Travel Shopping Technology with Phillip Ballard

The Latest In Travel Shopping Technology, with Phillip Ballard of HotelPlanner

Episode Overview

Episode Topic:
In this episode of TravelPreneur, we engage in a compelling conversation with Phillip Ballard, Chief Communications Officer and Head of Investor Relations for HotelPlanner. The central theme revolves around the revolutionary impact of AI and machine learning in the travel industry, exploring how HotelPlanner leverages these technologies to offer personalized and frictionless booking experiences. From closed user group discount rates to navigating challenges in the travel business, the episode delves into the strategies and innovations that set HotelPlanner apart.

Lessons You’ll Learn:
Listeners can anticipate a wealth of insights from Phillip Ballard’s experiences in the travel technology industry. From the importance of embracing innovation and adapting to changing consumer preferences to the value of building robust networks and strategic partnerships, aspiring professionals and entrepreneurs will glean valuable lessons. The episode emphasizes the significance of staying attuned to industry trends, fostering a high-tech, high-touch approach, and the power of failing fast to drive innovation.

About Our Guest:
Phillip Ballard, the esteemed guest on this episode, brings a wealth of knowledge as the Chief Communications Officer and Head of Investor Relations for HotelPlanner. With a background as a former naval officer, Ballard’s unique perspective and experiences in the industry contribute to the dynamic growth and evolution of HotelPlanner. His insights into the role of AI and machine learning, strategic partnerships, and navigating challenges provide a valuable resource for those eager to make a mark in the travel technology landscape.

Topics Covered:
The episode covers a diverse array of topics, starting with HotelPlanner’s cutting-edge AI and machine learning capabilities and their role in providing personalized booking experiences. It explores the concept of closed user group discount rates, emphasizing HotelPlanner’s commitment to tailored travel solutions. The discussion extends to the challenges faced by the travel industry and how HotelPlanner navigates these challenges, staying agile and innovative. Furthermore, the conversation delves into the vision for the future, envisioning HotelPlanner’s role in shaping frictionless travel experiences through emerging technologies like Generative AI. Aspiring professionals will find valuable career advice and insights into the industry’s future landscape.

Our Guest: An ‘AI Visionary’, From Naval Officer to Tech Trailblazer.

Phillip Ballard, the esteemed guest on this episode of Travel-Preneur, brings a rich tapestry of experiences and expertise as the Chief Communications Officer and Head of Investor Relations for HotelPlanner. Drawing from a diverse career background, including serving as a former naval officer, Ballard has played a pivotal role in driving HotelPlanner’s dynamic growth and evolution over the past years. His unique perspective, shaped by experiences in the military and beyond, contributes to the innovative strategies implemented by HotelPlanner in the ever-changing landscape of travel technology.

With a profound understanding of the travel industry, Ballard has been instrumental in positioning HotelPlanner as a trailblazer, especially in the realm of AI and machine learning. As the company embraces advanced technologies to provide personalized and frictionless booking experiences, Ballard’s leadership underscores the commitment to staying ahead of the technology curve. His insights into the integration of Generative AI tools and the launch of HotelPlanner’s loyalty program, the Hotel Buyers Club, showcase a forward-thinking approach that combines industry trends with customer-centric solutions.

Beyond the technological realm, Ballard’s naval background shines through as he navigates the challenges faced by HotelPlanner in the ever-evolving travel landscape. His emphasis on a high-tech, high-touch approach during the pandemic, deploying a gig economy-based remote agent sales platform, exemplifies the agility and resilience required to adapt to unforeseen disruptions. As a respected figure in the industry, Phillip Ballard not only contributes to HotelPlanner’s success but also provides valuable career advice and industry insights for aspiring professionals looking to make their mark in the dynamic world of travel technology.

Episode Transcript

Phillip Ballard: Basically, a Travel Avatar that would be blockchain-enabled and AI-powered that you would upload to any travel tourism hospitality site that would provide whatever information about your travel needs and preferences and travel history that you want. Maybe they just upload that they like the aisle seat and they want the vegetarian meal, the temperature that they want their hotel room at, endless amount of little unique customer, traveler needs. Think of it like a digital ID. For example, let’s say your flight is delayed and now you’re checking into the hotel at midnight, not 8 p.m. Wouldn’t it be great if the hotel already knew that we’re going to leave him his favorite meal from room service on his bed? Upon his arrival? Because they already knew. So that’s the kind of bespoke, customized service that I think our industry is moving towards.

Megha McSwain: Welcome to Travel-Preneur, the weekly business show for the travel industry. I’m your host, Houston-based travel journalist Mega McSwain. Each episode will be exploring what it takes to thrive as a business owner in the travel industry. From conversations with leading travel business executives and industry-focused venture capitalists to exploring the innovations that are shaping the next generation of travel business, if it impacts the travel industry, we cover it here on Travel-Preneur. Hello, fellow travel enthusiasts. Welcome back to another episode of Travel-Preneur. I’m your host, Megha McSwain. Today we are joined with Phillip Ballard, the Dynamic Chief Communications Officer and Head of Investor Relations for HotelPlanner. Welcome, Phillip. Thanks for joining us.

Phillip Ballard: Thanks so much for having me. Megha. It’s an honor.

Megha McSwain: So Phillip, HotelPlanner is renowned for its AI and machine learning capabilities that seamlessly cater to travelers’ hotel needs. How does the company leverage these advanced technologies to provide personalized and frictionless booking experiences for individuals, groups, and corporate clients?

Phillip Ballard: Sure. I’ll answer that as a second question. If you don’t mind, I’d love to spend just one minute highlighting that we just hosted our American Group Travel Awards on Sunday at the Boca Raton Resort, and this is our annual charity gala. And just a little humble brag here, this was probably our best event in 20 years. We were also celebrating our 20th anniversary. It happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. So we gave our Big World Hospitality Award to a rapper, Flavor Flav, who was just terrific on stage.

Megha McSwain: Oh! Wow. That sounds like a lot of fun.

Phillip Ballard: And, Cuba Gooding Jr, the actor, introduced him. We had Grandmaster Flash DJing. We had Rob Base performing. Cuba Gooding Jr broke out in breakdancing. It Went viral. So it was amazing. We had other celebrities there. Paul Oakenfold, record producer; cruiserweight boxing champion, Lawrence Okolie, who’s one of HotelPlanner’s brand ambassadors, and a lot of other media stars. So it was terrific. We raised a lot of money for Saint Jude’s, so I just wanted to share that.

Megha McSwain: Wow. That’s amazing. Now, thank you for sharing that. We love hearing stuff like that. That’s great.

Phillip Ballard: In terms of AI, we have always used AI since our founding. We are an AI-powered platform, and so we’ve always used machine learning to get smarter and smarter over the years. And we’re always trying to stay ahead of the technology curve. When ChatGPT and Generative AI came about last year, we quickly moved on it. And what we decided to do was combine two of the industry’s most powerful trends right now, which are loyalty and AI. So about a year ago, we launched our first loyalty program. It’s called the Hotel Buyers Club. And you can go to Hotel Buyers Club and check it out. It’s wholesale rates. No rules, no points, no gimmicks, no cash, just immediate savings. Wholesale rates on 1.4 million hotels. And it’s ChatGPT enabled. Meaning we’ve integrated the ChatGPT search tool into the hotel buyers club experience for search so that you could ask any question under the sun. We think that that’s been powerful and we’re constantly looking for the next iteration. So I mean, I’ve spoken three times this year at different conferences about AI and how it’s going to revolutionize the travel industry so we can get into that. But yeah, HotelPlanner is definitely an AI firm, and we’re leading with that. We’ve also made three brand acquisitions in just the past three months. So I have to share that briefly. We’ve acquired Lucid Travel, which is a sports booking platform. We’ve acquired Event Squid, which is a world-renowned leading event tech registration platform. And we just last week acquired Clevertize. Clevertize is a French-based trade show multimedia platform, so they serve as the official media provider for about 21 trade shows around the world, across all industries. So HotelPlanner’s really evolving from a hotel booking site to and group travel experts. That’s our heritage too. I think in the next 3 to 5 years, we’re going to be event tech and one-stop shop for the hotel booking, the registration, the venue selection or meeting selection, and then also the promotion and the media that you need to attend trade shows. So HotelPlanners are rapidly evolving.

Megha McSwain: How does HotelPlanner’s closed user group discount rates approach cater to diverse clients, and how does it reflect the company’s commitment to tailored travel solutions?

Phillip Ballard: Yeah, so just to level set what we mean by closed user group. This is an industry term. It just means a private closed operating environment. So for example, if we have a microsite or we have our loyalty program, you have to log into it or you provide us your email address or if you call our remote agent platform and you speak to one of our remote sales agents, then it becomes a private closed sales environment and we can offer those closed user group rates. And that really is what HotelPlanner is known for. That’s where we make a lot of our money. The real differentiator for us among many, is just the dynamic pricing that we can offer through those private closed sales environments. For example, during the pandemic, we had a lot of friends and family get laid off and people needed things to work. But we also had this massive influx of customer calls, can I go to this city? Do I have to wear a mask? just all these COVID-related questions? And we realized quickly, we can’t outsource this to a chatbot or AI. We need a human touch. It’s high-tech, high-touch. So it’s within our brand. So we started employing friends and family to take inbound sales calls. And this platform has now grown. We’ve onboarded 7000 or 8000 or so remote agents. We have about 1000 that are active every week taking calls. Their conversion rate is 20% to 25% versus, if you’re just shopping on an e-commerce site, maybe it’s a 2% to 3% chance that site will get the business. So it’s been really revolutionary for us, and we’ve tripled our revenues in the past three years, partly as a result of this Covid. And I think the only real OTA that does have this gig economy-based remote agent sales platform, we still have our traditional legacy customer service call centers overseas to handle refunds and things like that. But the inbound sales call center that’s gig-based has been really powerful. We don’t tell them when to work. They work their own hours. Some of them are seasonal, or it’s just on the weekends or just in the mornings, or maybe it’s just for two hours when their kid is napping. It’s been really great and we’ve been able to spread the love and spread that revenue across all 50 states or 49 states.

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Phillip Ballard: I think the entire C-suite stays on top of the trends, our co-founders, Tim Hentschel and John Prince, and our CEO Bruce Rosenberg, and our other executives across the globe. We’re constantly looking at trends. We’re attending conferences or speaking on stage at conferences almost weekly, it seems we really do have our pulse on what’s going on in the industry. Not that we’re the only experts in town, but we learn just as much from our fellow panelists and from networking and going to these trade shows and learning who’s out there and who’s in the lead and which companies maybe didn’t survive, which companies are thriving and why. And, maybe we want to partner with them. Maybe we don’t. We’re always keeping an eye on the on technology curve, on the innovation curve, emerging competitors, on our existing competitors.

Megha McSwain: You have your finger on the pulse. For sure.

Phillip Ballard: We do. And I would also liken us I’m a former naval officer. So I use a lot of nautical metaphors. So I liken HotelPlanner to a fast Corvette or a cruiser that can move real fast and more nimble and agile and flexible, as opposed to a large aircraft carrier where if they needed to pivot and turn, it would take a lot more time.

Megha McSwain: That’s a really good analogy. So what strategic partnerships does HotelPlanner pursue to enhance digital capabilities?

Phillip Ballard: Yeah, let me answer it this way. There are three ways we make money our group travels core legacy expertise. And this is rough math. That’s about a third of our business. About a third is our direct just booking on all of our different platform sites. And then the other third to answer your question is we’ve got thousands of affiliate partnerships. So this is really another thing that makes us unique for a revenue share. Typically we partner with pro sports teams, youth sports leagues, USA teams like USA judo or USA karate. Organizations, government agencies. Any large corporation that travels. We want to be their official or preferred hotel provider. And then we do a rev share. So we partner with a lot of sports. We are one of the leading hotel providers for the wedding booking sites Weddingwire and Knot and Zola and a few others overseas. So that’s a core industry vertical for us weddings, any group of travel, we do serve and support, but weddings are big for us and sports.

Megha McSwain: Weddings are huge, especially. I mean, do you feel like they have come back? I mean, in your opinion, do you think that it’s kind of the same now as it was before the pandemic as far as destination weddings?

Phillip Ballard: Wedding demand, I would say wedding demand is probably the highest. Well, 2022, there was obviously all that pent-up demand for weddings because couldn’t make it official for two years. So no doubt there are destinations that are booked for several years in advance, and I’m sure there are couples that have had to change their destinations, plans because they just couldn’t either afford a certain place or they didn’t want to wait two years to go to Hawaii or whatever. So, weddings are very strong. That’s one of the big bright green shoots in our industry.

Megha McSwain: Sure. And I know you mentioned some of it. You guys clearly have a lot going on with the acquisitions and everything. But what is your vision for the future of HotelPlanner and its role in transforming, specifically the technology part of the travel industry?

Phillip Ballard: This is going to be a collective effort. There’ll be companies like ours and many others that have all sorts of innovations, and who knows what this will look like in five, ten years from now. But what the industry is moving towards collectively is a term that they’re calling frictionless travel. And what they mean by this is a seamless, turnkey, stress-free experience from travel inspiration. When you’re on TikTok or you’re on Instagram or you just decide why you want to go to Fiji and then researching your trip to Fiji. Maybe you’re now using Generative AI tools to come up with a travel itinerary or suggested activities. One of my ideas that I’ll share, and I don’t know who would come up with this and how it might work, but basically be a travel avatar that would be blockchain-enabled and AI-powered that you would upload to any travel tourism hospitality site that would provide whatever information about your travel needs and preferences and travel history that you want. So for someone a little skittish, maybe they just upload that they like the aisle seat and they want the vegetarian meal. For others, it might have benefactor, information and the temperature that they want their hotel room in at, and the scent and endless amount of little unique customer traveler needs because you travel differently than I do and we all have different specifics. I don’t know how this would work, but that’s an idea that you would have some sort of, think of it like a digital ID, and you can take it with you wherever you go. And maybe some companies will accept it and others won’t. But that’s one idea I’ve had that I’ve been sharing on stage the past year.

Phillip Ballard: The notion there is that across your entire travel journey, from end to end, from inspiration to post, stay every spoke activation along that travel journey. Ideally, they would be notified of your status. So for example, let’s say your flight is delayed and now you’re checking into the hotel at midnight, not 8 p.m. Well, wouldn’t it be great if the hotel already knew that?  Because notification is in real-time. Okay, so we’re going to turn his bed down. We’re going to leave him his favorite meal from room service on his bed on upon his arrival. Because they already knew. So that’s the kind of bespoke, personalized, customized service that I think our industry is moving towards. I think it’s going to take another 5 to 10 years. Another example might be okay, well, Facebook sees that I’m in Miami or going to Miami. They can reach out to my other Miami friends on my Facebook network and offer them specific deals, or maybe a restaurant deal. Or “hey, as a reminder, your friends on Facebook also live in this city. Here’s a discount to a hotel or discount to an event. You’d have to opt into that.” That’s where this is going.

Megha McSwain: And it just seems like it takes a lot of the effort out the stress that comes with traveling. I mean, I hate to say thinking for yourself, it’s almost like someone doing that for you for some of these things that you don’t want to be bothered with. I think it’s a great place to get to. But yeah, I could imagine it would take time that we’re not quite there yet.

Phillip Ballard: There’s a lot of regulatory confusion. There aren’t really any regulations yet, so there’s just a lot of discussions on Capitol Hill and think tanks about what to do. There will be regulations coming. We’ll have to see what that looks like. But I think the genie is out of the bottle. Generative AI is here to stay. I think it is going to permanently change the way we travel and do business with travelers. It’s very exciting, very exciting.

Megha McSwain: As a respected figure in the travel technology industry, what advice would you offer to aspiring professionals and entrepreneurs? I mean, you guys are clearly moving fast, but like someone who’s just wanting to get into this space where it’s hard to get into unless you can really keep up.

Phillip Ballard: Yeah, I mean, I gosh, I could do a whole podcast on this. I mean, I have plenty of career advice. So for my career with the ups and downs and, fail fast, learn from your mistakes quickly and rebound quickly is probably my best piece of personal career advice because we all make mistakes. And the faster you make them and the quicker you learn that lesson earlier in your career, the better. But failing fast also goes towards innovation. So if you have an idea and you’re a 22-year-old entrepreneur and you want to start a new thing, well, you’re going to have to do a competitive analysis. This thing already work. You’re going to have to look at financing. You’re going to have to really be patient because it takes a good at least two years to become profitable, typically. Do you want to bootstrap and not take any venture capital or PE funds, or do you want to do that? And there’s pros and cons to those approaches. Another piece of advice is you have to know the industry. So before I would ever launch a hospitality or travel tech-related product, I’d probably be spending a year going to all the top travel conferences around the world, travel tech, really learning and knowing the space. And I mean, that’s essential. And then networking, I mean, you have to build and grow your network. People come and go from this industry. But we’ve been around for 20 years, HotelPlanner, and we’ve made relationships with hotels and the companies and partners that support us, that we work with over a 20-year period. Now, you can’t replicate that overnight. So start now. If you’re young, start building your relationship capital now, and it might not be the person you meet at the conference. It might be their brother or their second or third contact.

Megha McSwain: You never know where you’ll make those connections.

Phillip Ballard: So it’s a quote, Flavor Flav from our award show last week. You put out the love and the love Comes Back. Simple but profound words from Flav.

Megha McSwain: Definitely. I mean, yeah, who knew? Thank you so much, Phillip. This has been really insightful and really exciting. Everything that you guys are doing, and we would love to circle back with you in the future because it sounds like you guys are moving fast and a lot is happening in your space, so let our listeners know where they can learn more about Hotelplanner and where they can reach you.

Phillip Ballard: and all of our social is at HotelPlanner. You can follow our CEO at You can find me, Phillip C Ballard on LinkedIn. All my contact information is there.

Megha McSwain: Excellent. Well, thank you so much to our listeners. Please follow and subscribe for future episodes and leave us reviews. Thank you so much, Phillip. Take care. Thanks so much.

Phillip Ballard: It was a pleasure.

Megha McSwain: You’ve been listening to Travel-Preneur by make sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast listening platform so you never miss a new episode, and we’ll see you again soon on Travel-Preneur.