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Nurture talent, stay focused, learn to code: Open Destinations founder on travel tech success

March 2, 2015

(Published in TTG – 25.11.14)

As Open Destinations celebrates its 15th anniversary, founder and former Rough Guides writer Kevin O’Sullivan talks about the company’s history and future direction

For a company celebrating its 15th anniversary, the entrepreneurial spirit is still very much alive at Open Destinations.

To start with, Kevin O’Sullivan, who founded booking software provider the company in 1999, is excited and encouraged by the recent launch of the travel tech incubator by London & Partners, which is the Mayor of London’s promotional body.

O’Sullivan attended the launch event earlier this year and plans to be involved as a mentor, as he believes nurturing tomorrow’s global leaders will pay dividends for the UK as a whole.

“It makes sense, for when we try and sell ourselves overseas. London can be expensive if you are a travel tech start-up. With finance technology, there’s obviously money to be made there, and the fashion industry is good at PR. But there’s lots of innovation in travel in London – I’m encouraged,” he says.

With a programming background himself (following stints as a writer for Rough Guides, covering Israel, as well as having a degree in management and politics), he says learning to code has never been so relevant: “Programming is a useful skill to have. For example, you often have meetings where people say: ‘I’m not sure we can get the technology to do that.’ Anything is possible. People don’t fully understand that.”

In fact, it was a short computer course that introduced O’Sullivan to the technology side of travel, which led to working in IT at Tourism International, followed by a managing director role at tour operator software firm Tourplan, before setting up Open Destinations alongside co-founder Dev Pinto – now chief financial officer – in 1999.

Sharper focus

Reflecting on the early years – and perhaps offering advice to others in the technology field – he says: “Part of our strength is knowing our weaknesses. A lot of technology businesses will have 15 to 20 products. We’ve been focused on Travel Studio and Fare Studio, as well as outsourcing,” he says. “We’ve thought about going B2C, but then we’d be competing with our customers. We need that neutrality.”

Despite the growth of mobile, O’Sullivan says even that has not been a focus. “Our expertise is back office and reservations. We’ll leave mobile to the experts.”

In 1999, JacTravel was one of Open Destinations’ first customers, and it has been working with the London-based B2B hotel accommodation wholesaler ever since. O’Sullivan says JacTravel has kept the entrepreneurial spirit alive itself, reflected in its recent sale to private equity group Vitruvian Partners for £80 million.

“There are lots of start-ups in the UK. JacTravel tripled the value of the business in four or five years. It demonstrates there are companies that grow. And we’ve grown with them over the past 15 years. We’ve grown our software to provide flexibility. Right now, it processes 25 million booking requests per day.”

O’Sullivan says he takes pride in JacTravel’s success story, and as it seeks expansion overseas is using JacTravel’s success as calling card for Open Destinations’ technical capabilities, with 65 of its 350 employees in Goa dedicated to working with the wholesaler (see below).

Recent wins include Tui India and Asia’s Diethelm Travel, which O’Sullivan says prove it “has the reach”. Meanwhile, a new office is opening in Sydney.

Looking ahead, he believes that in five to 10 years, there’ll be more artificial intelligence in the travel planning process, more “second-guessing” the customer. And with Facebook’s acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus VR for $2 billion back in March, he believes that in the next two years Facebook will focus on working out how to exploit it commercially.

As for the future of his own company, it’s likely to be business as usual. “When you’re growing at 25-30% every year, you focus on what you’re doing,” he says.

“In 15 years, we’ll be a bigger company – but we’ll adapt to react. You need to keep an eye on what the customer needs. We’ve got that entrepreneurial spirit.

THE INDIA CONNECTION

Open Destinations operates its outsourcing division – with 350 staff – in Goa. It opened in 2004 and manages the back-end processes for more than 20 travel businesses worldwide.

Reflecting O’Sullivan’s keenness to nurture young talent in the industry, such as with the UK’s first travel tech incubator, the Goa office is an active player in the local community: “We’ve donated equipment, training and our time to the community. We work with universities, we are one of the biggest local employers and we offer placements. We need quality staff and they understand there’s a local employer.”

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