We talked to Iñigo Valenzuela, founder of Smartvel, about the use of AI in travel information, and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Iñigo Valenzuela: We are good, thanks a lot for asking. Unfortunately, there are always acquittances around that have suffered a lot this disaster, personal and economically. It is very sad in many cases.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Smartvel.
Iñigo Valenzuela: I’ve worked 15 years in c-level positions within the travel industry, mainly in the b2b area, and seven years ago, I thought it was the best option for me to start my own business. I’ve had the right moment in life; that is why I started.
How does Smartvel innovate?
Iñigo Valenzuela: We are constantly pushing boundaries around how we do things; we are very honored to work with some of the most important companies worldwide in travel, and being close to them, listening about their needs, and being a real partner has been a great way to find new ideas and opportunities. Technically speaking, we’ve been working with kanban and move to scrum. Really, we prefer scrum, but sometimes the speed has to be even faster than that, and we have to decide fast.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Iñigo Valenzuela: We have always been very prudent in how we handle our business. I’ve always thought that the first obligation of a CEO is to guarantee the company’s future, so before covid, we had a runaway of 18 months with no extra income than our incumbent customers. Of course, covid changed everything, we reduced our costs dramatically and also our income. But we’ve been very open with a target of a company survival that all the employees wanted and shared.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Iñigo Valenzuela: We are a small company, 29 employees, from the very beginning we’ve decided that this was going to affect everyone at the same level, and that worked very well. It has also been key to share the information, something that we’ve always done, but in this case, even with more transparency. We also have been able to recover faster than expected, and the first thing we’ve done has been to recover salaries. Lessons learned, transparency, move fast, and cash is the king.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Iñigo Valenzuela: We have tier1 customers with top airlines as our main reference. In the beginning, we reduced our fees directly to them, without being asked for. We also informed them about our cost reductions and our strategy to survive. That also worked very well. We told them, “we know we are not a relevant vendor for you in terms of costs, but we want to be where we have to be in those difficult times, and that is why we reduce our costs directly, without asking about anything” it was tough to reduce the income, but finally it worked very well.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Iñigo Valenzuela: Yes, we could get some new debt from the government and renegotiate part of our actual debt. That has been very important.
Your final thoughts?
Iñigo Valenzuela: We created a new solution for covid; from the very beginning, we knew there were going to be opportunities. We’ve just did not know what was there for us. What we’ve done was to retrain our AI content system to read entry restrictions official sources instead of our former content, with that and a lot of work, hiring new people, etc. For us, it has been a roller coaster, finally getting customers like delta, united, etc., and entering into a new category.
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