The travel industry has long been recognised as a natural fit with the internet. If there were any doubts about this, the Ryanair and eBookers experiences of the last few years have surely dispelled them.
It may seem like the web-inspired travel revolution is well under way but there are those who believe that we are only scratching the surface of what is possible when travel and the internet are fully integrated.
As CEO of Aurium, a software start-up which develops applications for the travel industry, Dr Simon Dobson (pictured) would be well qualified to count himself among the ‘you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet’ brigade.
Dobson, a former assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Trinity College Dublin, established Aurium last year along with Richard Greenane, formerly of the Department’s Computer Vision and Robotics Group (now chief operations officer of Aurium) and Prof Paddy Nixon, chair of computer science at the University of Strathclyde, who has since decided to stay in academia. Backed by Enterprise Ireland, Aurium has raised €730,000 from Hot Origin and private investors and works out of basement offices in Dublin’s Merrion Square.
Aurium specialises in context-aware travel itinerary management systems, although its technology, branded En Route, can be applied across several sectors. Context software provides revenue and customer service opportunities to organisations based on a person’s context, ie not just location but situation and circumstances.
Aurium is targeting global airlines, travel operators and central reservation systems with its solution. It recently signed its first customer/technology partner – Dublin-based e-Travel – an online travel technology provider which will use En Route to build additional functionality into its own booking engine.
“The travel industry is in turmoil due to online booking and low-cost carriers,” says Dobson. “Context-enhanced applications will help travel organisations retain customer loyalty, provide new revenue streams and reduce the cost of call centres as rescheduling can be conducted automatically 24×7.”
As a Mancunian whose mixed accent betrays his peripatetic career thus far – primary degree in Newcastle upon Tyne, PhD in York, followed by five-year stint at the Rutherford Appleton Physics Lab in Oxford – Dobson is mildly surprised to find himself running a software start-up in Dublin.
“It was never my firm intention to commercialise the technology; it was just a feeling that grew. What I’d worked on previously was the big science stuff without a real commercial outlet but with this technology we realised that there were some fairly obvious applications out there in the market.”
The idea for Aurium came from work that Dobson and his TCD colleagues were doing on wearable PCs and pervasive computing. Travel happened to be the commercial application they alighted on – the ‘quick win’ – but there are a number of outlets for the underlying technology, which Dobson describes as deliberately ‘infrastructural’ rather than particularly travel focused.
“We initially thought about targeting telecommunications companies (telcos) and the mobile area but the market isn’t there at the moment. We went for travel because it has excellent long-term potential. There’s plenty of information there already and even at the current state of technology you don’t have to wait for people to buy lots of new devices before you can do something interesting.”
As a former academic unused to the cut and thrust of the commercial world, Dobson is still getting used to the harsh realities of the marketplace. In particular, he is finding that serving an industry that is full of opportunities is one thing, putting business to bed is another altogether.
“Although there is still money around and businesses are still spending, the time it takes to close a sale has lengthened considerably. This has pushed up the cost of sales as you have to spend a lot longer than anticipated just to sell a product. I think this is going to be the main challenge facing us and the sector as a whole in 2003,” he says.
Difficult though it is for a technical specialist to accept, Dobson is also learning the importance of leading with the business benefit rather than bells and whistles of his technology when meeting customers.
“The guys who succeed are the ones that have a good return-on-investment argument – who can just turn up and make a business sale rather than a tech sale. Anyone who’s concentrating on selling technology has got a real problem,” he says.
Future plans for Aurium? Probable expansion into Europe or more likely the US later this year backed by a fresh injection of funding. “If you want to grow the business, there’s no future in staying in Ireland or the UK. There’s a debate about whether to go to Europe or to the US but I think with travel you definitely go to America,” he concludes.
By Brian Skelly