Just over a year after Mondee went public, the company that helps travel agents, experts and influencers access a global inventory of hotels, flights, activities and cruises at negotiated rates as they build their businesses, has undergone a rebranding, including the integration of its artificial intelligence travel assistant.
PhocusWire chatted with Orestes Fintiklis, vice chairman and chief corporate strategy and business development officer at Mondee, about the company’s use of AI and how its strategy is developing.
Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
How is Mondee’s incorporation of AI different from other companies’ integration of the technology?
Four years ago, we started developing this AI platform, because it was a missing piece of the puzzle of how to provide a comprehensive solution to anybody who wants to be able to sell travel. … It is the only fully-integrated AI travel assistant.
On the Mondee platform … you can start from the beginning – from a simple conversation with the AI travel assistant and go all the way to booking your flight or your whole package, experiencing the trip, seeing how the trip will look, even before taking the trip. And then after you book it, even use it to make changes to your itinerary. So that’s basically one of the many ways that our AI – we believe – is the most powerful in the market.
The big differentiation is that we have launched it and it’s in the market out there. And it has been in development for four years. Even when people launch something, say in six months or a year – by that point in time, we will have advanced to a completely different level.
How does the AI travel assistant work?
The first step of the process, which is the conversational part, is generative AI.
If you look at, for example, one of the big online travel agencies working with ChatGPT. Another one is working with Google Bard. Our AI, the first step when you’re talking to it, it basically takes the best outcome from both ChatGPT, IBM Watson, Google Bard and our own proprietary platform. So … it’s linking to many, including our own, and taking the best outcome.
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Then the next step is actually integrated within the booking path.So basically you can say, “Book me a three-day trip,” and then we’ll give you all the flights and everything. Then you can actually make a booking, not just talk to AI.
The travel assistant can create a personalized travel guide, just for your experience. So you say, “Oh, I like yoga. I like monuments. I like Italian food. I like this, I like that,” and then it creates a customized itinerary, and this is what is super important, because the modern traveler today is all about personalization and customization.
What are some risks that you see around AI? This is such a new phenomenon that we’re incorporating into daily lives.
There are many contexts in which you can use AI, and I believe the context of travel is one of the areas that has the least risks … because you’re not really taking anybody’s job (by implementing AI). You are actually empowering people. It’s leveling the playing field.
We believe that, to start with, travel is one of the areas where there are much more benefits and much less shortcomings or potential dangers. We are learning. We’re evolving. But most importantly, we think we’re applying it in a context where, by definition, by its very nature, it has the least risks.
I mean, what our AI is doing is empowering anybody to become a travel expert, actually. So it’s creating thousands of jobs. So it’s the opposite of what people are expecting to be a danger of AI. We’re using AI to democratize a certain sector of the economy. And create more jobs along the way.
Beyond any impact on staffing, is
there anything else you are watching out for as a risk when
something is automated in this way?
One of the risks of AI in general is hallucinations – that basically means taking things out of context and creating something which is imaginary. For example, you say, “I would like to go to Naples,” right? The danger is that you may end up booking something in Naples, Florida, as opposed to Naples, Italy. So what our system does, sometime in the middle of the process, if it realizes that there is a risk of something like that, it would say, “Do you want to go to Naples, Florida? Or do you want to go to Naples, Italy?” And then you click and you choose, and then from that moment onwards, it mitigates a certain potential risk.
The other big advantage we have is that if you don’t want to talk to the AI anymore, you can actually talk to one of the 65,000 travel agents or one of the few thousand people that we have in call centers. So if at any point in time you feel that the AI is going the wrong way, we already have networks of thousands of humans that are providing the service right, so it would have been a bit risky if you only had AI.
Can you elaborate on Mondee’s mergers and acquisitions strategy?
In the 15-year history of the company, we bought another 18 companies, smaller companies. So the reason we do M&A is because we are buying certain pieces that are helping us accelerate our organic growth.
The idea is to have one super app where the intermediary in this case, not necessarily the direct consumer, can book all content
Orestes Fintiklis – Mondee
Say, for example, we are the biggest player in North America in this segment of the market, right? We have 65,000 travel intermediaries, nobody else has anything remotely close to that. … But we are not the biggest player in Brazil, for example. So we just went and we bought two companies in Brazil a few months ago. Now we take these companies, we take their discarded contracts, we take their customers and we plug them into one unified platform. Now, right away, you have huge cross-selling opportunities. So we are using M&A basically to buy pieces – it is more efficient for us to acquire than to build them organically over time.
What are your most recent acquisitions?
The last four acquisitions, which we did in the last eight months, are two companies in Brazil. One is called Orinter. And the other is called Interep – both of them sell, for the most part, hotel contracts. So it’s basically enhancing our hotel content because we have flights, hotels, cruises, etc. Those two companies helped us get a lot of deals in Latin America and Brazil and get customers in Latin America and Brazil. And then the other company we bought recently is Consolid, which is in Mexico, which is a similar strategy to Brazil but for Mexico. And then the last company we bought is a company called SkyPass, which is based out of Dallas.
And do you have any others on your mind or in progress at this point?
We have a number of acquisitions in the pipeline, but it all depends also on the market conditions, the valuation and the liquidity, beyond the strategy. So we will continue doing M&A at certain periods of time. We pause for a few quarters, because once you buy a company, then you also have to basically integrate it. So if you look at the history of the company, there are periods where we are very active with M&A, and then there are periods that we go in a kind of consolidation mode, kind of realizing the synergies, etc., developing the technology and then the M&A.
The M&A strategy is part of the growth of Mondee but is not happening in a uniform manner.
What are your priorities for the next few years?
We have a number of priorities. The first one is to continue growing our content. Like I said, we started only flights, and now as you can see here we are flights, hotels, cars and cruises. We are about to add theme parks events, concerts, right. The idea is to have one super app where the intermediary in this case, not necessarily the direct consumer, can book all content.
What’s it been like since Mondee went public? Any pros and cons from your perspective?
Becoming a public company was very important to Mondee for a number of reasons, one of them being the acquisitions part because when you’re a public company you can use your public stock to make further acquisitions without using cash. That’s more the finance angle, but being a public company I also believe is important for the recognition and people knowing Mondee, because the reality is we are working in the intermediary channels, which means we are not directly visible to the consumer.
Being a public company increases the public profile and links with the new rebranding that we have done. The new rebranding is more in line with – the sense of adventure of the customization that you have seen – the needs of the millennial and Gen Z.
Not just for Mondee, but I can tell you from my experience that if you’re a public company, you are judged on a monthly basis or every three months. You report to the public markets, and then the public markets respond to you through the movement in your stock price. If we were a private company it would be probably easier to make big changes. If you’re a public company, you have to be mindful you have thousands of shareholders, you have more responsibilities.