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Interview: Facebook’s new head of travel, Lee McCabe

October 5, 2013

(Published in TTG 23.08.13)

Holiday inspiration has now come full circle, Facebook’s new head of travel Lee McCabe tells Matthew Parsons, with new technology putting the ‘wisdom of friends’ back at the centre of travel planning

Lee McCabe

There’s only one “awesome” I hear from Lee McCabe during our interview.

I’m disappointed. I expected more from Facebook’s new head of travel, particularly someone who’s based in the Silicon Valley HQ. But McCabe, who hails from Middlesbrough, sounds like a practical kind of guy, and that’s perhaps exactly what’s needed for the role.

“My job this year is education,” he tells me. “My role is to talk about platforms. Before, there were lots of question marks over return on investment. In the past year, we’ve come a long way. We’ve got case studies; we can now prove the return on investment. Our partners are testing a lot, we’re in a good space.”

McCabe began last October, joining after five years at Expedia. He says he “jumped” at the opportunity when the role was created.

It was a natural step for Facebook to create a travel division, which McCabe heads, overseeing 50 staff across the globe. “The evolution of any company that does well… it gets to a point where they need to verticalise,” he says.

Full circle
As well as “verticalisation”, McCabe shares another of his beliefs – the “wisdom of friends” – a trend he predicts will underline Facebook’s success in the travel sector.

“A long time ago, we used to get holiday inspiration, or recommendations, from our friends, in the pub, or at a dinner party.

Then along came the travel agent. Then came the online travel agencies, and Google. But these were the influences of algorithms, not from experts,” he says.

“Now it­s come full circle. We have the wisdom of crowds, and wisdom of friends, but this time it’s always on [with Facebook]. That’s where we’re coming back to.”

He argues that up until recently, the technology “probably wasn’t scalable”, but with the launch of Facebook’s newest and biggest project, Graph Search, this looks set to change.

Graph Search allows “users” to find things that their friends “like”, so that they can discover restaurants and places recommended by others, simply by typing in “hotels in Paris visited by my friends”, for example.

“It’s awesome. It’s a game-changer for hotels,” reckons McCabe. “It pulls out social signals, based on friends’ social signals. We’re taking our time to make it work as well as possible.”

There will also be a mobile version, called Nearby, coming to the UK soon, which again will list places close by, based on aspects such as friends’ recommendations, check-ins and likes.

McCabe says the business model for this has yet to be defined, but once Graph Search and Nearby are “right”, then he’ll be talking about monetisation.

Meanwhile, Open Graph – an API (application programming interface) that lets apps and websites receive information in and out of Facebook – is forging ahead, with websites such as TripAdvisor already using it.

Conference circuit
McCabe’s education remit covers three areas (Exchange, Custom Audiences and Mobile ads), and hitting the conference trail will be key. “They are usually valuable. I can never meet enough people. It’s valuable to Facebook as there are lots of question marks [over what it can do].”

He cites April’s WTTC Global Summit in Abu Dhabi, and the PhoCusWright@ITB conference, as “stand-out” events due to the strong networking and seniority of audience.

Exchange deals with re-targeting. This means a user visiting an agent’s website, looking at package holidays in Spain, may leave after browsing a few properties. Using cookies, that user could then see those exact packages advertised on their Facebook page. “The benefit is recency,” says McCabe, “you want to retarget people within minutes, not days.”

Meanwhile, Custom Audiences cleverly takes a company’s customer database, and then finds – and targets – those people on Facebook. It’s basically Facebook being used as a customer relationship management tool. “We find real people. We do targeting better than anyone. We find the people that matter to you,” McCabe boasts, adding: “I don’t know if we can be beaten.”

Mobile ads allow travel companies to place adverts in the news feeds that people see on their phones or tablets. (This has been a huge success for Facebook, and last month it reported revenue was up 53% for the second quarter, compared with the same period a year ago, with mobile advertising revenue contributing 41% to the $333 million profit.)

For agents however, McCabe is keen to highlight the need for them to walk before they can run with Facebook: “Travel agencies right now don’t get the basics. At first, they need to create a page, post two or three times a day, and make their best customers fans.

“A common mistake they make is to get the highest number of fans, not the best fans. If you get the best fans, you end up with an army of marketers. Then you can work out who your best audience is, and hit them precisely.”

Future trends
Facebook is now a mobile-first company, McCabe says. So would the site consider building its own phone?

“Mark [Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder] says developing a phone would maybe reach a few million people, but that’s not enough,” McCabe replies, pointing out that it has already developed “Facebook Home” – its own mobile software.

What about building a booking engine into Facebook? “Not in our plans,” he insists.

McCabe does, however, reveal he is excited about the upcoming Google Glass: “Glass is great, I love innovation. Facebook on Glass would be quite compelling; it could be a good fit. And imagine Nearby on Glass – look around and see places, and see the people who have been there.”

Whatever the future holds, McCabe insists “social” is set to grow further. And as social media is so intertwined with e-commerce, he argues, at some point, “we’ll stop using the word ‘social’. Social will soon touch everything”.

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