Travel technology with Alan Young

Transforming Travel Technology: An Insightful Conversation with Alan Young, Co-Founder of Puzzle Partner

Episode Overview

Episode Topic: In this episode of TravelPreneur, our beloved host Megha McSwain engages in a compelling conversation with Alan Young, co-founder of Puzzle Partner Ltd. and an expert in the hospitality industry. The episode delves into the dynamic world of travel technology, focusing on Puzzle Partner’s function, the impact of innovation, and the strategies that drive successful entrepreneurs in this evolving field.

Lessons You’ll Learn: Alan Young emphasizes the power of focus for travel entrepreneurs. Market research, understanding consumer needs, and staying adaptable are crucial components of success. He discusses the paradigm shift towards self-service and automation in hotels, shedding light on how the best travel-preneurs keep up with industry changes, prioritize guest experiences, and navigate challenges.

About Our Guest: Alan Young has over 40 years of experience in the hospitality and travel technology sector. He co-founded Puzzle Partner Ltd, a company that provides strategic guidance and content development for industry players. Alan’s wealth of knowledge makes him a sought-after consultant, mentor and thought leader in the field.

Topics Covered: The episode encompasses Puzzle Partner’s unique role as a strategic guide and content creator for the hospitality and travel technology sector. Alan Young emphasizes the importance of market awareness, effective content delivery, and the evolving landscape of the industry. Topics like generative AI, autonomous hotels, and guest-centricity take centre stage as Alan discusses the industry’s future.

Our Guest: Meet Alan Young, Co-Founder of Puzzle Partner Ltd. & expert in Travel Technology

Alan Young, a hospitality and travel technology guru, is the Co-Founder of Puzzle Partner Ltd., a leading consultancy renowned for its strategic insights and branded content solutions.

With an impressive 40-year journey in the industry, Alan is a respected thought leader, sought-after keynote speaker, and mentor. His unwavering dedication to business strategy, growth, transformation, and innovation has strengthened his reputation as a battle-tested consultant.

Alan’s passion for hospitality technology was ignited during his tenure on advisory boards, where he identified a need for marketing and sales guidance. This insight led to the creation of Puzzle Partner Ltd., offering unparalleled specialized services that encompass strategic guidance and content development. With an extensive background in the field, Alan has steered the company’s success through his focus on market research and innovation.

Alan’s experience has equipped him with a deep understanding of the challenges faced by entrepreneurs in the hospitality and travel industry. His vision for the future involves further diversification of Puzzle Partner’s services, bridging the gap between tech and guest-centric strategies. Alan’s contributions continue to shape the industry’s transformation, making him a pivotal figure in the evolution of hospitality and travel technology.

Episode Transcript

Megha McSwain: Welcome to TravelPreneur. This is Megha McSwain. Today we have the pleasure of speaking with Alan Young, hospitality industry expert and co-founder of Puzzle Partner Ltd and a sought-after keynote speaker on business strategy, growth, transformation, and innovation. Alan is also a respected thought leader, battle-tested consultant, and mentor. Hello, Alan. Thanks for joining us today.

Alan Young: Megha, how are you? Thanks for having me. Was that my bio? It sounded way too impressive.

Megha McSwain: Well, did I miss anything? That was a nice little bio there.

Alan Young: No. I think you got it. Well, I’m a father. I’m a father, too, which is kind of important, So.

Megha McSwain: That’s kind of important as well. Yes. Well, we’re so we’re so happy for you to join us on the TravelPreneur podcast and talking about Puzzle Partner today. So let’s talk about your interest and focus in the hospitality and travel technology sector and how it kind of sparked the establishment of Puzzle Partner.

Alan Young: Well, I’ve been in the hospitality space for about 40 years, I guess, give or take. Primarily working in the technology side of travel and hospitality. But I was sitting on a number of boards and advisory boards probably around ten years ago, and they were constantly asking me about, you know, marketing advice and stuff like that, sales advice. And so I was lucky enough to be introduced to my now partner. Her name is Ivana Johnston. And I was thinking, well, we should flip some of these advisory roles into actual clients. It was a meeting of the minds. However, it was a complete fluke. It was neither one of us who had said, let’s start a company. So that’s kind of how it all started. We just took some of these advisory board positions and moved them over to actual clients and it grew from there. So it’s been a ten-year ride already. It’s been a lot of fun.

Megha McSwain: Wow. So tell me, what are the specialized services that Puzzle Partner offers?

Alan Young: Well, I think essentially what we do is offer guidance at the end of the day, navigating your way through the world of hospitality and travel. If you’re somebody that’s coming into the industry with a great idea or a new product, or if you want a bridgehead into a market that you’ve never been there before, we kind of give that type of guidance. Then there are tangible things that we do, which is the delivery and the development and delivery of content, branded content. Branded content that’s associated directly with our clients. Products that are ghostwritten on our behalf. Et cetera. Et cetera. You know, everything from press releases all the way through content generation solutions. So it’s we’re at both a strategic and a tactical agency that focuses on this space.

Megha McSwain: And as far as other agencies kind of in this sector, how is Puzzle Partner sort of set apart from other agencies that might do a sort of similar thing or have been doing it for the last several years?

Alan Young: Well, I think it’s because we’ve been around for so bloody long. At the end of the day, between myself and my business partner, we’ve got about 60 years of experience and we’re lucky enough to have surrounded ourselves with writers that actually know all the acronyms and nomenclature and the idiosyncrasies of our industry. So what happens with an agency that’s not embedded within our market is their clients tend to spend a lot of time training them and getting them to understand their industry first and then be able to complement their business by writing proper content or etcetera. And, you know, we already bring that to the market. The other thing that’s a little different if you look at New York agencies and stuff like that, you know, a lot of our companies really want to be focused on the types of outlets that are primarily positioned at their type of buyer. It’s not going to be a tech crunch or a wired or that type of world just yet until they get large and famous. But it’s more of those medium-sized distribution platforms where they can be heard and then also contacted.

Megha McSwain: And where is Puzzle Partner based? It’s us-based, I’m sure.

Alan Young: No, no, we’re Canadian. We are Canadian through and through. Yeah, just north of Toronto.

Megha McSwain: Okay. Nice. I love Toronto. Um, that’s a good city. Right. And is, um. Are most of your clients like North American or are you global? How are your clients? Sort of. We’re.

Alan Young: We’re global. Um, funnily enough, we don’t. We very rarely have Canadian clients. We have one now. He’s kind of a hybrid client between Canada and the US. He’s based on the West Coast, but primarily our clients are in the US and overseas Europe, and we’ve had some clients based in APAC and the APAC region as well. So it the world’s gotten a lot smaller, especially when it comes to technology adoption. Um, and you know, our industry in general has gotten smaller. So no longer is it a requirement for an agency such as ours to be in somebody else’s backyard.

Megha McSwain: Right, right. Um, can you share maybe a success story of a client that you’ve had in the last ten years, Something that Puzzle Partner has really stepped up and helped somebody that maybe a story you can share with us or share with us.

Alan Young: Well, we did a count a few years ago, I think it was three years ago that we had since we started the company, we’ve supported about 60 clients. And this was three years ago, and I think it was 12 clients Out of those, 60 had successfully exited their companies. Um, a lot of the companies that we have helped in the past were startups. And so that was a pretty good number with us helping amplify their brand, their products, and their people. But one of them is probably the most prominent company in the property management system space and based out of, let’s see, Maryland, I believe a company called Stay in Touch, that we worked with your shop and his team for probably three years until such time as they were acquired at a fairly beneficial rate for him and his other people. So those are the types of stories that we like to hear when companies that we’ve been able to support have a great exit or conversely see their bottom line actually start to increase and sell more stuff effectively.

Megha McSwain: Sure. And you mentioned three years ago that was 2020 was your business. I mean, I’m sure the people that you work with are obviously affected. But was your business affected at that time?

Alan Young: Oh my God, yeah. Our business went from 20 clients down to three. Oh, wow. Um, so, yeah, everybody put the brakes on, right? Understandably, because it was. It was weird. And it still is weird, right? Um, but what it did was enable us to kind of change our outlook on the business and how we want to grow it. So pre-pandemic, it was nuts. We were busy. We had lots and lots of writers, lots of clients going full bore, but we didn’t have a lot of time for ourselves and we just focused on the business and growing it and the pandemic hit. And then obviously, you know, you do a lot of soul searching. I think a lot of people did. And so post the pandemic, when we started ratcheting up again, we actually capped it. We said that we’re only going to have a certain number of clients so we can not only deliver what we need to deliver and service them the way that they deserve to be serviced, but also on the back end, the company now works a four-day workweek. So which enables us to, you know, have a bit of a life. So which is a good thing.

Megha McSwain: That is a good thing. So that sort of allowed you to sort of restructure and look at things after. It’s nice that does that, doesn’t it sort of forces you to make changes?

Alan Young: Oh, completely. And, you know, thank God for the Canadian government, because they stepped up with they were incredibly generous by helping out small companies. Now, it wasn’t in, you know, in perpetuity. We had to give all the money back and it wasn’t for free. But they certainly stepped up and helped, which enabled us to keep some employees on, even though we didn’t have clients. That also enabled us to look at the strategy element of the company a little bit more, just give it a little bit more time. But you know, at the end of the day, we did make changes. Obviously, we don’t have the same number of FTEs that we had previously. But at the same time, I think we’ve helped ourselves and we’ve helped our clients that are currently on our roster by just being able to give them more, more face time and more strategic kind of discussion time.

Megha McSwain: Right? And that kind of restructuring sometimes is more beneficial in the long run.

Alan Young: Of course, you know, a lot of companies want to grow exponentially as quickly as humanly possible. And I probably would have said that would have been the goal 20 years ago. But at the same time, now, you know, I want to grow with a steady rate and bring in new ideas and different types of companies and things that excite me at the same time as excite the industry. So, you know, I don’t want another company that’s going to show me how they can unlock a door with a mobile device. I think we’ve got all that. But, you know, I want to I want companies that are going to, you know, bring something new to the industry. And if so, we’re all in.

Megha McSwain: Aside from the natural sort of halting caused by Covid and 2020, were there any other challenges and sort of the last decade of building Puzzle Partner that you had or that you can recall?

Alan Young: Challenges? Think there’s always challenges with starting a new company. You have to get incorporated and get lawyers and accountants and all the things that you always left to another company to deal with because you were employed by them. Right. Um, but I think the most challenging thing and it’s going to sound weird, was understanding how important travel is to the business. And I used to travel all the time, um, pre-starting Puzzle Partner and it was a joy and also a pain, right? You got to go to amazing places, but you stayed there for 2 or 3 days. But it was part of the job. But now travel is, is more important. It’s more of a connection tool. And that that to me was something you had to really wrap your mind around. It wasn’t just let’s get a ticket and go fly and see somebody. There had to be a reason. There had to be a way to do it properly. And so travel became more important and making sure you could emphasize how important that travel is by picking where you go and how you expose the company and yourself and the people around you properly versus, you know, running around the planet trying to sell a system which in itself is can be great and also kind of strange. So that was a really interesting thing. And, and having a business partner, um, is not something that I’ve had before, but that’s something that has been great since we started the company. She has her strengths and I have mine, so it works out really, really well.

Megha McSwain: How do you see Puzzle Partner as contributing to the transformative change in the hospitality industry? I mean, you see in the last few years alone how much things have changed and how there’s a new normal. So how does Puzzle Partner sort of fit into that future? Well.

Alan Young: Yeah, I think from our perspective, you know, there’s going to how do we fit in, I guess because we understand what’s going on and because we’re constantly educating ourselves and our clients about the requirements are. And it’s not just the technology that’s being adopted by hotel companies, but it’s also how do these B2B companies effectively brand themselves and make sure that they get the proper visibility that they deserve and what mediums can they use? So that has changed a great deal since Covid, right? The usability of platforms such as LinkedIn for B2B marketing and B2B sales has increased immensely. So we see that as an incredible channel for our clients to use versus 3 or 4 years ago where we would say throw everything up on a publications channel somewhere and see if you can get visibility that way. Um, so that’s one thing. And I think also as it let people spend a lot of time understanding what’s going on in the market so people became better educated. Its marketing hype only gets you so far anymore. You’ve got to actually have the goods. And I think that’s changed a lot. Um, when it comes to technology, my huge focus these days too is, is on sustainability and not sustainability related to the environmental aspect of everything that we see happening around us, but we sustainability related to equity, inclusion, those kind of things. I’m lucky enough to teach at the local college and I teach on sustainable tourism and sustainable hotel ops and those kind of things. But but I see that as something our industry has yet to fully embrace. So we still have a long way to go there.

Megha McSwain: What are some of your recent observations, especially being an educator on some of the most significant advancements in the hospitality and travel technology industry?

Alan Young: Yeah. So I guess the question would be what are those advancements?

Megha McSwain: Yeah. Something maybe that you’ve seen or you see that is on the horizon.

Alan Young: Well, on the horizon is the implementation of any kind of generative AI. Hotel companies will be able to use this to revamp websites, keep content up to date and pertinent and you know, they don’t have to rely on a whole bunch of people writing this stuff. You still need people to moderate it and make sure you’re not sending out anything goofy. But I think generative AI will have a huge impact not only on our industry but many other industries. I still think we’re just scratching the surface every time I hear of an expert in this. Oh my God. I don’t know how anybody can be an expert in something that’s not really a year old. At least the adoption. The adoption curve is not nearly a year old. So I think that’ll have something. I also think, um, I also think there’ll be more of a push on autonomous hotel properties moving forward where, you know, during the pandemic, I think during the pandemic, you had a lot of people that got used to kind of self-service. Sure. Um, but I also believe that there’s an element of self-service where you can do self-service on steroids, where business travelers and others will just go ahead and say, this is all we need in order to manage our day-to-day.

Alan Young: Just give me a room that’s clean and I can handle all the rest. And so I do believe that you’ll see the advancements of some of those types of hotels move up in the near future. It’s already happening in Europe with a number of locations, but it hasn’t quite been adopted in the Americas just yet. But, you know, if you look at the hotels that are running 30, 40% in urban downtown core, is the retrofitting out of being fully autonomous? Not only does it make a lot of sense financially, but the boost in profitability is amazing. So if you can set the guest expectations effectively, say this is what you’re going to get and don’t snow them and tell them that what it is. I think there’ll be lots of people that would be quite happy to go into an environment such as that.

Megha McSwain: Right. I think the world has definitely been moving in that direction in so many different avenues where people are just more self-sufficient and happy to be.

Alan Young: So yeah, could you know, we talked about it 20 years ago. 30 years ago, we were developing something called the Open Travel Alliance schema. So the OTA schema, which was XML transmission of messages between airlines, CRS with hotel companies, car rental companies, etcetera. And we had this vision of everything being automated from how somebody would wake up in the morning till they got on their flight, till they hit their hotel. And, you know, pretty it pretty much was nothing but technological intervention all the way from start to finish. And it’s only now 30 years later that we’re getting to a point where we can probably really pull that off.

Megha McSwain: Right. What a world, isn’t it?

Alan Young: It is. It’s interesting. It’s a lot of fun.

Megha McSwain: As an educator and just someone who’s so ingrained in this. What are some of the key strategies that you often advise maybe entrepreneurs who are interested in getting into the travel industry, particularly those who are fostering growth and transformation?

Alan Young: A focus. That would be it in a nutshell. Um, you have to have your people laser focused. Your executive group laser focused and your investors are laser-focused on what the goal is. I find that because of cash flow and the challenges that companies have starting up or even, you know, regenerating into something next. Um, sometimes cash flow becomes paramount and top of mind. So they may go ahead and take on a deal that isn’t necessarily part of their core focus and that will be incredibly destructive. So I learned many years ago and it’s not me, it’s from other people. Uh, pre-me that gave me this advice, which is, you know, you need to really focus on what you’re going to deliver and make sure that you deliver the best of whatever it is you have to do. So, um, our industry 20 years ago and possibly even now at times. Um, a lot of the technology providers tend to overemphasize the capabilities of a platform and it doesn’t necessarily do what it should be doing. And as such, you know, you can only kind of mess somebody over once. It doesn’t happen very often. You only do it once and you’re not likely going to do it again. Um, but think, think if you focus on the core elements of the product and how you’re going to do it and target the right market. Et cetera. Et cetera. Then a company will be successful with the right branding and the right strategy. But at the same time, you know, it got to be careful because if you mess people around, it’s our industry is really small. It’s weird.

Megha McSwain: Right? No, you’re right about that.

Alan Young: Yeah. For as massive as it is. Right. It’s pretty tiny. A lot of people talk, so. Right. But yeah, focus, focus would be.

Megha McSwain: And that’s great advice for any entrepreneur sort of starting in any industry to sort of keep your eyes on the prize there. What do you think sets apart successful travel-preneurs from the rest?

Alan Young: Um. Well, I think a lot of them have done a substantial amount of market due diligence on their products. Right. I think a lot of people build up a software company or whatever they want to deliver into our market and think it’s a great idea, but they don’t necessarily ask everybody about whether it makes sense. Um, and startups don’t necessarily spend a lot of time really understanding market research and figuring all that kind of stuff out because it’s usually all about a product or a service or a delivery mechanism, those kind of things. Um, you know, as there’s a great company called Savioke, we’ve never worked for them, so there’s no plug. Um, but they did robots in hotels. I think they still do. Robots in hotels, right? Room service robots. They’ll deliver a paper and that kind of stuff. Interesting. But it’s only certain types of hotels that can do this, right? They can’t be all, you know, a Hilton Garden Inn or a Hampton or something that’s fairly linear and its hallways and, you know, sure, they can map everything out, but it’s probably seamless to say, okay, we’ve mapped out all the Hilton’s gardens in North America. Here’s the robot that knows them. All right. Rather than trying to figure out different market segments and I think they expected it to be widely adopted when they launched it probably ten years ago, eight years ago maybe.

Alan Young: But obviously, it hasn’t really taken off because you don’t see them everywhere, but they are being adopted but at a much slower pace than they expected. So think market research is is to me one of the most important things to do. And it’s not just market research on Thames. It’s market research on asking the consumer, does this make sense? Is this something that they’re going to purchase? Right or Yeah, it’s funny, I, we’ve been talking about attribute-based selling for quite some time in our industry right? About being able to strip apart a room and say sell the balcony and sell the fireplace and sell all this kind of stuff within the booking path and do it differently. But the question is, does the consumer really want that or is it just a way for a hotel to make more money? Right. So, you know, you got to do some deep searching to make sure that whatever you’re going to thrust upon the industry is actually going to work and that people want it.

Megha McSwain: So, Alan, you sound like you’re definitely very so knowledgeable about all of this and just really keeping your ear to the street. Is there a book or a podcast or any kind of resource that that has influenced your approach to business and innovation? Something that you can keep up with that keeps you sort of inspired and always thinking?

Alan Young: Um, my business partner is probably primary because she’s always got great ideas. Um, are there podcasts that I listen to? Yeah, but there are probably more along the historical line of our world. But what I do keep on top of is what, you know, what the mid-tier technologists are doing in our space. Um, I look at a myriad of different publications online and offline publications and, but you know, we can always listen to the people that run Expedia and the people that run Okay, I get that. But it’s the next tier down the technology integrators, the people that are really trying to figure out all the nitty gritty in our industry that I find most interesting to listen to. So those are, you know, if I see the CEO of a mid-tier company that is trying to fix something that’s wrong, I’m all over that. I think that’s where we learn and some of the best hospitality books that I’ve written are the ones that are really, really focused on the guest, you know, the guest psyche, the guest, you know what they want and how we deliver it to them. I was lucky enough to work for four seasons during my early, early career and instilled in me a lot of that whole centricity on the guest. And it still lives true. I believe if people don’t want it, they’ll like an autonomous hotel that works too. So. Right. But yeah, no, there are certain podcasts. I listen to Glenn Haussman’s all the time. He’s fun and interesting. Um, you know, there are more and more, which I think is great. It covers, you know, it’s like a blanket. It covers more topics, which I think is important. I love what you’re doing because the entrepreneurial aspect of our business is. Is sometimes only talked about during pitch sessions at large events and not talked about on a daily basis, which I think is really important.

Megha McSwain: Yeah, it’s nice for us because we get to really dig deep with people like you and companies that are doing really cool things and just kind of find out what was your story, what was your journey, what were the challenges kind of inspire more of that to happen in the future?

Alan Young: Yeah. And it’s it’s the benefit of looking backwards times, right? Right. A little long in the tooth. So I can see all the mistakes I made a while ago and try not to make them again doesn’t mean I won’t make many in the future. But but like I said, I’ve been lucky enough to be in this industry for quite some time and don’t expect to leave it any time soon.

Megha McSwain: So, Well, that brings me to what does the future hold for Puzzle Partner? What can you share? What is what’s on the horizon?

Alan Young: We’re looking at diversifying a little bit. We’re looking at getting into different aspects of what you guys are doing with the podcast, but not necessarily being the people up front and not necessarily being the production people either. So I’ll leave that to your mind to click over. Um, but, but we do see two components. Obviously, we pontificate Ad Nauseam about how important the guests are to hoteliers. Um, at the same time, that’s a relationship build scenario. And I think video-based podcasts are also enabling that to occur. And so if you can help B2B companies increase their brand awareness, increase the visibility of their people, and ultimately without pitching something, enable people to understand what you do for a living product wise or whatever else wise, then that’s a great medium to utilize. So even though that’s not something that we will do on the ground, so to speak, we do see that as an element of what we’re going to offer in the future. Not, like I said, not the actual recording of podcasts like you are, but kind of being a little bit more in the background. So yeah, Well, but we also look at, you know, we’re looking at growing again, which is nice, but we’re looking at growing like this. We’re going to have a branded content arm and then another arm of the company, which can’t necessarily say just yet, but that’ll be on the horizon probably by the end of the year.

Megha McSwain: Well, yeah, we’ll have to have you back on the show and get an update. Well, Alan, thank you so much. This was all so helpful and just really nice to kind of learn a little bit more about you, learn more about puzzle partner. But if people want to keep up with the company and keep up with you, stay in touch. How can they find you? Is there a website you can share?

Alan Young: Just puzzle We couldn’t because there were too many too many people building puzzles. Um, but puzzle partner is our website and my we have a Canadian domain as well so puzzle partner.

Megha McSwain: Okay, wonderful. Well thank you so much Alan, and we look forward to speaking with you again on the TravelPreneur Podcast any time.

Alan Young: Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

Megha McSwain: Thank you. Sure. Cheers.