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Routehappy's Robert Albert talks:
About a decade after founding and leading flight shopping information hub Routehappy, Robert Albert is stepping down. Albert pioneered a vast database of details about flights and amenities, creating such terms as "Universal Ticket Attributes" to show perks and restrictions that come with a ticket and "Universal Product Attributes" for rich content such as photos, videos and descriptive text to give passengers a better idea of what they were buying across sales channels. Albert continued to lead Routehappy after its acquisition by ATPCO in early 2018—ATPCO's first acquisition in its more than 50-year history—and now plans to stay on solely in an advisory capacity. He talked recently to BTN transportation editor Michael B. Baker about his decision.
BTN: Walk us through the journey of building Routehappy into what is today.
Robert Albert: This was just an idea and something I believed the whole industry needed. There were a lot of people who said it was a stupid idea and others who said it was brilliant. Across the board, they were asking how you were going to get airlines and channels to do this and [saying] that it was impossible. The last 10 years has been an organic, evangelizing climb up Mount Everest. There have been moments of spreading a religion, where I felt like I was preaching to people all over the world. It was a bit chicken and egg: We had to say to every airline that if you do it, then the sales channels will do it, and to the sales channels that if you do it, the airlines will do it. We kept pushing on all fronts, and enough airlines and systems were adopting that kept strengthening and turning Routehappy into a real thing. When ATPCO acquired Routehappy two and a half years ago, it was a huge endorsement of what we were doing, but the work did not stop. It got exponential. A lot of times after a company is acquired, the acquired team can relax a little bit and enjoy the benefits of a big company. In this case, our lives got more hectic, and the demands got bigger. The last two and a half years have been all about scaling and growing up and standardizing. We got what we wanted, the vision is being realized, but there's all this work that has to go into that. If you build good products, talk to the right people, motivate and make it easy to use your products, the flywheel happens. I'm happy to say after a decade from founding, there is a comprehensive repository of airline rich content. UTAs are up to 94 percent of the global flight schedule, and UPAs and amenities are up to 99 percent. There's a mass of comprehensive content, which is what the industry needs, but in addition, our goal is to create a platform that can scale and be flexible no matter what happens.
BTN: How does that apply in today's environment?
Albert: Investors used to say, "What happens when there's a downturn?" I said that Routehappy will be as important if not more important then. When there's a downturn, airlines are going to need to fill their seats, and there's always stuff that happens—a volcano erupts in Hawaii somewhere—and there's always a message that needs to get out. The last three months, with these Reassurance UPAs, three months from my departure of my full-time role, we were able to adapt UPAs and prove they can be used for urgent, time-sensitive messaging when the industry needs it. Two weeks after the real thing started, we had 75 percent of the global flight schedule covered with Reassurance UPAs, and airlines and systems and channels were incredibly grateful. We all felt good that we were able to do something, and I personally felt happy and gratified that this foundation we built continues to scale and be flexible.
BTN: What will it take to restore traveler confidence and rebuild demand?
Albert: I get asked all the time, "Should I fly?" I happen to know all these measures that airlines are doing, both flexible rebooking and the hygiene and cleanliness measures, and it reassures people. This industry needs this right now. This is such a monumentally huge problem to solve, and it requires everyone in the industry to behave differently. Airlines are already changing their products and services, so how do you then package that, articulate that and get it into flight shopping? Everyone in our industry needs to be equipped with software, tools and know-how to make this happen. It's still not where it needs to be, but it's so much better than it would have been. With my full-time departure, this is now in the hands of a thousand people throughout the industry: ATPCO, all the systems, the channels, travel agents, airlines, multiple functions at airlines, consumers to develop this out and make it better and faster. With Covid, this is an opportunity for us all to reset and say what's really important. We have a little breathing room to say the world is different, and what really matters? One of the most important things is that there needs to be a good solution to communicate what consumers and travelers need to know.
BTN: Clearly, the ATPCO acquisition was the big milestone, but what are some of the other major moments you remember in building Routehappy over the past decade?
Albert: The first one was American Airlines. We had put something in front of them that had a negative attribute regarding shared or overhead screens. We had these amenities, and in the early days of Routehappy, we were very cheeky. We said, shared or overhead screens for just the factual information of what entertainment was on that plane, and then it said, "Remember the '80s?" We showed the distribution team at American, and we noticed that we had shown them something negative and quickly moved to talk about the positive things on the next screen. One of them said, "Wait a minute. Did that just say, 'Remember the '80s?' " I thought that this was the moment of truth. If we don't get away with this, American Airlines is going to say no, you cannot do this. Our chief data guy was frozen, and as the CEO and founder, I had to say something, so we went back to the previous slide and said, "Here's what we're trying to do. We're trying to be very honest about all these amenities on your planes, and let's face it, nobody wants overhead screens anymore. People want seatback entertainment. So, our view is let's be honest, and if it's something nobody wants anymore, poke fun of it, set expectations and move on. We all know there's old planes and new planes, and it's better to have people know what they're getting than get on the plane and be mad at you for having an old plane." I said, "Is that OK, or does that bother you?" And they said, "That's brilliant." In that moment, I thought, "We're going to make it. Airlines want us to be doing this."
Milestone two was when IATA gave us an innovation award at their Passenger Symposium, and Phocuswright gave us an award for innovation, and eventually BTN named me one of the top influential people. That was industry bodies saying that this is a good thing we should get behind.
The next was the channels saying we need this content, and we'll pay you for it. We were lean and investor-funded and had to drum up people to pay for our products and services. When Google and Expedia, after airlines started to subscribe and take interest, and later Sabre, Amadeus and Skyscanner got serious, the pieces of the puzzle were coming into place.
BTN: Why did you decide to step down now?
Albert: After an acquisition, the founder, the executive team and old team needs to take some moments to reflect. What does everyone individually want, and what's the path? We all went into it open to that, and I'm proud to say 90 percent of the team is thriving. About six to 12 months after the acquisition, I had a sit down with [ATPCO president and CEO Rolf Purzer], and we talked about the path ahead. I had come to the conclusion that I'd be ready to take a break after a decade of climbing Mount Everest for the obvious reasons of working hard. I'm super passionate about the industry and the problem we're trying to solve, but I knew we could get this to the point where the vision carrier wasn't needed in the picture anymore in the same way. Now, all these other people are owning this, innovating it and integrating it, so this was the right time for me to take a break and recharge. The team is good, and ATPCO has embraced this, so it's an opportunity for me to take a break, recharge and know everything will keep going on.
BTN: So, what's next for you?
Albert: I will remain a senior advisor as of July 1. I've been at the intersection of travel technology and flight shopping for 18 years, so it's deep in my DNA now. I will remain connected. There could be partnerships, but we'll see how that all goes. I want to say connected, but I have a list of 10-15 things I've had to put on hold that I'm passionate about, so I've decided to go pursue those in addition to staying connected. The top two are nature—for the last 10 years, I've been on airplanes, in conference rooms, on my computer or on Zoom calls, deep in travel tech and data, and I have this strong desire to spend more time in nature, hike and learn about nature and help do some things for our environment.
The second is social justice causes. There are all these causes I'm really passionate about, but I was too busy. You know when you're a good corporate person and don't talk about what you believe in so much? That always bothered me, but I was busy and doing what society did, being appropriate and not saying stuff. Now I have this opportunity to be totally authentic about what I care about.
In the world, we have problems, and I want to take the skills I've learned at Routehappy in helping to influence an industry and create something for the common good and apply that to a common universe. It's both social justice and politics. I've started to volunteer for a group for people facing economic anxieties because of what's going on with Covid, and I have some things I'm starting on the political front. I've hopefully made a lot of friendships in the industry throughout the decade, and I believe we all need to do something and take what's going on as a big wakeup call. Once I get my sea legs in this, I hope to get back to everyone I've known and worked with and help people understand how they can get involved.
BTN: Does the travel industry have a bigger role to play in matters of social justice?
Albert: When [George Floyd's death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer] happened, [ATPCO head of communications Megan Humphries] and I partnered with some others. ATPCO is traditionally conservative and play-it-safe—and every company is in that vein—and it was like an immediate, "We can't stay silent anymore. We have to take a stand." There are some things that should be basics that we all agree with, and if we stay silent, nothing will ever change. Ultimately, Rolf sent out a note to the whole staff that was powerful, and we posted on LinkedIn. We all should have been doing more, is the reality, but it's a wake-up call, and we have an opportunity, and we shouldn't squander it. For travel, the notion of common good, you can both simultaneously pursue your own strategic, competitive business and do things for the common good.
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