With the Seera Group leading the way for the Digital Transformation of the tourism and travel industry, Intelligent CIO speaks to Abdulrahman Mutrib, its Executive Vice President and Group CTO, to find out more about the company’s trailblazing commitment to technology. “We pride ourselves on being ‘a technology company that happens to work in travel’,” he tells us. “Tech innovation is central to everything we do.”
How has Seera Group driven pioneering technology initiatives in the travel sector?
As the region’s leading travel and tourism company, Seera Group is powered by a robust technology platform that covers the group’s different businesses including travel management (Elaa), consumer travel (Almosafer and Tajawal), Hajj and Umrah (Mawasim), destination management (Discover Saudi) and car rental (Lumi). Digitisation and leveraging next-generation technology are central to what we do.
As the technology leader in the industry, we focus on understanding travel and industry trends through data analytics, create innovative solutions that enhance the customer experience and ensure seamless service delivery through our tech platforms.
In fact, Almosafer, the flagship brand of our consumer travel unit has been the industry leader in serving as a one-stop shop for hotel, flight and holiday bookings, with more than 6.1 million app downloads in 2018 and over one million followers on social media.
Similarly, Tajawal’s desktop and mobile booking services offer flights to thousands of destinations, 1.5 million hotels around the world and complete holiday packages – and has recorded over 2.2 million app downloads in 2018.
In the last four years many partners have contributed in shaping our vision and helped us execute our transformation. BCG, for example, has done a good job in articulating how IT can be restructured to address growing business demands and ambitious goals. We also have been working with AWS and Accenture very closely in building and deploying various products and platforms throughout the years, they have been instrumental in that regard. Last but not least, SAP and Salesforce were helpful supporting our operational efficiency and customer centricity goals.
We work with leading tech providers to drive our digital offering. Recently, we partnered with Salesforce as it is an integrated platform that offers us real-time insights on customer trends and converts them into genuine brand experiences that build loyalty.
The informed insights we gain through Salesforce will be part of our competitive strength that will enable us to win more customers. Further, partnering with Amazon Web Services (AWS), an Amazon.com company, was another milestone for us, allowing us to respond faster to customer needs.
Recently, we also released a report titled Decoding the Saudi Arabian Travel & Tourism Industry in association with SkiftX, the largest intelligence platform providing media, insights and marketing for key sectors in the travel sector. The report offers a comprehensive understanding of travel trends and traveller preferences of the Kingdom.
How do you evaluate new approaches for delivering value to customers?
Our product team places emphasis on building platforms that enhance use of ease as well as assure simpler user experience and interface. Complementing this, our engineers continuously look for ways to optimise search results and ensure best inventory availability in record time across a large set of suppliers across the globe.
Can you tell us how you have adopted cloud strategy across the organisation?
In 2016, after outlining the draft of our Digital Transformation strategy that focuses on improving efficiency and customer centricity, we focused on drawing on the latest technologies as the real enabler of change.
Accordingly, we found that we would need to deploy many systems in a short time. This meant a massive amount of CAPEX investment and months if not years of wait time. For this, on-premise servers were not an option and we adopted a cloud-first strategy that not only enabled us to save on capital expenditure but also enhanced our time to market. Our cloud strategy is central to our Digital Transformation and brings higher levels of operational efficiency and productivity organisation wide.
Can you explain how you have built up the online travel agency from a technology perspective?
We are a tech-driven company and our focus has been on integrating off-the-shelf technologies that play a support function as well as building highly sophisticated core platforms like customer-facing systems. Such strategy is important for fast go-to-market capabilities and enable us to achieve the highest level of efficiency across all touch-points. We continue to focus on investing in advanced technologies to further position us as the leading travel agency in the region, with our online business recording strong and consistent growth.
What have been the main IT achievements of your organisation in the past year?
We have had several new initiatives and accomplishments this year. For example, Elaa, the travel management company of Seera, launched an electronic travel order platform offering a state-of-the-art digital booking system for government and corporate entities.
Since its soft launch in December 2018, this product has won over several government entities as its clients, serving more than 300,000 employees and generating more than SAR one billion worth of transactions through the platform. Almost 40% of total Elaa transactions were done through our Elaa Corporate platform.
Set to revolutionise C&G travel solutions, Elaa brings together a team of local experts at Elaa and C&G travel advisors to simplify government travel arrangements. It will replace the time-consuming process of travel bookings for government entities and companies in Saudi Arabia, which is totally dependent on manual work, written sign-off and physical documentation.
Elaa’s latest product enables total automation of approvals, travel policy enforcement and real-time travel order status updates. It also enhances the employee experience through its transparent and trackable online system.
Adding to ease of access, local data residency is stored and accessible in dashboards to facilitate effortless analysis of travel bookings. Any new rules or government regulations pertaining to travel can be easily incorporated in the system – together contributing to a more efficient, swift and seamless process.
Elaa’s product provides decision-makers with the right data to reduce business travel costs. It immensely enhances the efficiency of our clients. For the first time in Saudi Arabia, government entities can do their travel bookings electronically and travellers can search, select, and book their preferred flights and hotels using the solution.
We are the only C&G solution that offers bilingual (Arabic/English) services in the market across channels including web, mobile app, retail branches and via a 24/7 Call Centre. Our key proposition for C&G clients is cost optimisation, transparency and an enhanced business travel process.
What technology is the group looking to invest in?
We pride ourselves being ‘a technology company that happens to work in travel’. Having said that, we are a digital-first company – and this means, we look at offering solutions to our customers through a digital perspective – to add to their convenience. In 2020, we will look into investing in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning as we believe these will greatly enable predictive travel demands and enable the industry to highly personalise the travel experience including services such as experienced smart chatbots.
How is technology impacting your industry and how are you leveraging it for business growth?
Technology has changed the rules of the game – and it is important now to leverage next-generation technology to meet the aspirations of the customers. After all, we are talking about a young demographic in the region – with over 200 million people below the age of 30 years who are tech-savvy and seek online/digital solutions for every need.
We understand what our travellers need, so we can provide them with more rewarding travel experiences through our digital-first mindset and tech initiatives. To give you the example of the Elaa C&G solution, it offers users customised dashboards and generates instant reports where required.
It offers a vast inventory of more than 600 airlines, 500,000 hotels around the globe and ground transportation. It comes with pre-packaged special deals on all major Middle East airlines and many worldwide hotels with the ability to customise special deals per client. It also enables organisations to customise with a white label solution and has the capability to enforce travel policies across the journey. This means it serves as a one-stop-shop.
How have you driven technical innovation to serve the group’s strategic vision?
Our strategic vision is to open up the opportunity to travel by connecting cultures. We aim to become the leading travel and tourism company with a balanced portfolio of trusted brands that consistently exceeds customer expectations.
Embracing the power of travel also takes us on new journeys of discovery. We enable travellers to learn, grow and be inspired; sharing experiences with a global community that is more connected than ever. And in this, tech innovation is central to everything we do, as highlighted by our initiatives that we discussed earlier.
How have you driven technical innovation to serve customers’ specific business needs?
We are a customer-interfacing business. Travel is about genuine experiences and about people, and as mentioned, about connecting cultures. This means, meeting the specific needs of customers. We exist for them – and naturally, every technical innovation is aimed at delivering more value for them – and making every trip memorable.
How do you ensure your digital infrastructure supports all the group’s current needs?
As explained earlier, building a digital infrastructure is key to our growth and continued progress. We draw on the power of data and innovative digital technologies to ensure that they are aligned with our organisational needs – such as enhancing our businesses, serving more people in more markets – and creating unbeatable value across every touch-point.
For example, the launch of Discover Saudi, our destination management company, recently, offers us the opportunity to draw on the power of digital connections to engage with travellers around the world, and serve as a window to Saudi Arabia and deliver on the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 to boost international inward and domestic tourism.
How have shifts within the global travel industry influenced the technology initiatives you have pursued and how have you responded?
We are first-movers in embracing technology and we keep a close watch on upcoming trends so that we are up-to-speed in deploying them. Technology is making quantum leaps with Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain technology and Machine Learning, and the opportunities are limitless. We will continue to invest in new and next-generation technology, in tune with global trends, as well as innovate solutions that can serve as benchmarks for the travel and tourism industry.