“There was an idea that rich content was necessary, but no one knew how to make it a reality. When I started Routehappy, people would say, "I think that exists." And I'd ask, "Where?" says Robert Albert.
At the end of June, Robert Albert departed his role as EVP Retailing at ATPCO, the airline pricing, content, and data distributor. Albert, who founded ATPCO’s Routehappy in 2010 will continue to serve in a consultative role with Dulles, VA.-based ATPCO as senior advisor.
ATPCO’s purchase of New York-based Routehappy, which provides interactive, real-time data and content that promote airline merchandising, served to widen the company’s existing digital focus.
It wasn’t just that Routehappy was 55-year-old ATPCO’s first – and up to now, only – acquisition. The deal enhanced ATPCO’s concentration on airline digital transformation and retailing. In turn, Routehappy’s flight shopping content engine allowed ATPCO to respond more directly to the Covid-19 crisis for airlines and travelers.
Take ATPCO’s new automated program, Emergency Flexibility. It was created last month using Routehappy’s rich content. The program’s purpose is to help airlines and travel management companies quickly manage changes in flight rescheduling and other conditions that impact fares and passengers’ plans amid the continuing uncertainty due to the pandemic.
In April, ATPCO released “Reassurance UPAs,” a pro-bono program showcasing airlines’ promise of greater hygiene protocols and health monitoring aimed at wary fliers. That offering was based on three core features in Routehappy’s rich content portfolio: Universal Product Attributes (UPAs), which typically operates alongside ATPCO’s Universal Ticket Attribute (UTAs), and Amenities.
We spoke with Albert just before his last day at ATPCO on June 30.
Kambr Media: Can you say what influenced your decision to step down now?
Robert Albert: I planned to take a break after we fully integrated and scaled Routhappy Rich Content within ATPCO to serve the entire industry. So for the past year and a half, I worked myself out of a job. We're at that point.
When I started working on Routehappy initially, I thought, "I'll be busy until the day I die. There is so much to do here." But I also knew that Routehappy’s success depended on it being adopted as an industry solution. It's really satisfying, that we created a useful and important product that solves a problem for the industry. That was our objective, which of course was a tough objective to have.
How would you describe the transition from founding and selling Routehappy to ATPCO, and then steering it within a larger organization?
Routehappy has been an incredible journey and the work of my life. I’m proud of what we created and am grateful to our amazing team and champions throughout the industry who embraced our vision. It also was a big life, and often felt like climbing Mount Everest.
When Routehappy was acquired two-and-a-half years ago, that's the moment at which we all had to think, "What's the next phase going to be like for us?"
I went into ATPCO focused on the work at hand, which was integrating and scaling Routehappy’s products. It soon became clear that Routehappy Rich Content should become a cornerstone of ATPCO’s retailing offerings, integrated into ATPCO as a core component, right alongside pricing. So we began the hard work of educating, training, organizing and integrating so that all the departments at ATPCO, and groups within the industry, could take collective responsibility for Routehappy Rich Content.
It was a great moment when I realized Routehappy would be able to stand on its own two feet with smart people throughout the industry managing, stewarding and innovating it.
What’s next for you?
I plan to pursue interests and passions that I’ve had put on hold for a long time. And I'll stay connected to ATPCO as a senior advisor, leaving a door open for thought partnership, strategic discussions and coaching.
Delving deeper into Routehappy’s integration into ATPCO, how has the use of rich content expanded and redefined its parent company’s mission? What are you most proud of?
In a nutshell, ATPCO has expanded its core focus to include retailing, alongside its pricing because of the Routehappy acquisition.
It’s been an excellent marriage. ATPCO needed retailing products and fresh thinking. Routehappy needed industry scale, standardization and credibility. The majority of the Routehappy legacy team remains at ATPCO, thriving in roles throughout the organization.
I’m proud of many things, but the top three are people, product and industry solution.
First, we created a team of professionals, both within ATPCO and the industry at large who are now skilled in rich content and how it can improve flight shopping. That didn't exist when we started.
There was an idea that rich content was necessary, but no one knew how to make it a reality. When I started Routehappy, people would say, "I think that exists." And I'd ask, "Where?"
This has been a project where we had to train, develop, and coach teams to understand rich content in a retailing context. Now, there are hundreds – if not thousands – across the industry who have deep expertise with Routehappy Rich Content, specifically UPAs, Amenities and UTAs.
Next, we created the product the industry needed, comprehensive airline rich content. Our rich content covers the vast majority of fares and flights. UTA coverage is 94 percent of global flights. UPAs and Amenities coverage is 99 percent. There something for everyone, and we continue to innovate the content as industry needs change (like Reassurance UPAs covering airline health and safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic.)
Finally, we solved a broad industry problem, for the common good, and the benefit of the entire ecosystem. We faced a classic chicken-and-egg problem between airlines and channels, but we made it through.
What was the “chicken-and-egg problem?”
For Routehappy to be successful, we needed both airlines and channels to participate. Airlines needed sufficient channel reach, and channels needed sufficient airline content. That’s a tough problem to solve, requiring each side to participate.
The question was who should start?
We took a straightforward approach, encouraging both sides to jump in to make Routehappy work for the entire industry. As a network effect solution, the more airlines and more channels participate, the more useful it becomes for all participants. We focused on both airlines and channels, ensuring Routehappy worked for the early adopters, and more followed. Routehappy started to scale as adoption increased. There’s more adoption to come, too.
How has the last three or four months changed the mission of Routehappy Rich Content within ATPCO?
At the beginning of Routehappy, we said, “We’re going to build a solution that will scale and be flexible no matter what happens in the industry, as the one thing we’re sure of is that airlines will keep evolving their offerings.” I’ve always said, "No matter what an airline needs to say, at any given moment, about its products, services, or fares, Routehappy Rich Content should be able to handle the need."
When the coronavirus pandemic started, we saw airlines creating new benefits and measures to protect customers and keep us safe when we fly. It started with flexible rebooking and then moved on to hygiene and cleanliness measures. Now, it's moving to masks, middle seats and quarantines as things are starting to open.
We immediately turned to our UPA rich content type, creating a “new flavor” of UPA called Reassurance UPAs, flexible messaging focused on protection and safety measures airlines are instituting for customers. Within two weeks after COVID really hit, we had 75 percent of global flights covered with Reassurance UPAs, ready for any capacity increase in the schedule. Reassurance UPAs have been adopted by large sales channels worldwide.
ATPCO more than ever remains committed to providing solutions the industry needs, including urgently in a great time of need. Reassurance UPAs are a great example of that.
You mentioned you’ll continue on at ATPCO in an advisory role. But as you envision your next move, do you plan to remain in tech and airlines? Or do you want to explore something completely different?
I've been at the intersection of travel technology and flight shopping for 18 years, so it’s in my DNA now, and I'm passionate about it. There's many more problems to solve. So I do intend to stay connected to the industry via my advisory role with ATPCO.
For awhile, though, I’ve wanted to explore interests I had to put on hold. The startup journey isn’t ideal for developing hobbies! My top two are nature and social justice.
I plan to spend time enjoying nature, learning more about it and things I can do to better protect it. I also plan to focus on social justice causes and have already begun volunteering.
There tends to be an unwritten rule in the business world preventing us from talking about social justice issues. We keep it separate. There are issues that seem very unfair to me, and I want to contribute time to them. I think we all need to be a bit more outspoken and combine it with collaboration to improve things. For example, I was pleased with the clear position ATPCO took against racism upon the George Floyd murder. Words of course are not enough, but hopefully this is the start of much more awareness and action.
This interest relates to what I've been doing with Routehappy. I’d like to take skills that I developed over the past 10 years aligning an industry in one important way and apply it to a problem in society.
Let’s circle back to air travel. Do you have any plans to fly or have you flown or traveled recently?
So far, I’ve dipped into travel but have not yet flown. Right after I transitions from my full time role, my partner and I visited friends who live next to Shenandoah National Park, which was beautiful. That was a road and train trip.
One small silver lining that will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic is greater awareness about air travel. One important aspect is air and circulation on planes. Very few people knew about HEPA filters on aircraft, which helps keep air purified. Cleanliness and hygiene measures are increasingly important, and airlines which focus more of their efforts here will likely do better at winning back customer trust when we all start traveling again.
But to your question, it’s only a matter of time!