AI Will Revolutionise How You Travel, Priceline CEO Says - Kanebridge News
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AI Will Revolutionise How You Travel, Priceline CEO Says

Tue, Jul 9, 2024 9:35amGrey Clock 4 min

With its 1997 launch as a name-your-own-price site, Priceline helped usher in the era of online travel booking―and the growth of a trillion-dollar category. Priceline itself has mushroomed into a global business with 1,500 full-time employees; along with global airline bookings, the site claims to offer 1.2 million accommodations in 116 countries.

Now, the Connecticut-based company is focusing on generative AI, and CEO Brett Keller is behind the leap. It’s just the latest technology push from Keller, a 25-year veteran of the company who has also served as CMO and COO. Under Keller, Priceline launched the travel industry’s first full-service mobile app in 2009; he also helped conceive the hugely popular William Shatner-fronted “Negotiator” ad campaign.

Keller, 56, talked to Penta about how AI is changing travel planning, what luxury travellers do to save money, and why Japan blows his mind.

Penta: Much of Priceline’s marketing is about value. Do you see luxury travellers in your customer mix along with budget-conscious travellers?

Brett Keller: High-net-worth consumers take a significantly higher number of trips than the average leisure traveller. For a high-end vacation like a safari in Tanzania, they’ll work with experts. But for the other 30 trips they book that year, either for themselves or family members, they don’t always reach for the stars. They want to manage money effectively. And as they’re moving around the country and the world, they need a fast, easy way to book travel that accommodates their needs. Priceline is a great platform for that kind of trip. And if you’re taking a quick weekend trip to Miami, and want to stay in the Four Seasons, we’ve negotiated with them. Even high-net-worth individuals seek value.

Priceline made headlines last year for partnering with both Google and OpenAI on Penny, your AI assistant. How has Penny evolved?

She’s gone from, “I can answer questions about the hotel you’re looking at” to actually servicing the customer through more complicated scenarios. If you need to cancel a hotel that’s fully refundable, you can do it with one click. But if there are issues, like a reservation that’s not fully cancelable, Penny can walk through those steps for you.

Penny’s also helping people find, search, and book properties. For example, if the customer tells her, “I’m looking for a great resort with these features, anywhere warm”—she’ll present recommended properties that meet those requirements. You can continue with Penny on the site, or go with the traditional experience.

Has there been any pushback from consumers about Penny and generative AI? 

There has been none. Customers still have access to phone agents. Anyway, the younger generation doesn’t want to talk to anyone. And with traditional chat agents, live agents, or even messaging apps, there’s typically a delay. Penny answers immediately and in real time.

What’s the future of generative AI and online travel booking?

The future is a highly personalised shopping experience. It’s hard to achieve, because we don’t know about the consumer when they come in. But generative AI lets us dramatically improve personalisation. As you work with Penny, and tell us your preferences, the way you interact lets us find and book the best products and services every time you return. The ability to customise and personalise increases exponentially.

Is the travel experience even more bifurcated between elite, ultra-high-net-worth travellers and everyone else?

Consumers seem to be a little less sensitive in some areas. On planes, first-class and comfort-plus seats are the first to go, most of the time, and people are burning through points to sit in the front because they’re tired of not having legroom. But seats are packed in economy, too, so people are flying.

Hotel bookings are more economically driven in the U.S. Higher-income people are not as affected by interest rates or the cost of living, so they spend more freely than economy-minded consumers. There is a bit of bifurcation there. The low end is not filling, but the high end is.

It’s been reported Europe’s going to get even more crowded this summer. Does Priceline ever suggest alternatives to over-touristed or overpriced destinations? 

We’re not in the business of telling you where you shouldn’t travel. We market popular destinations because that’s where people want to go. As much as we could tell people, “Las Vegas is overcrowded, don’t go,” people will want to go.

Social media is highlighting some overpopulated destinations and suggesting alternatives, so that comes back to us. But price is the No. 1 motivator. Vegas is a great value. There are so many hotel rooms available that you can go in a non-peak period and get a room in a four-star hotel for US$120. Try doing that in New York City.

What destinations are going to pop over the next year or two?

Asia will continue to be exciting and interesting to people. Bangkok is a great place to move in, then travel throughout Southeast Asia. As the region gets more popular, people will keep trying to find more remote and more unique destinations. People love Europe, but it was the hot spot in 2022 and ’23. Some travellers are saying, “I’ve had enough, and I’m moving on.” Japan is also amazing, for so many reasons. It’s easy to navigate. English is not a challenge. It’s safe. It feels like a different world, but completely first-world. The strength of the dollar is also driving some of that―again, price plays a role.

Beyond that, Mexico and the Caribbean took a real hit in 2022 and ’23 after a boom in 2021. They’re coming back now. A lot of people don’t want to travel far—“I just want to go to a beach and not think of anything.” And because not everyone wants to travel overseas, unique and relaxing cities like Nashville, Tennessee; Houston; and Austin, Texas, will be popular, especially into the fall.

Every day brings more headlines about airline woes. Who gets blamed if a Priceline customer has a bad flying experience, you or the airline? 

When you have a bad experience traveling, you want to blame everybody. No matter what happened, the online travel agency takes blame and the airline takes the blame. It could be your seat, the person sitting next to you, whatever. We get the complaint, and we take on that responsibility and that role. We have leverage because of the amount of business we drive to partners. They want to work with us to make sure the customer has the best experience. Something goes wrong almost every time you take a trip. That’s just the reality.

What are your favourite places to travel?

My favourite destination, and a place where I spend a lot of time every summer, is [resort town] McCall, Idaho, one of the most beautiful towns in the West, with hiking, trails, and mountain biking. Outside of the country, it’s Japan, absolutely. Tokyo is the most exciting city in the world. It’s mind-blowing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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Leaders with epic hobbies seem to squeeze more hours out of the day than the rest of us

By Callum Borchers
Fri, Jul 19, 2024 4 min

Many of us can barely keep up with our jobs, never mind hobbies. Yet some top executives run marathons, wineries or music-recording studios on the side. How can they have bigger responsibilities and more fun than we do?

It can seem like ultrahigh achievers find extra hours in the day. They say they’ve just figured out how to manage their 24 better than the rest of us.

They also admit they take full advantage of the privileges of being a boss—the power to delegate and the means to do things like jetting to Denmark for a long weekend of windsurfing.

Dan Streetman trains as many as 20 hours a week for Ironman triathlons in addition to his job as CEO of cybersecurity firm Tanium. It’s a big commitment for anyone, never mind a corporate leader who travels to meet with customers every week. He pulls it off by sleeping fewer than seven hours a night and waking around 5 a.m., planning his exercise sessions months in advance, and switching his brain from work mode to sport mode almost as fast as he transitions from swimming to cycling during a competition.

“I tend to work right up until the day of the race,” says Streetman, 56 years old. “I remember being on a board call on a Friday night, and Saturday morning was an Ironman. That’s just part of it.”

Ahead of business trips, he maps running routes in unfamiliar cities and scouts nearby pools, often at YMCAs. He rides stationary bikes in hotel gyms and, if they’re subpar, makes a note to book somewhere else next time he’s in town.

Leaders who eat, breathe and sleep business can appear out of touch at a time when employees crave work-life balance and expect their bosses to model it. Today’s prototypical CEO has a full life outside of work, or at least the appearance of one.

Their tactics include waking up early, multitasking and scheduling fun as if it were any other appointment. When you’re a top executive, hobbies tend to disappear unless they’re on the calendar. One CEO told me he disguises “me time” as important meetings. Only his assistant knows which calendar blocks are fake.

Ben Betts calls himself a “spreadsheet guy,” which is a bit like saying Michelangelo was a paint guy. With Excel as his canvas, Betts creates cell-by-cell checklists for just about everything he does, from cooking Christmas dinner to building a coop for newly hatched ducklings.

Betts, 41, is CEO of Learning Pool, a professional-development software maker. The duck home is part of his ambitious effort to restore an 18th-century farmhouse in England. He’s been renovating for about five years and aims to finish this fall.

On a recent Saturday, Betts’s spreadsheet called for stripping overhead beams by 5 p.m. so he could refinish them. Otherwise, the task would have to wait until the following weekend, throwing off his whole timeline. His vision of the home as a cozy enclave—completed in time for the holidays—can only come true if he sticks to a precise plan.

“Sometimes I stand in the doorway, and my wife probably wonders what I’m staring at,” he says. “I’m picturing us on a corner sofa with our two kids and the dog, watching a film in front of the fireplace I installed.”

Back in the swing

John Sicard , president and CEO of supply-chain manager Kinaxis , got back into drumming many years after he let go of his dream to become a professional musician. He practices almost every day, but his sessions sometimes last only 20 minutes. He rehearses with bandmates two or three times a month. That’s enough to prepare Sicard, 61, to play Foo Fighters and Led Zeppelin covers at occasional charity gigs.

He also built a studio in his house, where he records up-and-coming artists. He finds time by sticking to this management philosophy: “The most successful CEOs do the least amount of work.”

For Sicard, that means letting his lieutenants take charge of—and responsibility for—their divisions. Many corporate leaders work harder than they need to because they micromanage or hire poorly and pick up the slack, he says.

Thomas Hansen , president of software maker Amplitude, is back to windsurfing, a sport he competed in as a teenager. He lives near the ocean in California but gets out on the water only about once a month, when the waves are just right. Hobbies don’t need to be daily activities to be fulfilling, he says, especially if they require training regimens.

To stay in shape for windsurfing, he rises at 4:30 a.m., seven days a week, for an hour of exercise. Hansen, 54, also guards his Saturdays and Sundays like the crown jewels of Denmark, his native country, limiting himself to two working weekends a year. Things that feel urgent can almost always wait till Monday, he contends.

‘Like a badass’

When Christine Yen isn’t calling the shots at work, she’s circling a racetrack at 80 mph on her Honda CB300F motorcycle. The co-founder and CEO of Honeycomb, which helps engineers diagnose problems in their software, took up racing a few years ago.

Prepandemic, her motorcycle was strictly for commuting in San Francisco—and making an impression. She loved pulling up to investor meetings in her hornet-yellow helmet and leather riding suit.

“It fits me like a glove, and it makes me feel like a badass,” says Yen, 36.

The keys to spending full days at the track are planning and being willing to work at odd hours, Yen discovered. Her favorite track publishes racing schedules in 10-week batches. As soon as a slate is released, she circles the dates when she expects her workload will be lightest, aiming to participate in roughly half of the events.

“I have also been known to bring my laptop to the motel and get some work done in the evenings,” she says. “It sounds boring to say hobbies can be scheduled, but that’s how I protect my time.”