Business Monday

Travel search engine Skyscanner eyes U.S. market after Miami office opens

Max Lorber takes a phone call in one of the meeting rooms in the Skyscanner office in Brickell. Skyscanner, a cheap-flights website and application, opened its Miami office in the summer of 2013. The Edinburgh-based company now has 50 million unique monthly users nationwide.
Max Lorber takes a phone call in one of the meeting rooms in the Skyscanner office in Brickell. Skyscanner, a cheap-flights website and application, opened its Miami office in the summer of 2013. The Edinburgh-based company now has 50 million unique monthly users nationwide. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

For avid traveler Michal Twardowski, meeting a daunting goal of visiting every country on Earth gets more attainable with every cheap flight he finds on travel search engine Skyscanner.

The Edinburgh-based company, with an Americas office in Miami, aggregates flights from airlines worldwide and shows the bottom-line price, including taxes, for the most affordable flight available.

It’s how Twardowski, who works at the corporate office of fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger in southern California, has been able to fly to Canada, Thailand, Germany, Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands.

“I’m only able to fly because of them, because I find such cheap flights,” Twardowski said.

Twardowski, 27, said he searches Skyscanner every day — both online and on its mobile app — looking for affordable flights, and if he finds one, he’ll go.

“Everyone has the excuse that traveling is expensive, but once I show them Skyscanner and I show them how cheap it can be, they are all converted,” Twardowski said.

In a field of heavily marketed brands such as Expedia and Kayak, Skyscanner sets itself apart with its 1,200 travel partnerships around the globe — including both major airlines and low-cost carriers — and a unique algorithm that finds creative cost-saving flight combinations. The site draws 50 million unique users a month with a primary focus on finding the cheapest flights. It redirects users to the supplying airline’s page for booking, making a small commission from each referral.

Our ambition is to become the personal travel assistant.

Shane Corstorphine, chief financial officer for Skyscanner

Started in the rolling hills of Scotland in 2001, Skyscanner has a major presence in Europe and now Asia, primarily through a partnership with Yahoo! Japan and offices in Singapore and China, in Beijing and Shenzhen. Now, the bargain-flight company is stretching its reach to the Americas, too, from its regional headquarters in Miami.

But the Americas, and particularly the North American market, is a new challenge for Skyscanner, which is used to working in the more fragmented European market, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research in San Francisco.

“The Skyscanner story is really what happens beyond the U.S. borders,” Harteveldt said.

Skyscanner has to contend with travel search engines that have been established in the U.S. market for at least a decade.

In the U.S., Expedia set the model for travel search engines when it launched in 1996 and was quickly followed by Travelocity later that year. Five major airlines responded with their version, Orbitz, in 1999. (Expedia eventually bought both Orbitz and Travelocity.)

In 1999, FareChase laid the groundwork for a new kind of travel site that aggregated fares from booking sites. That’s the model that inspired Kayak, now the leader in the U.S. market, and Skyscanner in the UK. A host of other sites have cropped up in the last decade with slightly different versions of aggregated search.

Kayak, by some accounts, gets more than 80 percent of flight searches in the U.S., leaving Skyscanner and others competing for the remaining 20 percent, Harteveldt said.

“That’s why Skyscanner has been focusing so much of its efforts outside the U.S. where … they have a better chance to compete for consumers and win,” he said.

Entering the U.S. market

As Skyscanner enters the North American arena, its strategy will focus on what it does well: international travel and a wide range of partnerships.

“Travel is inherently global and relatively infrequent. We don’t believe that users will opt for a range of travel search apps on their phones,” said Shane Corstorphine, chief financial officer for Skyscanner, who is moving to Miami to head the Americas office this spring. “Therefore, having the best global travel search coverage is a huge differentiator even if the domestic coverage is similar due to the high levels of consolidation in the U.S.”

Skyscanner’s localized products in 45 markets let it customize the user experience to cater to the needs of a country or culture’s travel habits. Skyscanner India has integrated buses into its search capabilities due to the country’s preference for bus transportation. In China, users prefer to log on to sites through their social-media accounts, so Skyscanner China integrates that feature. Skyscanner Korea adjusts prices to reflect consumer preference for a discount when they pay by credit card, unlike other markets that are used to incurring a credit card fee.

From Skyscanner’s pink, lime and teal modern office space on the 22nd floor of the Sabadell Financial Center building in Brickell, it’s overseeing an expansion into markets in this hemisphere with similar country-specific sites.

Since expanding to Miami in the summer of 2013, the company has launched Skyscanner Mexico and also operates U.S., Canada and Brazil products in the Americas.

In Brazil, for example, where paying for travel in installments is a common practice, Skyscanner directs users to airlines and online travel agents that may accept payments over a period of time.

The results of the travel site’s expansion, to Miami and around the globe, are in the numbers: When the Miami Herald interviewed Skyscanner in 2014, just after opening the Miami office, the company had 300 employees — seven locally — and its app had been downloaded 25 million times. Sequoia Capital had just invested in the company, valuing it at $800 million.

Skyscanner is available in 30 languages and has 45 market-specific versions, such as Skyscanner Brazil and Skyscanner Mexico.

Skyscanner now employs 770 employees around the world, with 26 in Miami. Its app downloads have nearly doubled to 40 million, and the Financial Times reported that the company is now worth $1.6 billion. Revenue in 2015 was $183 million, up 34 percent over 2014, when adjusted for currency exchange rates.

In 2015, the Americas region alone saw 55 percent more visitors to the travel site than in the previous year, according to an earnings report released this month. Visitors in the U.S. doubled over 2014.

The affordable flight aggregate powers 600 partners around the globe, including MSN, U.S.-based travel search engine Hipmunk’s international flight search, U.S. flight finder startup HitList, Australian travel guide book Lonely Planet and Yahoo! Japan’s travel search.

Skyscanner has 10 global offices — from Singapore to London. Kayak, by comparison, has four offices outside the U.S., all in Europe.

“But we all believe there is still a massive opportunity to come,” Corstorphine said. “There is a need to localize our product to make sure we have the most applicable product for users. As travel becomes more international, we are in a very unique position.”

50 million Number of unique users on Skyscanner a month.

Part of that advantage is in its algorithm.

Skyscanner shows users flights on JetBlue and Southwest Airlines, absent from most other travel search engines. It also offers various features that help travelers find flights in unconventional ways, said travel industry analyst Harteveldt.

“They have very creative algorithms in how they conduct their search; they help travelers find flight options that perhaps they may not have initially thought of,” Harteveldt said.

Take a flight in Europe, where Skyscanner has a strong selection of budget carriers. The travel search engine may find that a combination of flights on different airlines will result in more affordable travel.

“Depending on where you’re traveling, they may say a fare on airline A, and then airline B in the other direction, could actually be less expensive that a round trip on one airline,” Harteveldt said.

The road to developing a strong algorithm began with a simple concept: a spreadsheet.

Skyscanner, née flight spreadsheet

In 2001, founder Gareth Williams wanted to find a cheap flight to visit his brother in the French Alps. Although the United Kingdom had long been home to “bucket shops” — agencies specializing in cheap airfares — at the time, there were few online sources to help travelers parse fares from various airlines in a single place.

So Williams, a contractor for a financial-sales company who had studied mathematics and computing at Manchester University, turned his frustration into a spreadsheet, built over several weeks, of flight combinations from London to the French Alps.

That spreadsheet was the genesis of Skyscanner.

Williams was joined by two friends who provided financing while he developed Skyscanner. The first office opened in Edinburgh in 2004. In 2013, the company added car-rental services to the mix; hotel searches were added a year later, in 2014.

Corstorphine said the business has worked to maintain a consumer-first focus, despite expanding quickly.

“We have managed to remain obsessive about the traveler,” he said.

We want to basically solve the problem for travelers and make it as easy as buying a book on Amazon.

Jenny Stephens, current general manager of the Skyscanner Miami office

That commitment is best illustrated in two popular features that help travelers starting in the planning stages of a trip.

For those looking to visit a destination without a specific date in mind, the travel search company’s vast database can pinpoint the most affordable time to travel.

Vacationers planning to just take a trip anytime can try Skyscanner’s “everywhere” search, which shows the destination cities with the cheapest airline costs within the country of the traveler’s choice.

The site also links hotel and car-rental options in one reservation for major cities.

“We want to basically solve the problem for travelers and make it as easy as buying a book on Amazon,” said Jenny Stephens, current general manager of the Miami office. “It’s about taking the stress out of travel and allowing people to enjoy the actual journey and the vacation.”

The low-cost flight finder is also solving problems for airlines and airports, using the data it has amassed to identify popular routes or under-served routes.

Through Skyscanner for Business, the company’s business-to-business arm, Skyscanner’s Travel Insight analytical tool aggregates search data to predict future demand and provides industry insight based on user search patterns.

For example, the tool found that Miami to Dublin, Ireland, was a popular route: It was searched more than 6,500 times in December, but there are no direct flights to service it. Travelers often booked a connecting flight instead.

“That is something that [we’ve been working with the] The Irish Times [newspaper] to bring to light — that there are opportunities for airlines in Ireland to fulfill that route,” said Randi Wolfson, spokeswoman for the Miami office.

40 million Number of times the Skyscanner app has been downloaded

As it moves forward, Wolfson said, the company will look to expand its travel partner relationships in the Americas region, but its main focus in the coming months is tweaking the site’s customer-booking experience.

Recently, Skyscanner introduced a one-click booking experience with some partners, primarily Air Canada, to complete the booking process on the site or app without redirection to another website. In the next few months, the travel search engine will reveal an option sans buttons and clicking.

Skyscanner is partnering with Amazon’s artificial intelligence voice search tool, Alexa, on voice-control speaker Echo to make searching for flights as simple as: “Alexa, find me a flight from Miami to New York.”

“It’s about investing for future growth,” chief financial officer Corstorphine said of the company’s focus on placing its footprints in different partnerships and in different countries.

“We haven’t reached maturity anywhere — even in the UK, where we started and where we are big, we are still growing fast,” Corstorphine said. “We are only at the beginning of the journey. Our ambition is to become the personal travel assistant.”

Skyscanner

Founded: In 2001.

Employees: 770 worldwide, 26 in Miami.

Miami headquarters office: 1111 Brickell Ave., No. 2250.

Corporate headquarters: Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

Corporate executives: Gareth Williams, CEO and co-founder; Mark Logan, chief operating officer; Shane Corstorphine, chief financial officer.

Revenue: $183 million in 2015.

Estimated worth: $1.6 billion.

Users: 50 million unique users a month.

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