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Loveholidays CTO previews IRX23 presentation

By Retail Technology | Friday September 29 2023 | UPDATED 29.09.23

Michael Jones has been Chief Technology Officer at loveholidays, which claims to be “UK’s largest online travel agent”, since May 2019, after almost a decade at Uswitch, the price comparison website he helped scale and sell.

At this year’s IRX @ DTX + UCX, at ExCel London on the 4th & 5th of October, he will discuss migrating to a modern commerce architecture to stay ahead of business and customer needs.

Here, Michael shares some insights he will be discussing at the event. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What attracted you to loveholidays, and how would you assess your progress in four years?

I was part of a start-up that bought Uswitch, the price comparison website, for around £5 million in 2009. Over almost a decade, we professionalised, scaled and sold Uswitch three times, eventually being delisted for £2.2 billion as part of ZPG. Even though we had exited, a mentor told me: “It only counts if you do it twice.” As a frustrated skateboarder and snowboarder growing up, this resonated as it was the same with tricks – it takes two to be true.

So, I was on the lookout for another opportunity. I was interested when Loveholidays, then the UK’s fastest-growing business, appeared with aspirations to grow further and quickly.

I understood that the technology approach would not be scalable and the processes and organisational structure needed changing. I came in to professionalise the business and help to set loveholidays on the right path.

Four years later, the company is thriving as an independent travel agent. I’m super proud of what we have already achieved. We bring together 35,000 hotels across 75 countries – almost three times more than our nearest competitor – and 99% of all flights out of the UK to create 500 billion possible holiday packages. We have nailed the search functionality and are now processing nearly one trillion offers twice a day. Plus, the website is blazingly fast, with a sub-150 milliseconds response time.

Q: What are the next steps?

On the selling and search side, no one can match us. Now, we want to apply technology to offer a better customer experience. This imbalance often happens when you hyperscale. You grow the selling bit, and the operational element lags.

So, in addition to being CTO of loveholidays, I’ve recently taken on the contact centre, looking after approximately 700 people working across different sites worldwide. I’m focusing on the post-booking experience. We want to ensure people keep coming back. What does “good” look like? More self-service capabilities, enabling customers to amend things themselves. We have been testing this, and the feedback has been extremely positive. There is a whole load of technology transformation that we’re doing behind the scenes to ensure we can build experiences on top.

We also want to scale out the selling capabilities and enter new markets outside the UK. We have a replicable model. If we can rinse and repeat that in two dimensions – point of sale and products – then we can continue to expand across Europe. For example, it’s been encouraging to see results have been better than expected in Germany, where we launched earlier this year.

Q: Were there any times during the pandemic when you feared the worst for the travel industry?

I thought working in price comparison was crazy, but the travel industry is at another level. There have been terrorist attacks, erupting volcanos, wildfires, Thomas Cook went under, and then the COVID pandemic, which has been the biggest disruptor in recent times.

It became clear, though, that British people are committed to going on holiday. There was never a day when we didn’t have a booking. While it was a miserable time, our fantastic CEO, Donat Rétif, decided to double down on technology.

We invested in technology through the pandemic and brought in key personnel – it was a successful strategy as, aside from the great progress, Loveholidays is now recognised as a great place to work by The Sunday Times.

Q: Please could you provide an example where embedding technology has made the loveholidays team’s life easier post-pandemic?

We came out of the pandemic so much more resilient and scalable as a platform. The capabilities were like night and day when compared to how things were. During the first peak of the pandemic for about a month, my team and I would have to stay up until almost midnight just in case the website fell over. The systems couldn’t cope.

Fast forward to where we are now, and every night, we run something called OwlBot, which replays the traffic from the previous day but at ten times the rate, so we can rest easy knowing the website won’t break. And as CTO, it’s reassuring to know we are not losing potential customers by having the platform fail.

Michael is speaking at IRX @ DTX + UCX about migrating to a modern commerce architecture to stay ahead of business and customer needs. The conference takes place at ExCel London on 4th & 5th October. You can register for your free pass here. #IRX23