little bit a too attached to the product so it there is a possibility that you know you use and focus on what was the original problem that you were trying to solve and if the results the results aren’t always black and white it’s not it’s working or not so the the output lands on a spectrum between what’s 100 percent of the time and works no percent of time so the question is at what point do you make the determination if it’s working or not so internally it becomes hard but if you’re working with a third party so you have at level and I guess pistons were being being a little bit dispassionate not on what you do but on the on the results so you can take an objective view of if it’s gonna work or not so your barrier to exit is a lot lower if it’s an external driven or an externally developed product than an internally developed product similarly the barrier to entry also is a lot lower worth working with startups bandwidth in tunnel with internal products you have to go through a lot of approval there’s a lot more stakeholders and inherently lot more stakeholders means the process gets delayed and you could build a product when the product is already outdated nothing’s gonna happen all the time but it does happen with startups you you don’t have that limitation so I do believe this is the only sustainable way for organizations to drive innovation with it.
Tullio: But the model gotta be different than your typical procurement process I mean most companies are looking for well baked products right they they can just license so what’s your piece in terms of first of all what’s the what what is the righty area in the organization to drive this kind of initiative that you have that places a product is that the marketing is it the chief technology officer which place in the organization should drive this and then secondly what kind of advice do you have for organizations that are sort of on the fence about this on how to approach it because you have to be very flexible to work with a start-up and go through a proof of concept phase it’s not like hey where’s the product is ready let’s try it what’s what what advice do you have anybody thinking about doing this?
Utpal: Yeah what I think we if we go one step back before you license a product the question that we would ask in innovation as what is the value it’s going to bring so we you will get to that decision on making a you know a buy versus build decision once you have a clear understanding of the value so we do help in that we do ascertain what is the relative value in either having it or not and also what are the options so all of this is a part of the innovation effort that goes and questions the fundamentals of what problem are you trying to solve and how big is the problem.
Tullio: Whether who’s riding there internally within so if I if I’m thinking about implementing this in my organization what’s how do I go about it what’s what’s the journey been like to go about it is this something that’s part of the the guys who are evaluating product is a performant is it you know it’s a separate initiative all together and you end up competing with the CTOs office so you partner with them I’m trying to understand how it does how you organize this kind of effort so others who might be watching could could learn from that.
Utpal: Yeah, so we at CWT be a part of the product and technology group so that’s what the umbrella organization is and the sponsoring organization is but really for enormous any organization it could just as well fall under the marketing org as long as you have executive sponsorship of this initiative from top down you will force those internal alliances and then it doesn’t really matter which or necessarily you belong to because eventually everything rolls up to the top so that’s most critical but if it does not on the other hand have executive sponsorship and then it doesn’t matter how its structured these things will essentially be those academic exercises that you do but don’t necessarily drive any any value so if I was to counsel you on what you should do I would argue that it needs executive sponsorship first and foremost.
Dulce: I think we are all running almost out of time but before we wrap this up I would like to know if you have any words of wisdom for our audience.
Utpal: I don’t know about wisdom, but what I can say is that clearly based on my experience that if you’re a product person or an engineer you’re toying with the idea of a startup spend a lot of time thinking through what is the problem you’re trying to solve and the solution that you come up with how big of a value does it represent so test yourself test your own assumptions do not think that just because you believe something is a problem will be a problem and so so test your own assumptions and think through very hard on that.
Tullio: Because that [INAUDIBLE] questions, we seen a lot of presentation I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of startups you’ve seen different models for how people go about doing that kind of research preparing themselves is there one in particular that stands out for you I mean it’s more like a lean canvas that’s a better fit for people should they follow more austere wilder kind of model how one recommendation would you have and anyone who’s trying to develop their Minimum Viable segment a Minimum Viable Product what have you seen work best for some of the organizations that have to work with you.
Utpal: So to think that I think has a greater the the path that I believe has create an odds of scalability is if you have an idea you also need to do some due diligence to gather domain expertise you know as they say the devil is in the details just because an idea makes sense and doesn’t always mean it’s a workable idea so to get that layer on that domain expertise on top of the court idea goes a long way.
Tullio: Great words of advice,thank you for being with us we’re up on time it’s always like that when we’re starting to have fun I appreciate you to being with us thank you Dulce want to wrap it up, thank you.
Dulce: Yes sir, thank you Utpal for being here with us today as Tullio said, we are already having fun when we have to wrap this up but I don’t know if Carlos if you have information for next episode on DojoLive?
Carlos: Actually, sorry about that, here’s the thing we’re I mean I do but I don’t and this is because we already know who this the guest is, but as the website is being uploaded our developer development guy has that really low debate that would need to get out there so it’s not updated that’s what I’m talking about so I’ll have that you just keep an eye on our social networks and it’ll be all there and you leave pretty much updated soon but the good thing is that we got the final version running up and you know, our new dress, that’s why I call it.
Tullio: We haven’t mentioned but now you can get the podcast version of this interview you can get a transcript all the transcripts.
Carlos: All the transcripts.
Tullio: Curated news, so DojoLive is relaunching itself and today was the first time we were in live so the future guests feature functionality will be up probably in the next day but I’m excited to let everybody know that you can now get the podcast version of these.
Dulce: Awesome guys, so thank you everyone for being here, thank you audience for always keeping up, keeping with us every week, so thank you everyone have a great day and keep watching DojoLive.
Carlos: Thank you everyone.