Australian travel tech solution eRoam is currently making waves in the travel industry with its affordable, easy-to-use travel booking solution and marketplace, which puts the power of an OTA at the fingertips of travel agents and advisors, and provides tour operators and DMCs with access to a huge global network of bookers. I sat down with eRoam’s Cofounder and CEO Anthony Hill to find out more about the company and to get his thoughts on the current state of the travel industry.
You’ve gone from running backpacker tours in Europe via running an adventure travel company in Asia to founding a travel tech company in Australia. Tell us a bit about your colourful journey through the travel industry, how you got started and how you came to be where you are now.
I’ve been in the travel industry for over 30 years now. I started off with Singapore Airlines in the 80s, then I moved over to the UK for a decade where I started off working for a ‘bucket shop’ selling flights and tours before starting my first tour company, which was called SANZ, running trips mainly throughout Europe. Then I moved into operating trips throughout Africa with Acacia Africa. In the early 2000s I moved to Bangkok, where I spent ten years running travel agencies and properties across Thailand. For the last ten years I’ve been predominantly based in Australia and the last five years has been building eRoam.
I started working with my co-founder, Ross Gregory, in 1990. At the time, he was running pubs and tour companies for backpackers in the UK where I worked for him for a few years in London. He also returned back to Australia in the late 90s where he started up an online training technology business. He joined me five years ago to concentrate on eRoam, to help improve efficiencies in the travel industry.
What were your original plans and intentions for eRoam and how have they evolved since you first started?
What is now eRoam was originally created as an in-house solution to improve efficiencies at my travel agency in Thailand. The selling portion of dealing with clients was relatively quick, maximum 30 minutes, but then the staff would spend the rest of the day doing all of the processing, confirming the bookings, and entering all of the segment data into our system, and I thought that there needed to be a better way to to manage this.
So that’s when I started to look at AI, robotics, and different ways that we could access multiple inventory channels and put them all into a single system where instantaneously we could create quite complex products and manage bookings from one single platform.
We normally think of tech startups as being the domain of millennials and Generation Z-ers, whereas the eRoam founder & management team is definitely Generation X or older. Has this been a deliberate approach?
Absolutely, it’s been a big part of it. There’s some great technology out there that has been created by the younger generation, but it doesn’t always solve actual, real problems in the industry. There’s lots of great technologies out there that are great ideas, great concepts to change the industry, but not necessarily to help the industry with its current problems. I purposely went through my contacts and put together a team of professionals, then they went through their contacts to add more professionals, and we thus created a team that collectively offers a vast knowledge base and understands the issues front line travel industry staff have to deal with every day.
The travel industry is very, very complicated for people who don’t know it. To do a typical itinerary from, say, Saigon to Bangkok, you go through three different countries, and you could have up to twenty suppliers in a simple itinerary like that, maybe four different hotels, and then you’ve got bus companies and airlines to connect all of the cities. Then in each of those cities, you’re going to have activities and attractions and events and this could involve lots of emails and a lot of waiting time.
So when somebody walks into a travel agent and says “I want to do that 14-day trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok”, they’re not aware of how much work is involved behind the scenes and how many stakeholders are included.
Again, that’s where we bring in the experience of professionals that have been doing this for years, to go through each of those steps and robotically create solutions that can make the process instantaneous rather than the traditional way of emails, faxes etc.
How are you navigating eRoam through the COVID-19 crisis and how are you helping other travel businesses to survive during this difficult time?
COVID-19 has been a big challenge to everyone, and the biggest challenge coming out of it is going to be the new competition of travellers becoming more aware of technology and the use of technology for purchasing goods and services. For example a lot of grandparents are now using Zoom to contact their grandkids, and you’re getting families doing their food shopping online, so these are new users of technology.
This affects all sectors of the economy, including the travel industry. So coming out of COVID-19 the travel industry needs to be more prepared for these new tech-savvy users and for the additional use of technology in the process of delivering services to their clients. So what we’ve been working on is easy-to-use technology that doesn’t discount the importance of dealing with all of the different stakeholders that are involved in putting a trip together, but actually embraces those products and brings them all into a platform.
Where an agent can compete with technology is in using their own experiences, their own expertise to create those bespoke itineraries using our technology. It’s very unique because whilst you’ve got a lot of products that you can purchase online, no one’s enabling agents to combine all these different global products together in one package. There aren’t any technologies that really enable you to do that quickly whilst you’ve still got the user’s interest, and that’s that’s the main focus of eRoam – creating a fast, efficient system that you can use to create itineraries, using the travel expert’s experience and knowledge and create a ready-to-book product in minutes.
And talking of COVID-19, when do you see travel restarting in any significant numbers and how different do you think it will look?
Travel is going to look very different. And we’ve got to think differently. There may be new markets, and you’ve got to be ready to handle those new markets. Staycations for example, or the rapid growth of travellers from neighbouring countries to replace the traditional long haul market.
But travel has already restarted – I was speaking to someone last week in New Zealand and they actually had better in May this year over last year. So there are also opportunities in these times. But we need to be more flexible in the products that we’re offering and also the markets that we’re selling to.
Travel trade show season is going to be upon us again soon, but it’s going to look very different this year with events going virtual. As a veteran of years of travel trade shows, how are you going to approach these virtual shows?
I’ve already attended a couple of these virtual shows, and they are very productive. You’re getting people that are really interested in recovery, they’re interested in ideas that are going to differentiate them from the competition and they’re looking for products that will enable them to be more competitive in the market when COVID-19 is over.
You’re not getting any time wasters at these virtual shows, you’re not getting people that are just attending the shows for the free trip – they’re attending the show because they want to buy. They’re looking for solutions and looking for ideas on how they’re going to relaunch, both on the technology side and on the product side. Travel companies need to look at the product and the content of what they’re offering to make sure that it’s still relevant to the new normal.
And finally, tell us, if you can about future plans and developments at eRoam.
There are a couple of things that we’re working on now. We’ve already got the B2B platform where you can manage all of your clients’ itineraries. One of the areas that we’re looking to expand is on cancellations and in-destination sales – tours & activities is a huge market that is very much undersold. The activities themselves are being sold, but they’re being sold a lot more in-destination so tour operators and travel agents are missing out on potential revenue. So one of the projects we’re working on is to create in-destination sales so the agents can keep on selling while the client is travelling, so if the client is in, say Phuket, and they want to go diving tomorrow, they can book that with their agent online. Now, that’s important for the customer because they may not trust local tour booking shops but they are more comfortable booking this through their travel agent. This offers a better service for the customer to be able to book through a trusted source., and it’s a better outcome for the front line travel agent. And it then trickles down to the wholesaler and the local tour operator/DMC and the whole food chain benefiting through the use of this new technology. And for the travel consultant it doesn’t matter if it’s the weekend or 3am – they can still service their clients. It all happens robotically. Likewise for the wholesalers and tour operators themselves.