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Interview with Justin Cooke, founder of Fortune Cookie

November 27, 2011

(Published in TTG 24.11.2011)

As digital agency Fortune Cookie nears its 15th anniversary, founder – and former TTG staffer – Justin Cooke wonders why there isn’t more innovation in the UK travel industry. By Matthew Parsons 

Despite sitting within earshot of some of the UK’s leading travel-tech companies, Justin Cooke is blunt about what he sees as “stagnation” in the UK travel industry during our interview at World Travel Market.

His vast experience within travel makes him a credible judge. After leaving Travel Trade Gazette in 1995, where he was publishing manager, he was one of the first  to tap into the “bartering” nature of travel, creating bespoke websites for hotels and securing rooms by committing to selling them.

Making cookies
He set up creative digital agency Fortune Cookie in 1997, and it has worked for travel clients such as Europcar, Royal Caribbean, Tui and Small Luxury Hotels of the World. During the week of WTM, Fortune Cookie won a British Interactive Mobile Association award for the Explorer iPad app it created for eBookers – “a real living and breathing travel guide”, in his words.

The agency has also had particular success with social media projects, and is currently helping American Express to incorporate location-based FourSquare, which, with 10 million subscribers, Cooke describes as “unchartered territory”.

The agency is on a global expansion path, and now has offices in London and Brighton, Australia, the US, Poland, and Singapore. It’s also making money, with £12million in revenue this year, growing 60% compared last year.

The travel sector represents £2.5million of the agency’s revenue and Cooke hopes this will increase.

But he remains frustrated at what he sees as a lack of innovation in the UK travel industry, compared to some of the other industries in which he works.

“The UK is stagnated,” he claims. “Britain is one of the most wired nations. We should be leading the way.”

The cruise industry is missing a trick by not supplying all passengers on their ships with an iPad for the duration of their voyage,
he suggests.

“An iPad costs £400, but compare that against what the customer is paying for their holiday – at least £2,000. Onboard, passengers would then have a way to communicate; the line can promote its excursions, people can use the iPad to pay for items around the ship,”
he explains.

Talking tablets
“With more than 2,000 people on a ship, it can be tough to communicate with everyone. But a tablet device could do it and act as a bridge to the holidaymakers.”

Hotel brands are embracing tablet devices successfully, according to Cooke, but he thinks airlines like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have a way to go.

“They both offer a great customer experience in the flesh, but online it’s an appalling user experience. Why can’t I check in my BA flight using Facebook? I have more of a relationship with my Facebook page than with airlines,” he points out.

He notes that where there has been innovation in the travel industry in recent years, very little of  it has come from tour operators and travel agents.

“The innovation has been in the form of no-frills flights, TripAdvisor, aggregators – that was a great bit of disruption,” he admits.

He recommends that travel companies should take their lead from car-share website Zipcar, for example: “Zipcar thought about it from scratch. It looked at the consumer perspective, and built it up”.

Cooke believes that the low profit margins in travel are stifling innovation. Experimenting with digital innovation may be deemed too risky, while struggling travel companies may lack the capital to invest in new technology.

He suggests that there is scope for a travel agent to create a “killer app”, and recommends that agents could collaborate
with other agencies or with non-travel brands to spread costs and grow their reach in the online sphere.

“People’s expectations are now set by Apple and Google, and the travel industry is not delivering,” he warns.

“The trade needs to start working together.”

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