Low Cost Travel CTO flies into the next generation
“We are moving from taking on TUI and Thomas Cook to taking on Expedia,” Francesco de Marchis, CTO of the Low Cost Travel Group says of innovation leadership in travel and tourism. In recent years the old guard of the tourism industry has been disrupted by a coach load of online challengers. Travel and tourism has pioneered the aggregator business model and thrived on filling airliners and hotel rooms; but the strong technology and user experience focus of the new market entrants, unencumbered by a High Street presence has seen market stalwarts suffer.
Low Cost Travel Group hired CTO de Marchis in 2015 to turn the tide before the sun set. “Travel still has massive potential,” de Marchis tells me at his Gatwick office as customers scream over our heads heading to far flung destinations.
Low Cost Travel Group was founded in 2004 and is better known for its online travel agents Low Cost Holidays and Low Cost Beds. Based in Gatwick, West Sussex, Low Cost Travel Group employs 500 people and serves around three million customers who travel to Europe, America, Asia, Africa and Australia.
To rebook Low Cost Travel into the first class cabin of online travel, de Marchis had to change the culture towards technology and the methods of his team.
“When I got here in 2015 there was 10 people and Low Cost was using a large third-party provider,” he says. The ambition and the realisation of the need to be a digital contender was clear and was instrumental in the hiring of de Marchis, who led technology at online retail leader play.com previously.
“They were trying to build a skyscraper with a builder that specialised in house extensions,”
he says of the scale of the journey Low Cost Travel faced. Internally his team were still using Waterfall development methods, today, Agile and scrum is everywhere, to the point where Horizon had to duck through two standup meetings to get to the CTO’s office.
“In IT now we have product groups and they really understand the products. We have created an Agile studio and in 2016 the heads and brains of the business are here within the technology layer of the business and we design around that. The head of aviation is now part of the technology team and driving a great deal of change” he says. Adding that often two sprints and a project is live.
“The leadership team is really connected together and you do not see any politics going around, there is great collaboration,” de Marchis says. Low Cost Travel Group has big growth ambitions. “To do that, we needed our own technology platform,” he says. De Marchis inherited a technology strategy that was built around a core reservation platform. “That was not scalable enough and not efficient,” he says.
Today Low Cost Travel uses a combination of Microsoft SQL in conjunction with Cassandra open stack and open source database technology and low latency algorithmic technology to drive a web experience akin to what customers are used to on sites such as Amazon and eBay. “We take the best out of different technologies,” he says.
With 80 people now on his team and a desire to grow the team, technology is at the heart of Low Cost Travel and the business sees itself as a technology company and even supplies technology services to some of its rivals that were once disrupting its market.
De Marchis’ latest initiative is a major two day hackathon in London on July 7 and 8, 2016 as he continues to push the technology and cultural boundaries at the Sussex based business. “This will help me attract more talent, retain taken and really present Low Cost Travel as an innovative company.
The Take Off hackathon is a major innovation event backed by Microsoft, Rackspace, Amadeus, DataArt and Intent Media. Organisations that are increasingly focusing on helping businesses tackle the digital opportunities they face, de Marchis says.
“You need to be a post-modern CIO,” he says of the role. Away from the fast paced world of digital tourism de Marchis volunteers with the Scouts and sees a similarities to today’s Agile IT culture. “You encourage kids to do more and you highlight the best things. You can only be a technology team if you are structured to collaborate.”