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Once it was a small Dutch startup, today it’s the world’s largest hotel booking platform – Interview with Gillian Tans, CEO of Booking.com

Each day, more than 1.5 million room nights are reserved on Booking.com. The world’s biggest accommodation booking website, which was founded in 1996 in Amsterdam, today covers about 138,000 destinations in 229 countries, from tree houses to 5-star luxury resorts.

The person managing all this, together with her team, is Gillian Tans. As the CEO of Booking.com, she is responsible for the global strategy and operations of the company. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Gillian about her journey with Booking.com, the company’s future, and about women in tech. Enjoy the interview!

You joined Booking.com in 2002, when the company just had a small footprint in Amsterdam, and eventually opened up a second office in Barcelona. How was it to join this fast-growing company back then and how has booking changed since you joined?

When I joined Booking.com, it was a small internet-based startup catering for Dutch holidaymakers. The business was still being formed, and it was an amazing time. A lot has changed since then, especially as we have scaled and grown the business. Today, Booking.com has a dedicated team of over 17,000 employees in 198 offices across 70 countries. We offer 24-hour support in 43 languages, and facilitate over 1.5 million room reservations each day.

I was attracted to the company’s entrepreneurial mindset and driven by curiosity, hence why I stepped away from the successful role I held at an established international hotel group to join the startup. This was right after the dot.com bubble had burst, and so it seemed like a risky move, but I found the internet fascinating – I saw its potential even then.

Today, we are a global ecommerce leader and our focus remains on offering customers the widest choice of accommodation, not just hotels, but also homes, apartments and other unique places. We currently have 5.4 million non-hotel listings already, with 30 different types to choose from, including B&Bs, hostels, farm stays, bungalows even boats, igloos and treehouses. It is a segment which is growing fast. We also see an immense opportunity to use innovative technologies to deliver hyper-personalized local experiences and access to attractions online. We are excited for what’s to come.

Booking is currently covering more than 130,000 destinations in 229 countries. With the online travel space getting more and more competitive, how does Booking make sure to keep its leading position?

Booking.com has always been an extremely customer-focused and data-driven company. We use data to experiment and innovate constantly, making informed decisions to meet our customers’ needs and demands, and improve our service.

We are also investing heavily in technologies that we think will fundamentally impact the future of travel like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Machine learning is already heavily integrated into our processes. Every customer on our website today is interacting with machine learning and we continue to refine implementation with the vision of being able to offer personalized travel and experience options for all of our customers.

Having seen a growing customer interest in accommodation beyond traditional hotel listings, we are now also highly focused on growing this part of our business, to help better align ourselves with new customer expectations. Part of our mission is to empower people to experience the world and this is a large part of what sets us apart from the competition. This is why we launched ‘Booking.com Experiences’, where customers can view and book a full list of activities and experiences in their destination, without having to be redirected to a third-party website.

At the Startup Grind Global Conference 2018 you predicted that within 3 years, over 50% of your customers will touch AI somewhere within Booking. And just last year you launched new service and support chatbot, the Booking Assistant. What else is Booking doing in order to provide an even more personalised travel experience for its customers?

We continue to adapt our accommodation and experience offerings to make sure we meet ever changing customer expectations and deliver hyper-personalized experiences and recommendations on any device, anywhere. At any given time, there are more than 1,000 different tech experiments going on across Booking’s website and mobile apps, including AI deployment, to help us better understand our customers.

The AI-powered Booking Assistant chatbot has been a huge success and now resolves more than half of the daily customer support queries we receive within five minutes. The bot can handle 90 specific subtopics, including everything from payment to transportation, date changes, cancellation requests, pet policies, internet availability and extra bed requests.

For us, AI is not about replacing human interaction, but is instead a vehicle to facilitate an even more personalized, instantaneously gratifying and frictionless travel experience for consumers.

In 2017 in support of sustainable tourism, Booking created Booking Booster, a three-week startup accelerator programme that offers mentorship and financial support. The 2018 edition included 10 startups from all over the world. What is your impression on the program so far and how does it complement Booking?

The Booking Booster program has been immensely successful since its launch in 2017. We saw a tremendous response this year with hundreds of applicants from all over the world.

The relationships we build with entrepreneurs not only help fuel their future growth, but it also invigorates and inspires our entire company. It is this entrepreneurial spirit that our company is built on, and that catalyzes change.

The Booking Booster program enables us to build a network of like-minded individuals and organizations that are leveraging technology to create a more sustainable future for travel destinations worldwide. Through our collective commitment, we are striving to ensure that we can keep the unique destinations we all love, happy and healthy for generations to come.

As far as my impression on the program, I think the vision and passion that we’ve seen from all the startups this year has been truly inspiring. I was especially impressed with Wheel the World’s moving mission to empower people with disabilities to explore the world through the adventure travel sector. We’re all looking forward to seeing how their plans unfold over the coming months as we work together to bring their vision for a more sustainable travel industry to even more destinations worldwide.

The travel industry has changed enormously over the last decade. What do you think – how will the online travel industry look like in about 10 years from now?

People are travelling more and more and this trend is not slowing. We also know that consumers are increasingly interested in making all their travel arrangements at one online destination- whether that’s booking a hotel room, dinner reservation, or attraction. Additionally, we know consumers want to receive highly bespoke and customized recommendations on accommodation, itineraries and experiences in a destination.  This is where our technology investments are going.

We expect that the millennial generation and upcoming generation Z will play a big part in how we grow our business. These two demographics relish in the quality of experiences, the mindset of traveling without geographical boundaries, and they love to share their experiences in real time. Their needs will help Booking.com grow and market its business in a remarkably interesting way.

In an effort to tackle gender equality in tech, Booking recently announced a global partnership with Web Summit, to host a dedicated “Women in Tech” networking and mentoring program at the Web Summit even. In your opinion, how can we reduce gender inequality in technology?

At the forefront of tackling gender inequality is the need to continually support and nurture the great female talent we already have in tech. We need to inspire and celebrate these amazing women so that they continue to serve as positive and inspiring role models to draw more women into the industry. We recognize that initiatives such as our partnership with Web Summit are just one of many ways in which we can make a positive contribution to attracting more women to technology and helping them succeed.

At Booking.com, we have introduced a range of initiatives to champion diversity, both inside and outside our organization. This includes recognizing and celebrating women in tech through our Booking.com Technology Playmaker Awards, introducing a number of women-only university scholarships, running female-focused Hackathons, introducing unconscious bias training, and continuously conducting research to help shed light on shifts and perceptions of the technology sector.

However, we can always do more as it is so important to continually strive for greater equality in tech, and to identify new ways to attract and retain women in the sector.

As one of the most successful business women, and as Forbes stated, one of the most powerful international women, you are an inspiration to a new generation of female entrepreneurs. In order to succeed in business, what would you advise them to focus on?

I would advise women in business or in technology to let their curiosities lead them so that they have an insatiable hunger to explore new opportunities, question the norm and learn new things, otherwise you risk being beaten to it by someone else.

You must make sure your ideas are heard but don’t be afraid to fail, learn from any mistakes and use them to gain a better understanding of your product.

And finally get your story out there. It is well known that women in the tech industry are extremely underrepresented, but this is shifting. If you are a woman making an impression on transforming a business, make sure people know about it. Become a positive role model to inspire other women to advance their own careers.

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Bojana Trajkovska
Bojana Trajkovska
Bojana is a startup enthusiast from the Balkan region. Currently exploring the entrepreneurial community in Italy. Passionate reader and traveller.

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