There must be something in the water, or maybe it’s all of that fresh air, but Ireland is evergreen when it comes to travel innovation.
There’s a historic precedent for bold ventures in Ireland. Think of the adventurous St. Brendan the Voyager, who discovered America 900 years before Columbus and 400 years before the Vikings. By sea and by air, on land and online, Ireland inspires travel.
Every day I’m traveling
Every day over 100,000 flights take-off. No matter where they’re flying from, many of them get their start in Ireland. Today, more than half of leased aircraft operated by airlines are managed by Irish firms.
Ireland has been a central hub for growth in aviation for decades. In the 1930s, the Limerick port of Foynes gave rise to commercial aviation between the U.S. and Europe.
This legacy laid a foundation in technology and services that would help commercial aviation grow from strength to strength.
Antrim’s Lilian Bland was the world’s first female aviation engineer. Duty free shopping, which helped fund the growth of aviation infrastructure, is an Irish innovation.
Many of the world’s aviation leaders call Ireland home.
“If you look around at the key figures who dominate air travel, you’ll see people such as Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, Alan Joyce at Qantas, and Willie Walsh at IAG,” says John Magill, senior development advisor with Enterprise Ireland, the Irish government’s venture and trade agency.
And it’s not all pie in the sky, other Irish travel innovations have built a notable global presence by helping travelers find a place to call home and a smoother ride there.
Mike Webster founded Arvoia in 2014, to address a need they identified in the ground transport phase for highly relevant offers.
The company, based in Killarney, County Kerry, applies artificial intelligence to mobility solutions, to refine B2B personalization, and countsFlightcentre, Travelport and Gulf Air among their customers.
Webster says the travel technology transformation that the sector has enjoyed in recent years is only beginning.
“It’s crystal clear that it’s about relevance and about seamless experiences,” he says. “There’s a move to micro-trips and having personalized experiences. People are also looking for curated experiences, and for conscious travel. The companies that understand behavioral differences in consumers will succeed.
"Two things are happening: retail behaviors are changing and everyone is expecting that they are getting curated content—that’s across technology sectors. It’s not just that technology is changing but consumers are changing.”
One of the secrets of success for the travel technology space in Ireland, Webster says, is that there are so many companies innovating around each other.
“Whilst we might be competitors, we can certainly be friends,” he says. “Even the larger companies, like CarTrawler - we have all come through the startup phase.
"There’s a journey that everyone else goes through and a general willingness to share in a non-compete environment.You always want Irish companies to succeed.”
Engines of change
Fixing ground transportation for the last mile is the engine that will power the kind of seamless intermodal travel we expect for the near future. CityHook has developed a solution.
Kevin O’Shaughnessy and Tommaso Solesin co-founded CityHook in 2011 to solve the niggling problem of finding local transport in unfamiliar cities.
“There are transfer buses and resort shuttles, but there was nothing that really covered how to find all the door to door options when you land,” O’Shaughnessy explains. “This was before APIs or anything related, when it comes to rail and coach. We have since made traditional ground transportation bookable in 60 different countries, and we are strongest in Europe.”
With the emergence of IATA’s NDC standard and the growth of APIs in the travel sector, O’Shaughnessy believes the ability to help travelers make the right connections will grow as well.
“Airports are beginning to react to the emergence of digital with a lot more sophistication,” he says.“You can imagine an API for an airport and your journey being much more connected.
"We’re also at the beginning, and digital platforms do not deliver on expectations—airlines are kind of catching up—but passengers will expect a full app-based experience. We’re trying to make transportation as digital and easy-to-use as possible.”
O’Shaughnessy says that being part of Ireland’s travel technology ecosystem makes it easier to solve problems that might stump others.
“There’s two coffees between you and any knowledge that you need to solve any problem,” O’Shaughnessy says.
“Everybody knows how much harder it is to get started, but you can have a conversation with Ray Nolan (Hostelworld founder) or a conversation with Bobby Healy (CarTrawler founder)… You get a lot of people in the room that have started and exited a company already, or who have been on the Board of Aer Lingus. The amount of knowledge is spectacular.”
Finán O’Donoghue founded Campsited because of his passion for fresh air and green.
“Where I come from in Ireland, there is great natural beauty. I spent my youth camping and hiking, and on caravan trips. Fast forward many years later, my wife and I decided to book a camping holiday on the continent to introduce our child to the outdoors. I went online to book the holiday and the process was excruciating. I spent hours trawling through websites,” he says.
With a professional background in enterprise technology and user experience design, O’Donoghue saw a problem that he could solve that would also benefit others.
“It was a light bolt…I spent time researching the market and looking at operators that were out there, and I realized it was a significant opportunity.”
In 2017, Campsited won Enterprise Ireland's Pioneer Travel Tech Award as the best early stage travel tech company with international judges from companies including Intercontinental Hotel Group and American Airlines. “That opportunity was fantastic,” O’Donoghue says.
O’Donoghue suggests that travel technology is expanding, diversifying and blooming.
“What’s been exciting for me to observe over the past few years is that there was a view that you do one thing and you do it very well—and that’s still valid—but if you look at the big operators today, in consumer-facing businesses and in marketplace platforms, they go beyond what they originally set out to do,” he says.
Part of that push to diversify comes from consumer need.
“When they are looking for travel, it’s not a linear thing…The exciting part is consolidation of the experience to give people an opportunity to look at the journey that they need to take, and make all of the bookings through the same platform—including value-added services while they are there, with a 360º degree experience,” he says.
“Building from that, what’s exciting is artificial intelligence and how companies build up data and insight and data to give people an opportunity to tailor the recommendations.”
Getting to know you
Since its founding in 2011, data analytics firm Boxever has grown to employ nearly 90 people and work with 20 airlines around the world in all sectors of the market including luxury carrier Emirates, low-cost giant Ryanair and hybrid carriers like Viva, Volaris and Aer Lingus.
The company’s CEO, Dave O’Flanagan, believes that Ireland offers an unparalleled environment for development in the travel sector and beyond, growing from the entrepreneurial spirit of people like Tony Ryan.
“We have created quite a cluster,” he says. “There’s OpenJaw and CarTrawler, and smaller companies as well—all of the companies do better because there’s some super talent in Ireland.”
Digital will continue to dominate travel over the next decade, O’Flanagan believes. “What all of these companies have in common is that we were able to leverage the digital ecosystem to do a lot more—be it an airline or hotelier—it’s becoming much more data-driven. Data and AI and digital are themes that will continue to dominate the conversation.
We can also see data-driven decisions around operations for airlines and hotels becoming more dominant. There is a lot of automation that can have a dramatic impact on costs.”
Roots, branches and trees
Technology companies like Boxever work with Enterprise Ireland to help extend their global reach.
With 35 offices in different markets around the world, Enterprise Ireland helps companies scale through industry advisors, strategic partnerships and resources they need to grow, supporting programs like Propeller Shannon, which give rise to cutting-edge technologies that will shape the travel sector over the coming decades.
Máire Walsh, senior vice president of digital technologies at Enterprise Ireland, who is based in Silicon Valley, sees growth in travel technology that can anticipate and satisfy individual needs and keep up with changes in customer behavior.
“Companies that will become dominant will be leaders in putting the customer first. They are really going to push the industry forward as competition will continue to intensify,” she says.
“There are definitely startups in Ireland that are finding solutions to transform travel technology further. You can look at CarTrawler’s Bobby Healy and his latest project, Manna, which will use autonomous drones to deliver fast food.
"Travel will continue to transform as we research what customers really want from the industry; it’s not just about being able to reach them on their mobile phones with the right offer. It’s also about finding newer, innovative ways to deliver what they really want, and in some cases before they even know that themselves.”
For Walsh, the highlight of her job is working with smart and creative entrepreneurs like the ones we spoke to, people who are passionate about driving innovation.
“No day is the same because you get to work with so many entrepreneurs across several different verticals,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s good to have a different perspective; to see opportunities and connect partners where it makes sense for the startup or the more established company in the market. You are helping those partnerships come together—that’s really rewarding. I get to work with companies that have solutions.
"The really interesting thing—the one thing I noticed instantaneously—is that in Silicon Valley companies talk about what they can do before they actually do it. In Ireland, companies don’t talk about what they can do until they can deliver at scale. Perhaps, they can be too modest.”
Modest perhaps, but this wave of Irish innovators are bold in their ambition to take travel tech solutions to exciting new places.
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