Video / Management Video / Future CEO / CEO Gillian Tans on why data is the future of e-commerce CEO Gillian Tans on why data is the future of e-commerce

From small beginnings in Amsterdam in 1996, travel booking website is now one of the world largest e-commerce sites, covering 117,216 destinations across 225 countries and territories worldwide. Every day more than 1,200,000 nights are reserved on the site’s platform, from apartments, family-run B&Bs and 5-star luxury resorts to treehouses and even igloos.

CEO of Gillian Tans tells me the site’s success comes down to the culture of the company and its ability to evolve and innovate as customers and technology change. Ever since the travel retail firm’s inception its philosophy has been to constantly look at ways to improve processes for customers and build products which work for the cross-border market.

“Everything you see in has gone through an experiment, otherwise it would not be live,” says Tans. “Everything we do we test. We have been extremely focused on data and customers – from the start of we have been learning about what customers want and doing a lot of experimentation over what the customer likes.

“We have a very entrepreneurial culture. The idea is to improve the experience for customers and use data in decision making. We want to be globally scalable and locally relevant. We went cross-border early on and learned from other cultures. We learned how to deal with languages, with currencies.”

To help understand how customers from different parts of the world think, the e-commerce site has been using machine learning to analyse their behaviour through data. “Machine learning is throughout our business,” says Tans. “Anything we do will have an element of it.”

For example, data on what customers liked about certain destinations is collected. Machine learning will then study patterns in this data to give an overall picture of what people enjoy about a certain place. “We can feed that back to customers and help them make a better choice with their holiday,” Tans says. When a new customer looks at a certain destination on the site, goes the idea, they can then build up a picture of where to go shopping, where to find good food and what are the best cultural experiences at a destination from the data.

By doing so has not only been able to offer customers a more bespoke experience at each destination, but has also been able to use the information to get ahead of the competition by being able to spot trends early on. Even before companies such as Airbnb had arrived on the scene, Tans tells me, had already featured home-stay-style apartments and had non-hotel type stays because the firm’s data showed an increasing demand for them.

“We saw the trend growing and we also increased our investment to make sure we have our supply available for the customers,” she said. “The best way for us is to be a customer-first company – basically any technology which can help improve the experience for customers we will embrace, test and learn from. That is key to the direction we take.”

Technology is built so no matter where or how a customer books, Tans says, a consistent level of support is offered at any time during the day or night, regardless of where the customer is from or what language they speak.

In order to improve this experience for users, the company has also been looking into using artificial intelligence (AI) to help customer service. Says Tans: “If someone says they want to go to a weekend to Paris, as we already know a lot about our customers we can suggest the best choice [for that customer] in terms of what to do, where to go and how to travel there. But we think AI can really help in improving that for customers.”

The travel retail giant is currently testing AI on a selection of customers to better understand its potential and how it might improve its own procedures. The technology is currently trialled in answering customer enquiries, but it is only at its beta stages and not yet live for all customers.

“Artificial intelligence is something we are learning a lot about and are testing a lot,” she said. “We are constantly thinking about how to get these answers quicker to customers to really help them.

“Today customers face a lot of friction – they often spend longer planning the holiday than the holiday itself! That is something that we can really solve for customers to make sure it becomes a lot easier and information is easily accessible. That is where AI can play a big role in the future.” is also looking at developing and investing in hybrid business/pleasure – or “Bleasure” – products for businesspeople who frequently also want holiday experiences when they book work trips. And the plan is to continue experimenting and building cross-border products which give people better choices. “The whole end-to-end experience is where we are investing a lot,” says Tans.

This article was published in our Business Reporter Online: Future of Retail.

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