“The key to our support depends on whether a company has a unique selling proposition. Is it solving or presenting a solution to a pain point? Do we feel like they can scale? Global scale is important to us and global ambition,” says Enterprise Ireland’s Máire P. Walsh.
At the start of this year, when the skies were brighter for airlines, we spoke with Enterprise Ireland about the “era of complete retailing” that was occurring via the rapid adoption of digital tools.
Now, while airlines grapple with the ravages wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, the industry focus has shifted from ambitious plans to harness technology toward mere survival methods. With airline capacity reduced by as much as 90 percent and demand pushed off a cliff for the foreseeable future in most countries, “optimism” about the role of tech has taken on a whole new meaning in the travel sector.
For Enterprise Ireland, it is focusing is on opportunities that are likely to support a travel industry reset. And that focus is worldwide. It’s also looking behind airline travel tech and to the whole hospitality space, as the intricate moves and connections impact all other parts more distinctly than any other period.
Still, that broad take just reflects Enterprise Ireland’s mandate from its founding in 1998. As the Irish Government’s trade and innovation agency, Dublin-based Enterprise Ireland global reach spans 40 offices in 60 countries across the Americas, Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
Apart from supporting trade, the company also serves as a travel tech investor. Enterprise Ireland has backed such Irish travel tech platforms as personalization provider Boxever, b2b rental and transport solutions company CarTrawler, booking and accommodations source Hostelworld, airline retail company Datalex, and airline revenue manager Planitas, among others. We checked in with Enterprise Ireland, to get a sense of how it’s helping its large portfolio companies through the current existential challenge.
In a conversation with Máire P. Walsh, SVP Digital Technologies, Enterprise Ireland USA, we discussed her view of the challenges, and even the opportunities, that travel brands are faced with. We also discussed her own personal outlook on the current moment while airlines, hotels, and other parts of the travel and hospitality space are pushing forward.
Kambr Media: What is Enterprise Ireland and how are its funding programs structured? How do you decide on companies to work with? Is there a formal pitch process companies need to participate in?
Máire P. Walsh: Enterprise Ireland is the venture capital and trade arm of the Irish government. In 2019, we were ranked by PitchBook as the number one seed-stage investor in Europe and the number two globally. So, we're very proud of that.
We help foster entrepreneur and innovation through funding and other supports with companies in Ireland. A core cluster of companies that we work with is travel technology. There are close to 100 travel technology companies in Ireland and they range from market leaders like Datalex and CarTrawler, to ones that are just starting. There's a wide breadth of companies that we support.
I help oversee the global team that manages our travel technology companies, so very embedded in travel technology itself. Everything from ancillary, distribution, mobility and retail. My focus runs the whole gamut of technology that transforms customer experiences and stakeholder revenues.
I'm fortunate to work with a variety of different stakeholders from airlines, big tech companies, OTAs, hotels that are interested in solutions that can transform the space. We have a cluster of really strong companies with proven track records of delivering exceptional results for partners. Knowing how they can over deliver makes my job easier.
The key to our support depends on whether a company has a unique selling proposition . Is it solving or presenting a solution to a pain point? Do we feel like they can scale? Global scale is important to us and global ambition.
Enterprise Ireland supports so many business in the travel tech space. The world and the needs of airlines and passengers have changed so abruptly and dramatically. How have the conversations with your portfolio companies changed since this crisis started to hit the west over the past month?
There's such mass disruption in the travel industry, in the airline industry. I think we're all very familiar with that and all the pain it has caused. We are fortunate Enterprise Ireland is sponsored by the Irish government at the end of the day. To-date the government has released €1 billion in supports for companies impacted by COVID-19.
As for the discussions we’re have, it’s all about working on what does the product roadmap look like now? How does it change from here? How do we innovate and support our partners?
Part of what we want to do is support them in their efforts to be able to innovate, to be able to do research and development in a time where there is a cash crunch.
By providing this support, Enterprise Ireland can help offer new and better solutions to the industry, so that it can return stronger. On top of that, we want the industry to be fully prepared for when a shock to the system happens again, it can contain the damage. There are some companies whose solutions enable the industry to act, to be very nimble.
How long have you been at Enterprise Ireland and how would you describe your role?
I've been at Enterprise Ireland now a little over two-and-a-half years. Prior to that, for many years I worked in media and e-commerce around digital transformation and customer engagement.
My background has largely been in customer experience and the overall customer journey. As technology's transformed, it brought new ways to deliver experiences, to connect with customers and new revenue streams. A lot of this was done through collaborating with partners where there was a win-win—they were trying to push new innovations; we were trying to maximize revenues.
I’ve also worked in e-commerce. My focus there was on tech that moved customers to take action, become more engaged, and inspired loyalty. A big part of my career was in subscription marketing.
It’s all about the power of customer retention. To do it right, no matter the industry, you have to provide a good experience where they benefit. That’s the basis of subscription marketing and e-commerce sales and the discipline pretty much applies to so much in the travel space.
How does Enterprise Ireland hope to help the airline industry inspire passengers to fly again once carrier service starts to return?
It’s going to be very important for us to come together and to break down the fear and to rebuild trust. After 9/11, there was a period of time when people were afraid to fly. But the pandemic affects the entire travel ecosystem. Even if we look at travel and hospitality, this crisis affects everything from restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, and flying.
Anything we can do as an industry to come together and to collaborate, starts with looking closely at movements in consumer sentiment. What are we doing to try and overcome this? And how can we help each other to truly make sure the industry is able to move forward?
One nice thing that has happened over the last few weeks is the growth in gatherings of industry people getting together in groups to discuss how we collectively rebuild the industry.
One group established by me and Christina Heggie from Google is a “travel taskforce” with key stakeholders that meets weekly to discuss how we really help move things forward across the global hospitality industry.
We know events are crippled right now. Concerts, sports, even going to a restaurant, have all seen business essentially stopped. Breaking down the barriers between businesses in the hospitality space is important, because all the parts are ultimately interconnected in terms of consumer activity.
So the big questions we want to answer: how can we make decisions so much easier for our customers and instill that trust that traveling, restaurant visits, events are safe? How can people begin to feel comfortable going to a place again? How can we remind them of the importance of connection and community and how travel plays such an important role in the experiences that that people love? Also, it’s nice to connect and for people to check-in with each other during this challenging time.
What are your best expectations for how airlines are positioned to emerge when this crisis ends?
The airlines that had really good systems in place, whether that be around dynamic pricing, ancillary, and personalization are best positioned. Personalization is going to be more key than ever before. They were able to act quicker, minimize the revenue losses, and just maximize the customer experience.
The one thing that will come out of all of this is the importance of customer experience that passengers have had with airlines.
That’s why I have to emphasize how essential personalization is going to be moving forward. It's going to be easier for people to switch airlines. People will actually reevaluate who is their airline of choice. That's an opportunity – and a threat – for many airlines out there.
How do you balance the need to communicate that Enterprise Ireland is “still open for business” when the travel business is in this dire state?
We are very conscious that a lot of people are going through an awful time. They are having to let people go. They're having to undertake huge cost cutting measures. What I've communicated to our clients is we want to check in on people, and we are here to help if they need us to help.
I do have to say that all of our client companies are so good at being very collaborative with their partners and their advisors. Sometimes, when you're in the middle of all that stress, it's good to have another voice just to lend some support. We know the tide is out, but we know it also will come back in. And our companies are ready to support them now or at that time.
What are you general expectations of the future of air travel?
If we think of the future, I think travel is going to get more expensive. That, in turn will lead to greater profitability for airlines. And that will provide them with the ability to truly innovate. It will allow them to take a hard look at their systems and say, "Now is actually the time when we need to do this. We need to invest in our core product, so that we can move forward in an impactful way and provide the service we want to provide and be able to scale up and scale down when necessary."
I would say I'm an optimist. I do think it's important for us to remain optimistic because we know that this has happened before on a different level, granted, with 9/11, and the industry who came roaring back.
So we do know we will turn the corner. There's no doubt that once we do that it's going to look a little bit different. But, yes, we know that people will still travel.