Reimagining the Travel Agent / Tour Operator Digital Relationship

December 17th, 2018 / Published in: Interviews

A tech enabled tour operator redefines his relationship with travel agents using modern, digital tools.

Ben Block is a technology entrepreneur and business operator with vast experience in all things Internet. Ben has worked with early stage startups, mature private Internet companies as well as large public corporations.

In August 2016, Ben was named CEO of DH Enterprise & Associates, a New York based Internet travel company selling prepackaged leisure vacations through both the web and its call center. For the two years preceding his appointment as CEO, Ben served on DH’s Board of Directors, providing technical and management advice to the board and management team.

In 2014 Ben Co-Founded Bask Labs, a business focused on developing data driven solutions for the online food ordering space. He was responsible for driving the product and technical innovations the company brought to online food ordering through its personalization technology. Under Ben’s leadership, Bask built a content-based recommendation engine and an intelligent search engine. These two products led to the sale of Bask to GrubHub in 2016.

For the 7 years prior to co-founding Bask, Ben was CTO at W3, Ltd, a London based Internet company operating brands in the online classifieds space. W3’s largest and most successful product was Vivastreet, a general classified site marketed in Western Europe and Latin America. Under Ben’s technical leadership, the infrastructure scaled to support over 25 million page views and 3 million users globally each day. During his time at W3, revenue increased to over 40mm euro annually. As the business scaled, Ben’s team grew globally across 4 different countries (US, UK, Ukraine, and India). The growth and success of Vivastreet led W3 to sell the Mexican business unit to Ebay in 2014. Ben relocated back to New York at this time.

Before joining W3, Ben spent 7 years at News Corp, working primarily in the Fox News division. By the end of his tenure, he was running the Internet Technology Department, consisting of engineers, software architects, system administrators, project managers and QA personnel. Ben’s team developed the first true content management system ever used in the Fox News newsroom, and brought various innovations to the consumer facing website, specifically around the use of video and advertising technology in the early and mid 2000s.

Ben graduated cum laude from NYU in 1999 with a passion for the Internet and a degree in Economics. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.

Podcast

Transcript

Kim: Hello everyone, good afternoon and thank you for joining us on DojoLive today Monday the 17th of December, my name is Kim Lantis broadcasting live from one of Nearsoft offices in Hermosillo Mexico, joining me today are my teammates Carlos Ponce and Wendy.

Carlos: Hello Kim.

Kim: So we’re happy to welcome our final guest of the year, actually our final guest of 2018 to wind down the year, we’ll be talking about how to reimagine the travel agent or tour operator digital relationship, today’s guest is here to tell us how he and his team are doing just that please, welcome the CEO of DH enterprise, Ben Block, hi Ben welcome to DojoLIVE.

Ben: Hi guys thank you very much for having me.

Kim: It’s a pleasure thank you, so Ben to go ahead and get us started, why don’t you share with us a bit more about yourself, your background and how it is that you finally arrive DH Enterprise.

Ben: Sure, and I will try to keep it as brief as possible, because I think this is probably the least interesting part of our talk here, my background is in tech for about eight years from 2006 to 2014, I was CTO of a london-based Internet Company developing a classified space, we actually developed a strong brand presence in Western Europe and then took some of our success there into Latin America and we were able to sell our Latin America business to eBay in the end of 2013 in the beginning of 2014, it that point I moved back to the States and founded, co-founded, business creating data-driven solutions for the online food ordering space which basically means we created recommendation engines against things like that, the seamless or GrubHub data sets and the so that we called an intelligent search engine which I went give it to the details of that now, we sold that subiness to GrubHub in 2016, when I moved back to the States in 2014, I met this, the business that I run now, DH enterprise and was asked to join their board, DH Enterprise was trying to is a traditional tour operator and was trying to and have become more and more of what we call a tech enable to our through these days, and yes they there and their infinite wisdom though somebody with my background would be beneficial for their board, I sat on the board for a couple years, and when we sold Basque Labs the company I referenced earlier to GrubHub, I agreed to come on board and DH, on DH is a conventional tour operator so for those who are familiar with the kind of legacy travel business to operators kind of sits in between the travel agent and the customer, excuse [INAUDIBLE] mentioned that, today the travel agency is between the customer and the tour operator, we provide the product to the travel agent, and I guess without jumping too far ahead perhaps in this conversation DH had kind of cut out the travel agent in it’s business plans for the most part in leading up the couple years before I took it over and we’ll talk bit about the history if you’d like, DH but we saw an opportunity and re-engage in with the travel agent community and that’s in fact what I’d love to talk about today.

Kim: Perfect, so that was actually my next question for you is exactly how do DH Enterprise doing just this imaging, reimagining the travel agent or two operator and tour digitall relationship, so when did the need reimagination kind of occur and why and where it’s headed with you.

Ben: It’s a great question, and let me maybe take a half a step back in explain, so when I took over DH we basically had completed a pivot of the business to really a direct omdel, so we were selling direct to consumers rather than through travel agent which had been the business kind of better butter for many years, the direct business is done under a brand called great value vacations which is a fairly large bran and we operate sort of flash sales and mid market, we sell mid market there inclusive vacation packages as I said direct to customers, as I said direct to customers, it’s a it’s great business and it’s an exciting business and it’s the business that I understand well because I have sort of you know, ecommerce direct-to-consumer background but in coming on board and researching how to grow this business and in fact we did grow the consumer business 40 percent, the first full year I was here but I didn’t think we could pull that trick off again, you know, that’s impressive growth in organically and without you know, significant inorganic strategy it was it was going to be difficult so looking it the it, the industry and understanding kind of how company like mine fits into the industry it became clear that we’re ignoring travel agents it our own peril and in fact the data will tell you that the 65 percent of companies like DH to which is to say traditional tour operators sell their product through travel agents, and we were leaving a lot of money on the tablet by not having a travel agents solution, now you know, when you’re not a tech guy as I said, and when you’re you know, what’s the expression when you have a hammer everythings look like a nail rightm so we wanted to provide, I wanted to create a digital solution for re-engaging with the travel agent, so what we’ve done is we’ve gone ahead and I’ve sort of coined this expression reimagined the tour operator travel agent digital relationship, so what that means in and I’ll try to be brief here’s we’ve interviewed you’ve spent a lot of time talking to agents, what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, what do they like about two operators, what don’t they like about two operators, and we learned a lot, and we went ahead and tried to create a interactive digital tool set, that would give these agents access to our product from a what I would call a DIY perspective, so and I can talk about what our products is in a moments, that’s what we’ve done, I can probably get into more detail if you’d like it any point.

Kim: Please.

Ben: Ok, so the way we think about our product is there’s effectively three different pieces of content so to speak, that we use on our consumer facing side to convert customers and we wanted to give that same toolset to the agents and that is is literally kind of what we call travel inspiration content and then we have pre-built vacation packages and we also have what’s known in industry as a custom IFT so you can a customer or an agent can create their or custom package using our underlying products, what DH didn’t have was a vehicle for agents to get access to this content or these products, and one of their reasons why what one of the challenges to that is agents will tell you when you speak to them, their biggest challenge or frustration and working with a tour operator that this day and age the tour operators often try to steal their customers, so I heard agents saying, you known, it’s a necessary evil to work with your with your move with the operator, I have to sell your product but the next year if I don’t get it to my customers early enough in the buying cycle you0re gonna market it to them directly and you’re gonna sell to them directly, I’m gonna be cut out so what we did was we built this tool set that really enabled and kept the communication with the customer in the hands of the agent and in fact we created what we call a pledge to to effectively do just that so the pledge includes things like we will never share your customers information with any third party except whatever is necessary to book the travel, we will never reach out to your customers you known, without your permission, we will never market to them without your contact information on there and ultimately we will do everything in our power to make sure your customers have a great vacation experience, so what we built very specifically is access to our product or in the case of the travel inspiration content access to that content and then really a deep set of sharing tools that give the agents the capability of sharing this content or these itineraries with their customers and the sharing is all done off not surprisingly through the web, so you recieve an email there’s a link in the email, the email appears to come from your agent, our b2c, our b2c brand is sceptre, you see sceptre on the screen behind me, all of sceptre our branding has been removed from the communication that goes to the customer, on the email I said appears to come from the from the agent, the reply to for those techies out there, if you hit reply, the reply to you goes straight back to the agent not to you known, a scepter email address or anything like that, and then when you click the link you view an itinerary or apiece of content, there’s actually branded with the agents information, the agency’s , particular contact info you don’t see scepter anywhere and one of the cool features with that we created is when that content is viewed is viewed the agent will also get an alert saying your customers is engaging with this content right now, now might be a good time follow up with them and try to close the sale because they’re thinking about you know, this vacation which is which is a piece of functionality that is really novel to the agent community and one of the one of the ghint we heard when we were talking to them was a pain point just like your customers say they don’t see, they don’t get my emails, they’re not receiving it, they’re not viewing it, I don’t know if they telling me the truth, they’re just blowing me off whatever so you know, we give them these this kind of alerting functionality that tells them what’s going on with the content that they’re sharing and getting in front of their customers.

Kim: Can we go all the way back to the beginning real quick and list those three elements again I can’t travel inspiration content the custom packaging, what was the number two that you had mentioned?

Ben: Pre-built packages, so we have yeah we have all of our pre-built air inclusive all right, so it’s like a six or eight I mean we have all kinds of sort of customization features within the framework of the pre-built but we have on over 400 pre-built packages today, so all of those itineraries those packages are available to be resold on through our Sceptre brand by travel agents we hope that they shaye and we give them the opportunity to share all of our travel inspiration content with their customers to kind of fire them up about you know, hey you know, where they might want to go, we have over 800 proprietary content pieces that a staff of writers here that we created over the past year and a half since we’ve been implementing our content strategy and it’s in you know, three things to do in pair you know, the most beautiful towns in France that are not Paris, things like that right, to try to excite customers to travel and then and then, and then yes as I said we have our pre-built packages and then we have a tool that will allow agents to completely customize a paid trip for their customers.

Wendy: Now this solution that you’re talking about is this the white label solution that I was reading about on your website?

Ben: Not exactly the white label solution that we have reference in our website is kind of a third tier of our corporates strategies so we have our b2c channel great value vacations we have our b2b channel set their vacations and then we do operate brands on behalf of third parties so we operate the Aer Lingus vacations store and we’ve operated a few other brands in the past and are always looking for partners, so when we talked about white labeling that’s kind of what we’re thinking about, not so much the rebranding of this content for thea gent, so there is an element of white label in there that’s true.

Kim: So I was, there’s a couple as I heard you kind of describing your reimagining of things, there’s a couple things that sort of jumped out it me, and this is I guess these things about there’s inspiration there’s this idea of trust and there’s this idea of control I think those are three of the main factors so how did these kind of values and elements work into your company as a whole [INAUDIBLE]

Ben: It’s interesting I mean, you, the, the, the, the whole reason for kind of creating a what I call a content strategy in the business because historically DH has been a very kind of transactional business where people ought the travel from us but they didn’t research the travel through us and that’s, and that’s key to be kind of you know top of funnel and companies like focused right, well will tell you that 30 the customers will go to 36 different travel sites before they make a decision about where they’re going to go so certainly you know, it started as a kind of consumer facing strategy which is how do we get in touch with the custom higuer up in the funnel or a head of the purchasing process and then if you can get a head and you can get them research and travel on your through your brand, there will be that trust element that will be that sense of expertise that your brand then has that will obviously encourage a higher propensity to convert through your brand as well, so it’s our hope with the, with the agent tools that we’ve created that the agents can create the same kind of trust and an expertise to their customers so if they’re sharing this content with their customers they can become the experts it you know, France or Italy or Ireland and one to the key destinations that we’re it and that the content kind of demonstrates that authority for them.

Carlos: Sorry to interrupt but we have a question actually from one of our viewers and she’s actually one of our engineers in Chihuahua but before we get it to that, Wendy do you have any questions for any other questions for Ben?

Wendy: Go ahead with the viewer question.

Carlos: Ok, sure, thank you, well this question is coming it’s an internal question and it’s in our slack platform an this is from Anna Barrios and from our office in Chihuahua’s she’s an engineer it Nearsofta and she has this question for you: In such a fast-paced digital world, how do you look, how do you go about maintaining a competitive edge related to your platform and why do you think the markets are ready for what you’re offering?

Ben: Great question, I think that we are, we are certainly and I’m hesitate because I don’t want to act [INAUDIBLE] the we are doing things with our platform that our competitors are not doing, I think that you know, I bring and I’ve brought along some of my team with me that understands kind of software development in the modern work, you know, the agile methodology, how to create MVPs how to be lean a you know, create that feedback loop with the customer base and or in the case that we’re talking about here you know, the aging community to understand what’s working what’s not, so we’ve applied all of that to our software development lifecycle, and that’s not, that would be my answer, how do we keep pace, the same way any kind of lean startup would keep pace with them , with the industry that they’re it and so I think I guess the second part of the question I think is do I think the industry is ready I do I mean, I think that there a lot of what we’re doing is a better version of what of other other other components that are out there now you know, I don’t think that they’ve brought others haven’t brought everything together the way had we had, we haven’t put like a nice little bow on it or they have not put a nice little bow on it with thing like the alerting feature but I talked about earlier that really closes the loop and the communication for that, for the customer but it’s funny, people came to me when I was first proposing this in the industry and they said to me you know, be careful travel agents are really low tech, and I got to say: I don’t agree you know, they’re business people, and they use the tools that are available to them to drive their business and to close their sales and we’re just trying to create better tools for them.

Kim: That was actually my question because I was like let’s talk about usability and adaptation because this liar, this myth I don’t know there’s image against travel agencies being low tech, so that use is I’m assuming the usability of your product is something that you always keep in mind and how do you get this agency is to adapt to this or to buy into itm, is it a struggle or is it something that agencies are actually craving.

Ben: I think they’re craving it but like with any new technology of course it’s a struggle right, so you you, how do we do it, I mean, we go to all trade shows and first of all we have a team of kind of field folks that go out and visit agents you know, they’re all armed without, with iPads they demo the tools for them, they show them how easy it is to use but that’s always the feedback we get back which is: Wow I can’t believe I can do all this stuff in one place you know, and no, but it is a you know, there’s was an educational element to all of this right, how do you, how do you use the tool sets, how do you, you know, you have to train these folks.

Wendy: Speaking of tools, what role does data and analytics play with your business?

Ben: I mean, like any you know, internet-based company we measure everything we possibly can so you know, we’re looking it certainly both from a from, you know, UI and UX perspective what works what features are you know, jogging people further down the funnel but also I mean, from a product perspective right, like what’s resonating with, when I say, I say product and it’s something I’ve had to learn going into the travel space you know, I used that, the website itself used to be the product right, so now it’s the I refer to that as the “digital product”, and the you know, the actual travel that we sell is the product so you know, the product the travel the vacations etc, you know, we’re constantly obviously analyzing those as well on price point, on you know, we talked I think before we got out here talking a little bit about Millennials about the demographic breakdown of who’s interested in what trip you know how that along with price, how it aligns with the geographical breakdown of the customer bases in North America, so you know, we’re trying to leverage it as much as we possibly can, I think like most companies.

Kim: What’s the balance with you for this idea of I mean, obviously there’s a lot of research and things that has to go into this idea of a pre-built package, cost of packages like where is the balance between technology doing that fo you like this research and this data, and actual like behind the scenes people who are researching and doing this hands-on field, do you have that team of people?

Ben: I’m not sure that I understand the question.

Kim: Like for example pre-built packages or even custom packages this idea of where people are wanting to go, what they’re wanting to do when they get there, how much of this technology doing that research and how much of this is actual team of people who are you know, more hands-on in that sense.

Ben: I see, I think it’s probably in terms of the building of our product the point in the building of the vacation packages, how many nights in Rome, how many nights in Venice you know, how many nights in Florence, is that a train oir is it a car you know, that sort of thing which is all part of our packages it is, there’s more of a human element to that right now, the data is gonna tell us are people interested in Florence, are people interested in Venice you know, are people, you know the Venice’s you guys may know, is pretty badly overall in the summer with tourist, are we seeing a degradation and conversion rates as a result of that fact you know, that sort of things so we’ll watch that and then that will inform the decision we make in terms of the product development the actual part of development is being done by it by our vacation experts in-house here.

Kim: The dream job.

Wendy: [INAUDIBLE] AI we hear AI a lot in travel tech, is that a part of it.

Carlos: Yeah, indeed.

Kim: I mean you know, it’s interesting because I of course just came from a business that was a I mean the business I co-founded was I wouldn’t refer to it as AI but I would you know, who was heavy you know we were building predictive models on what people wanted to eat right so using machine learning and that type of technology, that is and I’m applying like I should say I have plans to apply to the same type of learnings to this business, now there’s the key thing about that right, and as you guys may know is it’s so much about classification right, Netflix famously has what, seventy five thousand different classifications and way they categorize their that each movie right so the you know, the better the more data we have in about our vacations, the better we can relate, those vacations to each other and then we can say: Hey customers who like this vacation also like that vacation, customers who went on this vacation, great time on this vacation, next that’s certainly part of our roadmap in with respect to our direct business, bless so the agent business although there are, there are some relationships between our content and the packages that we’re creating through the same kind of classification schemas that we are using now with the agents simply to help get in and suggest content that they can share with their customers against destination with their customers [INAUDIBLE]

Wendy: [INAUDIBLE] it take hours and hours and then days and days, in travel, because I just get too distracted and I need assistant.

Ben: You know, there’s a lot of folks in the industry will say, don’t try to automate that, that is actually one of the great part of the travel experience right, is planning it yourself.

Wendy: [INAUDIBLE] talking to.

Kim: I’m sure, but there have been a lot of startups in that space we’re trying to do that sort of AI driven you know, trip planning and it’s really hard, it’s really hard because it’s such a personal experience and it’s fun you know, and you know, the automating stuff that isn’t fun is a no-brainer, automating stuff that’s fun you’re removing fun from people’s lives I think there’s there’s some resistance to that.

Wendy: Right.

Kim: I was going to ask you as we’re coming to the kind of the end of our last half hour that was actually been to me my question is if you had any final words of wisdom to share with our audience but I think those was actually pretty wise words it was a nice indeed but do you have anything else, any other final words of wisdom that you want to share?

Ben: No I don’t want to take credit for that, I’ve heard that analysis it conferences and stuff around [INAUDIBLE] sharing so kind of insight I’ve learned and wisdom I’ve learned.

Kim: Ok, so now that you come clean, how about you Ben, what words of wisdom might you have from your experience and continued experience with this vertical.

Ben: Oh it’s a great question, it’s, wow, here’s what I’ll say, is businesses like mine historically have been, really I guess, more successful selling to an older demographic to you know, the baby boomers and you know and whatnot I’ve seen success and we’ve seen success selling to the whole spectrum of age groups you know, that are old enough to travel a lot and there are ways to do it and just because you’re selling a prepackaged and we’re not airing the all-inclusive all-inclusive kind of thing you know, it’s on [INAUDIBLE] in here and you’re you know, rum and cokes to us or anything like that but we are, but we are you know, all-inclusive package [INAUDIBLE] Air,hotel. land transportation that’s your thing, the younger demographics are not opposed to that sort of vacation model and if it’s pitched correctly to them if you treat them like they’re senior citizens they’re gonna go away from you if treat them like they’re like you know, they are the kind of hip young people that they are, they will buy from you, so that’s my word of wisdom.

Kim: How does, how, do I say this, where do financial limitation fall in that picture, is that something that should or could be considered I mean, I guess generally the baby boomers we would think those are the people with the money right, so when it comes, is that generally the rules, the age and money go hand in hand or we seem that’s not the case and how are people adapting to kind of hit that market of the more budget consider it people.

Ben: I think you’re right that that assumption does go hand in hand, I think it’s a fair assumption, we are, we a success what our business is successful it’s selling you younger demographic, because we offer really all inclusive packages it a very affordable price points, that you know, somebody who’s just out of school you know, $40,000 a year salary can afford and certainly we know, we don’t you know, our goal is not to sell you know, $1200 per passenger packages to Millenials and $10,000 per person packages to boomers you know, our product in general is much more sort of affordable and we aim for high value you know, mid market products.

Wendy: Marketing the Millenials, are you using are you using any type of social influencer marketing probably [INAUDIBLE]

Ben: We are, yes, would be my answer, I eat I mean, listen there’s as you all are well aware there are travel is a very kind of Instagramable thing, there are a lot of social influencers on that platform, is something that you know our business is working really working hard to have a stronger presence in and it’s certainly the key one of the keys to I’m getting to that younger demographic, it’s not the only one, but is one.

Kim: Well thank you very much for your time today, oh Carlos go ahead.

Carlos: No no no actually I was gonna send out a brief reminder thought we’re about to rip up which was gonna say thank you to Ben but you go ahead and do the wrapping.

Kim: That’s exactly what I gonna say too, like thank you for your time today Ben, we’re wrapping up Carlos you have anything else that you’d like to say before we close out.

Ben: No no no thank you guys very much, it’s been a really fun experience here.

Wendy: Thank you, it’s been great talking to you.

Kim: It’s our pleasure and congratulations on your success of DH enterprise and kind of trailblazing this it was vertical, which I think is really friendly, I think it’s interesting that you said that the fact that stat that you threw out there the 65% of sales are actually through travel agents, it surprised me I think I guess had this.

Ben: And it’s growing.

Kim: Yeah [INAUDIBLE] like dinosaur kind of thing like it’s on his way up.

Ben: Carlos told me to write things on paper so it’s sort of you know it’s like this one of these kind of things right I know if you can see that but.

Kim: A little closer.

Ben: The travel agents went down and now it’s coming back up.

Kim: Why is that? Did you know? Do you have an idea?

Ben: Well I think it’s the personal touch, it’s the, it’s and the conference that you have with buying through an agent and somebody that you can call an deal with on the phone rather than you know a website that you are, you know, you don’t have that you can’t pick up the phone necessary, they call them and if you do it’s gonna be on hold for an hour.

Kim: I think it’s something interesting like to give this a not this illusion but this sense of control it the beginning like the decision making is mine, once I’ve made the decision appreciate this person to then take the reins and drive I think I can relate to that.

Ben: You know, it also depends on that we have to wrap up all that, security it depends on the destination, right like in New Yorker it’s probably not using a travel agent, go to you know LA for four day, but they would more, they would use it to go to you know, to Europe for week and a half or something.
Well anything else Wendy, anything else before we wrap up?

Wendy: I got nothing else.

Carlos: Ok, cool, well Ben the only thing left for me to do this first of all thank you for accepting to be with us here and have this conversation, we appreciate it and I’m sure our audience did and well because it’ll this will be right there on the website and I usually it the end I kind of announced the next interview, but to be honest we’re taking a break much deserved break right, so there’s nothing this is gonna be the last one of the year, there’s more coming of course, but all the details are gonna be there like in the first week of January on the website, in the meantime let’s just all take a break relax and reap the cool fruits of our labor.

Kim: Yes, Merry Christmas, happy holidays, happy new year, every woman.

Carlos: Absolutely, thank you so much guys, thank you Ben see you next time, bye.

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