Slowly, the travel industry is starting to recover from a tumultuous two years defined by the COVID-19 Pandemic and the disruptions that it brought. Not all brands survived and many of those that did have had to downsize or rethink their strategies to fit the new concerns and priorities of travelers.
Skyscanner is certainly one such brand. One of the biggest flight aggregator and online travel agent sites around, it entered 2020 with a new look and feel following years of impressive growth — only to face its biggest challenge yet with the complete collapse of bookings that took place at the onset of the pandemic.
However, the brand made it through that tough period and emerged from the pandemic ready to tackle new consumer demands about safety, sustainability, and reliability. But, its growth story, which started at its founding in 2003, also tells us a lot about how much the travel industry has changed in the last 20 years — and reveals important lessons on what it takes to completely shake up an industry.
Let’s take a closer look at the story of Skyscanner.
Charting a New Route for the Travel Industry
Back in 2003, the travel industry was on the verge of immense change. With five years until the founding of Airbnb and one year until its competitor, Kayak, was founded — the industry was still influenced heavily by traditional travel agencies.
By this point, though, budget airlines had already begun embracing the web to circumvent travel agents to sell flights directly to consumers. Travelers at this time were empowered by an industry that was offering more choice than ever before — however, there was one catch: they had to shop around to find the best deals.
Frustrated that there was no simple way of finding affordable flights — friends, Gareth Williams, Barry Smith, and Bonamy Grimes started a project that would compare costs across a range of airlines.
The three friends “sat round a table in a pub in London, scribbled some ideas on a beer mat, and slowly the idea of Skyscanner took shape. From a simple excel spreadsheet, Skyscanner was born.”
This was in 2001 — shortly after the dot-com bubble burst — and the idea for Skyscanner, a web-based business formatted on the new concept of metasearch, meant that investors and airline partners were reluctant to get on board.
Gareth Williams explains that they “ended up sharing two salaries between three of us, with me working on Skyscanner full time while the others kept their day jobs”. But they had faith in their idea and persevered, adapting to the challenges they were confronted with.
_“We boot-strapped the business at the very start, and that served us well. It meant we naturally had to be very agile and allowed us to put a lot of emphasis on refining the product.” _But finally in 2007, the brand received £2.5 million funding from Scottish Equity Partners.
From here on the brand continued to grow as it offered consumers more tools to discover more deals on flights across the globe.
The Sky’s The Limit
What began as a small business operated from Williams’ spare room, offering only budget flights in Europe, gradually grew in size. By 2009 the brand went global with its website operating in 30 languages. Only three years after the launch of Apple’s app store in 2008, the brand had its very own app — which allowed consumers to find and book flights from their phones.
The brand continued to expand, opening offices in Singapore in 2011 to serve as headquarters for the company’s operations in Asia and the Pacific region. A year later, another office in Beijing was opened and the brand became an official partner with China’s biggest search engine Baidu — meaning that the Skyscanner’s results would now “appear directly on Baidu search pages.”
The growth continued and, in 2013, the company expanded into offering search tools to include car hire. By then, Skyscanner had over 180 employees and announced plans to expand into the USA with a new office based in Miami, Florida. The following year they expanded again — this time to include search tools for hotels so that customers would be able to find suppliers for all the main aspects of their trip.
By 2016, the brand was flying high and was acquired by Chinese travel giant, Ctrip (now known as Trip.com Group) for £1.4 billion — the largest travel tech acquisition to ever take place in Europe.
In 2019, Skyscanner hit 100 million monthly users and had more than 800 employees across the globe. It ended the year with a rebrand, revealing its new logo and outlining its “bold mission to lead the global transformation towards modern and sustainable travel.”
And then the pandemic hit and global tourism ground to a halt.
Grounded by The Pandemic
Like many other travel brands, Skyscanner was shaken by the pandemic. The turbulent period saw them lay off 300 employees, around 20% of their staff, and offices in Sofia and Budapest were permanently closed.
As travel was sporadically permitted and then restricted over the first two years of the pandemic, the brand was forced to address consumers’ newfound concerns over safety and reliability if it was to inspire confidence. Skyscanner released “a live, interactive COVID-19 restrictions map” to highlight all the necessary information required to travel anywhere in the world.
In the same way that their initial product offering simplified the process of finding cheap flights from multiple providers, the brand now offered a simplified process of keeping up to date with a seemingly ever-changing landscape of rules and regulations — empowering those travelers who still wanted to embark on a trip to do so.
Adapting To New Headwinds In The Travel Sector
With many pandemic-related restrictions now being lifted across the globe, travelers are beginning to sate the “pent up demand” they had built up after two years of limited travel opportunities.
When Australia announced that its borders were re-opening, the brand “recorded a 200% jump in travel bookings from one day to the next.” For Skyscanner, this wave of “revenge travel” presents them with an opportunity to pick up where they left off. Americans alone were able to set aside roughly “$2.4 trillion in extra savings during the pandemic” according to Wells Fargo — and data shows that those services that missed out most during the pandemic have picked up rapidly once restrictions have eased.
So what’s on the horizon for Skyscanner now that traveler numbers have started to bounce back?
John Mangelaars, CEO of Skyscanner, believes that travel brands are going to “go back to basics as travel resumes, hoping to remind everyone about the joy of travelling.” But that doesn’t mean marketing within the industry is stagnating. Indeed, the rise of virtual and video tours as marketing activities is something Mangelaars thinks will play a greater role in the near future — as well as a renewed push on “real-time data integration to make marketing campaigns relevant and timely.”
Mangelaars also sees the restart of travel as an opportunity to “build back better.” While changes in aviation technology should see the industry move towards fewer emissions, he wants Skyscanner to address consumers’ concerns over sustainability.
“We want to help them to understand the impact they have on the environment when they decide to travel and inform them of the tangible steps they can personally take to help counterbalance it, ensuring we’re making the more sustainable option visible to them.”
As travel takes off again, it will be interesting to see how Skyscanner continues to take on the challenge of changing consumer tastes, especially as demand bounces back with a vengeance.
But in the meantime, let’s take a look at what lessons we can learn from their story.
What Can You Learn From Skyscanner?
Stay agile and adapt
From the start, Skyscanner has demonstrated an ability to adapt. As a challenger brand with a relatively novel idea and a tech company situated outside of Silicon Valley, it could not rely alone on the investment, talent, and momentum that other startups have been afforded.
Impressively, the brand has retained this agility as it has developed into a leading name in the online travel agent sector.
Even before the pandemic, Skyscanner repositioned its brand to match the increased concern that consumers had for the environment and the communities that were bearing the brunt of over-tourism. This is a part of the market that has since exploded with a slew of new brands catering specifically to this demand — and while there is arguably more that Skyscanner could do in order to be considered as a leader in sustainable travel, it is managing to balance (at the moment) these new concerns with its original product offering.
The same flexibility was demonstrated during the pandemic when Skyscanner used its metasearch capabilities to provide clear information on travel restrictions to make traveling easier. Even as restrictions have been removed, this section of their websites continues to provide a clear picture of what kinds of covid-related obstacles customers can expect in different countries.
The Takeaway: The market is always changing, as are consumer tastes and preferences. Those brands that stubbornly try to maintain the same strategy are doomed to fail.
Always keep one eye on the horizon and expect to pivot your offering, refresh your brand or change your strategy to meet new challenges as they emerge.
Keep it simple
Skyscanner’s core service is based around a simple idea — which, ground down to its basics, is not even about gathering a range of flights in one place, but about making travel easier and simpler.
Even as they have expanded their product offering to include car hire and hotels, they have never strayed away from this central tenant. To this day, the brand remains focused on offering straightforward ways for customers to book their trips, as their COVID restrictions map demonstrates.
The brand’s identity is similarly focused on this, with their main brand messages built around their service’s adaptability to consumer needs, reliability, and, of course, simplicity.
The Takeaway: Sometimes, a good idea is simple and that’s the best way to keep it. Skyscanner dabbles in some more emotional branding (their Instagram account for example is awash with vibrant travel photos) but for the most part, they remain focused on why their customers are there (to research trips and find the best deals) and have built their brand identity to ensure consumers are confident and empowered to make their bookings with them.
For your own brand, try to think about the consumer and don’t overcomplicate your relationship with them. Where possible, streamline the customer experience and remove any obstacles that might be getting in the way of their interactions with your brand and service.
It’s more important than ever for brands to understand their target audience and gauge how important different issues and considerations are to them — especially within the travel industry.
As demonstrated by Skyscanner, the travel sector is vulnerable to fluctuations in consumer confidence, especially in times of unrest. With brand monitoring software, you can understand whether consumers already view your brand as a sustainable or reliable option — or if you’ve got more work to do.
With travel slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels, there’s an opportunity now for brands within this category to shake up their offering and meet the increased demand for sustainability to “build back better”. In this new world, placing the consumer at the heart of everything you do could be the difference between turbulence or clear skies.