“Kayak killer”? Hafner, English swap barbs, talk new ventures

“Kayak killer”? Hafner, English swap barbs, talk new ventures

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What do you get when you reunite the colorful founders of a travel metasearch giant?

In the case of Kayak’s Steve Hafner and Paul English, speaking Wednesday at The Phocuswright Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, you get a dash of news, a thoughtful disagreement over the democratization of generative artificial intelligence — and a lighthearted threat of a “Kayak killer.”

First, the news. While discussing what Hafner – still Kayak’s CEO – called dissatisfaction with corporate travel tools, he used the occasion to tout the company’s business tool now geared for large corporate clients. The company partnered with Blockskye – one of the Hot 25 Travel Startups for 2024 announced this week at the conference — and PwC on a blockchain-based solution for corporate travel.

While seated beside his old buddy English on the conference center stage, Hafner announced two new clients: Diageo, a British multinational alcoholic beverage company and Tripadvisor – which needed no introduction to the auditorium filled with travel professionals.

“So it gives me great pleasure to say that Matt Goldberg, their CEO, is going to be using Kayak to make his next booking,” Hafner said with a grin.

As for English, he’s moved on Deets, an app that provides recommendations based on reviews from a user’s friends, people they follow and from other users with similar interests. It launched at the start of the year in Boston and New York with plans for a global rollout next year.

While English called Kayak “the best travel site,” he spoke Wednesday of some of the weaknesses he sees in the metasearch model, where the search isn’t integrated with a booking platform. “It’s a bad user experience,” he said. “The first thing I would do – and pay attention to Deets – is have an integrated booking experience. It still gets you the inventory across dozens of sites with an integrated UI. That’s the first thing I’ll work on.”

Moderator Lorraine Sileo, the founder of Phocuswright Research and a senior analyst, asked if English meant he would be competing with Kayak.

“Yeah,” he said, sounding reluctant before warming to the idea. “I mean some people on the team describe the April release as a Kayak killer.

“We’re going after Kayak,” he added as laughter spread through the auditorium, “in a different way. It will be a different product.”

Hafner jumped in. “You’re
late to the party. Google beat you there.”

We’re going after Kayak, in a different way. It will be a different product

Paul English – Deets

The interplay continued as Sileo turned
the conversation to artificial intelligence. English saw the technology as a
tool for leveling the playing field between startups and established companies. 

“It’s making us way more productive. I
think code is no longer the moat,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many
engineers you have.”

His 10 engineers, he said, could compete
against a thousand at a larger company because so much code these days is
written by AI. 

“I think that’s going to reinvent every
industry, not just travel,” he added, “as the new technology being built will
take advantage of latest trends and be able to innovate faster than a company
built off of older technology.”

Hafner argued the other side.

“I think it’s going to help big brands get
better, take market share,” he said. “That’s because we can actually implement
and test a lot of this stuff, and we have a lot more data, which we can use to
inform the developer.

“So I wouldn’t bet on the Kayak killer
being successful,” he told his former partner. “I love you, Paul, but we’ll
see. I think the big metasearch companies will continue to prosper, the big
OTAs – in particular Airbnb, Booking and Expedia – are going to take advantage of
this at the expense of the smaller companies.”

To watch the full discussion – including an
exchange about governments’ chances to regulate Google’s growing dominance –
watch the video below.

Kayak Founders Steve Hafner and Paul English at The Phocuswright Conference 2023

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