Guest interview by travel industry thought leader, consumer analyst, and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, Henry Harteveldt.
Datalex would like you to know that they’re not dead. In fact, not only is Datalex very much alive, the company is strong and faring quite well, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
We say this because we (Atmosphere Research) have conducted two in-depth interviews with Alison Bell, Datalex’s SVP Global Sales and Marketing. We spoke the first time on 28 February, just before Covid-19 became a global pandemic. We caught up again on 27 July.
Alison was appreciatively frank in our conversations. She acknowledged the past few years have been tough on the Dublin, Ireland-based airline pricing, merchandising, and retailing software pioneer. Our takeaway: “What was” at Datalex is neither “what is” nor “what will be.” Datalex is a fine example of a business turning itself around amidst multiple challenges – both of its own doing and outside its control.
During the past 15 months, Datalex took multiple steps to recover, reinvent itself, and prepare for the future, including helping its airline clients prepare to succeed in the era of Complete Retailing. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Datalex nimbly innovated a series of new product initiatives to help its airline clients worldwide navigate the business threats resulting from the pandemic and its impact on their businesses and their passengers.
In both conversations, Alison discussed Datalex’s transparency regarding its finances and extensive changes and actions the company took to rebuild itself. That work paid off. On 14 July 2020, Datalex successfully completed its relisting on Euronext Dublin, the Irish stock exchange. An impressive achievement for any firm, it’s even more significant for a business that had to restructure its finances, continue to earn its customers’ trust, and navigate a global health pandemic. Datalex earned a profit in 2019 and expects to do so again in 2020. The company’s business plan is based on “intelligent, sustainable growth,” which we favor to the ‘growth for growth’s sake’ approach popular in Silicon Valley.
Contributing to Datalex’s evolution is its new CEO, Sean Corkery. Sean isn’t an “airline guy” or a travel tech veteran. He was formerly Chairman and CEO of Actavo Group, a leading engineering solutions organization. Sean joined Datalex as interim CEO in May 2019 and became full-time CEO in October 2019. Sean brings a 37-year career at results-focused tech and telco heavy-hitters (Dell, AST Computers and, oh yes, Apple) focused in global operations and delivery. We see this as crucial for Datalex’s efforts to serve clients, compete for new business and, critically, retain its talented workforce.
Alison lauded Sean’s ability to “keep promises to customers, for whom he has massive respect. He is driving us to improve our delivery focus and intensify our concentration on delivery to our clients. He comes from a world where deliveries and timelines are non-negotiable, and he is not encumbered with or by airline industry thinking.” We like the promise – the proof, of course, will be in the execution.
Another feather in Datalex’s cap was securing travel technology legend Bobby Healy (co-founder of CarTrawler and now CEO of Manna, a drone delivery service) as a technology advisor. Bobby’s a prime catch, but why would he do this? Alison said Bobby “admires Datalex’s ability to drive transformational growth in the airline industry and believes it can continue to do this. He sees the opportunity in the company. He understands our culture, our strengths, our industry, and will know how to guide us. Having Bobby as a sounding board is just perfect.”
Airlines appear to be supportive of Datalex’s evolution. The company’s 2019 annual report includes endorsements from four of its airline customers. Alison said, “Airlines see the need for and value in a new Datalex.” Datalex is an independent firm, not owned by a GDS or other tech company, and considers that to be a strategic advantage. “We are in control and are the masters of our destiny,” said Alison.
So how does Datalex perceive Complete Retailing? Alison responded that Complete Retailing “is about enabling an airline to offer an experience, not just a seat. Complete Retailing is the ability for an airline to manage its offer at every level, including the order level.”
Complete Retailing requires an evolution – for some, a transformation – of mindset as well as functions. Are airlines up to this? “Some,” Alison diplomatically replied, “are ahead of others.” Datalex has seen airlines make small but significant inroads to retailing. They’re focusing more on serving, satisfying the customer – putting them and the customer experience at the heart. As Alison observed, airlines “have to be good retailers, because they are being compared by passengers to other retailers like Amazon and other digital retailing experiences. Passengers expect they will be sold to in a retail-like manner.”
In other words, it’s all about relevancy. Airlines that want to become successful retailers will have to know the answer to this question every time it’s asked: “What does the customer want and expect?” Datalex, says Alison, understands this: “Airlines know personalization will play a major role in Complete Retailing. The closer airlines get to selling a passenger something that appears to be a personalized experience, the better that airline’s chance to succeed.”
Complete Retailing requires both the right technology and the right mindset. Being a retailer is not the same as a merchandiser – which not all airlines recognize. Alison asked a really good rhetorical question: “Do airlines actually offer the customer products and experiences that they know the customer actually wants, or are they pushing a mishmash of things that they think the customer may want?” Airlines have massive volumes of data, but they need to interpret their data in the right way to entice their passengers with appealing offers.
Alison continued, “Small gains can have massive impact. We don’t need to always be shooting for ‘big bang’ wins. For example, adding airport transit tickets into the flight booking flow can save the passenger time and contribute to a smoother and more complete purchase.” We like this. Offering travelers products and services they need and want, at the ideal moment to extend that offer, in a seamless, frictionless process is central to the premise of Complete Retailing.
Helping airlines with Complete Retailing will be IATA NDC (New Distribution Capability). Alison shared that “NDC is not going away. NDC will move at the pace airlines want, and at the pace others such as TMCs involved see the value.” Datalex is an IATA NDC Level 4 Certified IT provider, meaning it’s capable of full offer and order management.
Complete Retailing will require more than just NDC, of course. We asked Alison what technologies Datalex believes will play a role. She observed that “any kind of AI solution that offers the potential to interpret data would matter, as would big data itself.” Also in the mix are “niche, smart pricing tools.” Why? “Airlines don’t need to be constrained by 26 inventory buckets anymore. Datalex is developing new pricing solutions to help airlines improve how they price, whether a base fare, an ancillary product, or a bundled offering.” Order management software, such as IATA One Order and other solutions, will also play a role. Dalatex believes giving airlines the ability to manage their orders in their own way will ultimately enable them to better serve their passengers, especially during IROP situations, simplify their businesses, manage payments more effectively, and more.
Our July conversation focused on Datalex’s efforts to assist its clients during the Covid pandemic. Alison said the company adjusted its focus and work processes to help clients conduct “small, discrete pieces of work that allow them to be nimble and see a return faster.”
Datalex’s agility in responding to the pandemic stems from the transformation the company began in 2019. When Covid first emerged, Datalex helped JetBlue implement the first flight change-fee waiver in the US – a task completed in less than twenty-four hours. Datalex developed its new Merchandiser product to be implementable in 30 days versus its prior average of six months. To help clients cope with surging call center volumes, and limited call center staff to assist them, Datalex implemented a series of automated content and messaging tools for customers to use. More recently, Datalex has begun helping clients with an increased level of promotions. For example, in China, Datalex developed the necessary infrastructure for its customers to accept the new “Fly At Will” pre-paid travel product, allowing them to promote this promotion securely and at scale via all their channels. Datalex also helped a North American airline to incorporate vouchers as a form of partial payment directly from its website and mobile applications.
Our conversations with Datalex left us with this impression: The company is laser-focused on execution, delivery, and implementation. Datalex has had its share of business challenges. But, with new leadership, its relisting on Euronext, and a clear vision about how it can help its airline clients benefit from Complete Retailing, Datalex has taken strategic, determined steps to ensure it will remain a leading player in airline technology.