100 Years of Advancing Destinations

Travel Planning in the Age of Cognitive Computing: Interview with WayBlazer CEO

Author: Joy Lin
Posted: June 09, 2015
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WayBlazer, a leading company in intelligent discovery for the travel and leisure industry, is the first IBM Watson Ecosystem Partner focused on travel solutions. What makes WayBlazer unique is its delivery of contextual, personalized advice and insights for consumers across all phases of travel, from inspiration to transaction.

By utilizing the cognitive computing power of IBM Watson, WayBlazer has the unique ability to interact in natural language, process and understand vast and disparate forms of big data to transform the way travelers seek advice with a travel discovery experience that can be individualized for every user, every time.

We sat down with Felix Laboy, CEO of WayBlazer, before he joins DMAI's Annual Convention as our closing speaker to discuss the power of cognitive computing and its possibilities for destinations.

DMAI: In your own words, how would you describe WayBlazer and how it's changing up how travelers plan?

Laboy: Current travel planning websites either require travelers to input departure dates, arrival dates and destination before getting results or force them to navigate menus to find the content they want. By starting with just a search box and some trending results, WayBlazer seeks to take the pain out of travel planning by creating a more fluid and tailored experience. So whether you type in "headed to L.A. for the weekend with a group of girls and looking for recommendations on things to do" or "trying to find the best places to entertain kids this afternoon in New York City," WayBlazer can help you with truly tailored recommendations -- not just a curated list of articles.

DMAI: Cognitive computing is making all of this possible. We now have an ability to access knowledge in ways that we've never seen before.

Laboy: Yes, we are at the beginning phases of cognitive computing where machines can learn like humans learn. What DMOs need to know about WayBlazer is that we are at the leading edge of the next wave of technology for the travel industry.

DMAI: What do you think this next wave will look like?

Laboy: Right now, research shows that travelers visit 20 or more sites when planning a trip. For DMOs specifically, most site traffic is from new versus returning visitors and the average time on site is 30 seconds. DMOs have great content but the time on site shows that users often are not  easily finding what they need. Imagine the possibilities as it relates to content, data and personalization. So, imagine cognitive computing solutions that enable DMOs to be known as the trusted advisor for their destinations, because they are producing the highest confidence leve resposes due to Watson's ability to manage both breadth and depth of information.

DMAI: The road to travel inspiration, however, is littered with hundreds of start ups. What part of WayBlazer's offering and business model will determine its long-term success?

Laboy: Really, it's our leadership, focus and industry support. Our co-founders and leadership team have a lot of experience in starting companies and successfully exiting. Terry Jones, Chairman, was founder of Travelocity and founding chairman of Kayak. Manoj Saxena was GM of IBM Watson after selling two successful technology companies. I was brought on as CEO, and previously was co-founder of E-site Marketing which was acquired by Sabre Holdings and then became President of Sabre Hospitality Solutions. We are focused on a specific challenge in the travel, and we have world-class investors of which one is IBM and we have the full support of IBM Watson sales team and IBM executives.

DMAI: Yes, we saw last month WayBlazer successfully raised $5 million in its Series A round of funding, so congratulations! What has been the company's focus up to this point, how do you see it changing moving forward?

Laboy: To date, WayBlazer has been focused on gaining customer adoption and validating the company’s innovative vision for personalized travel discovery solutions across major brands in hotels, cruises, travel publications and DMOs. Regarding our technology, the focus to this point has been to teach Watson and our cognitive computing about the travel domain. Our focus moving forward will be to continue to teach Watson and our cognitive computing engine more about travel as we build out our solutions with business customers with the eventual goal of developing B2C solutions, that is, solutions directly for consumers.

DMAI: Can you share any examples of how customers have been able to apply your technology and services to drive business?

Laboy: The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB) has a live WayBlazer Discovery Tool that helps visitors discover the best of Austin -- things to do, places to eat, places to stay. One of our travel media clients also launched a campaign recently to drive actual bookings on featured destinations that achieved an 18% click-through rate to the booking engine for an associated OTA partner. We are in beta deployments with a number of global brands in the hospitality space that again are focused on specific destinations that are most relevant to a consumer’s personal interests.

DMAI: It seems that the next big opportunity is to learn individual customer preferences for prescriptive marketing. Is Watson capable of reaching that level of personalization?​

Laboy: Yes, it is. While Watson is able to process huge amounts of fragmented, unstructured data points into insights and recommendations, it also learns like a human does and the more information it learns about you, the better the recommendations it offers.

DMAI: With Watson being one of WayBlazer's unique advantages, and IBM continuing to fund companies that build on Watson technology, do you have any immediate concerns about competitors at this point?

Laboy: There are sure to be competitors in the future, but we were the first travel company to work with IBM Watson, and we have been teaching Watson for almost a year, which we believe we have significant first-mover advantages.

DMAI: Switching gears to your role as CEO, given your career which took you across various sectors of the hospitality industry, what skills have you drawn on most in the few months you've been in the position?​

Laboy: The skills I have drawn so far in this new role are my understanding of travel customers and their needs and my ability to lead a team to relate our technology to everyday customer needs. I am most excited about the opportunity to be at the start of a revolution in technology that will help transform the travel industry. WayBlazer and our cognitive computing technology will be an important resource for DMOs as they work towards providing a better customer experience and in providing the most relevant content and recommendations for travelers to their destinations.