Complex Made Simple

Meet Hotel Data Cloud, the UAE startup that wants to put hotels back in charge of their data

Hotel Data Cloud (HDC), a tech startup based in Dubai, has made it its mission to address an issue that decades later the travel industry has yet not resolved. We spoke with Gregor Amon, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of HDC, for the details.

"A lot of hotels, a lot of tour operators, [they] do things that they’ve been doing for the last 10 to 30 years. It’s a very traditional industry.” “Everybody within the industry sort of accepted [the] status quo" “I think the time is right that a couple of [the sector's] intermediaries just disappear. It doesn’t make sense to have 5 resellers between a hotel and the end-client."

Picture this. You’ve just landed at an exotic country, eager to start your vacation exploring foreign new lands and cultures. You make it to your hotel, claim your room key, and head to your room. You arrive to be met with a small room with no bathroom and a window with no view, despite the room description on your favored OTA (online travel agency) site claiming otherwise.

You rush to the reception and demand your money back, complaining to the manager about a misleading online listing. The hotel explains that apparently, the online description is outdated and that rooms have since been remodeled. Your holiday is ruined, and the hotel has to deal with a disgruntled customer and most likely a scathing online review.

If you look carefully, a single issue caused this entire dilemma: an outdated hotel description. Most people today book their stay at a hotel based on the information they find at the myriad OTAs available online. What most customers don’t know is that this information online isn’t always up to date, and that existing APIs and infrastructure hasn’t been accommodating of real-time updates to hotel data and descriptions.

Hotel Data Cloud (HDC), a UAE startup based in Dubai, has made it its mission to address this issue, helping hotels win back control of the descriptive content of their listings. Serving as a global online platform offering its unique API to OTAs and other travel companies, it ensures hotel descriptions online are accurate and up-to-date at all times. No longer do hotels have to jump through hoops to ensure their descriptions of choice are up to date across all online databases. HDC is making this process easy, streamlined, and efficient.

Last month, the company successfully raised AED 1.3 million ($354,000) in seed financing, which will go towards further developing the company’s AI-enabled tech. The award-winning travel-tech startup currently has a portfolio of over 11,400 hotels in 153 countries.

To learn more about this relatively new company and its contributions to the sector, AMEinfo spoke with Gregor Amon, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Hotel Data Cloud.

A lack of accurate, high quality hotel descriptions 

Originally a pilot with a flair for entrepreneurship, Amon entered the travel sector as an entrepreneur when he started a hotel room wholesale business, where his company aggregated room availability from larger wholesalers and sold them to smaller travel agencies and to operators. However, an issue they faced since day one was the lack of accurate, high quality hotel descriptions, which clients often pointed out.

As a relative outsider in this sector, he expected that there must’ve have been some form of centralized database that hotels could use to ensure their data is updated and accurate across all distribution networks and listing sites.

A quick Google searched proved otherwise.

“I quickly found out that there’s actually nothing useable on the market,” Amon said. “So I was looking for a solution for some time and I didn’t find one that was fitting and would work on a global scale, so I said ‘Well then, I’ll create it myself.’ And this is how HDC came to be.”

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The hotel industry is “very traditional”

“A lot of hotels, a lot of tour operators, [they] do things that they’ve been doing for the last 10 to 30 years. It’s a very traditional industry.”

Like his customers, we were also curious as to why no one had addressed this issue before. To this, Amon said:

“We have a theory as to why this happens. I think if you look at the travel industry as a whole, it’s not an industry that’s really known for technical innovation, at least on the hotel side. A lot of hotels, a lot of tour operators, [they] do things that they’ve been doing for the last 10-30 years. It’s a very traditional industry.”

The problem was two-fold.

“Everybody within the industry sort of accepted this status quo – you have descriptions and you get them from the wholesalers, they’re not perfect, but that’s what we can work with.”

Meanwhile, “everybody who looks at the industry from the outside says ‘Don’t tell me that it’s 2016 and this is an issue that has not been solved a long time ago.’”

“So, one side didn’t even see the problem when looking at it from the outside, and [the other side] from within the industry just accepted that this is how it is because they didn’t have the technical background to see how this can be solved.”

Hotels have lost control of their data

With the current industry model, hotels have lost control of their data, Amon notes.

If a hotel builds a new restaurant for example, and they send out an elaborate description of its services and menus to partners, this information gets resold through multiple intermediaries until it reaches the final client, a shell of its former shelf. With every step and intermediary, the quality of the description decreases.

A client then arrives at the hotel, having made their booking based on an inaccurate description.

“Ultimately, they blame the hotel of course. The client doesn’t care if there are intermediaries or where the error happened. They’re at the reception and they haven’t received what they’ve booked.”

Personalization through AI

“If we make it much easier for the client to make an educated decision, they will be much happier with the [choice] that they make and they’ll become a returning customer.” 

Initially, HDC started out as a “pure description database.”

“The hotel would update all their data, they have the descriptions, they put in all the amenities, and we have about 600 attributes per hotel, and that just gets distributed through a very basic API feed to anybody that wants to use it,” Amon explained.

Recently, however, the HDC team realized they could do a lot more with all the data that they have than originally planned, offering personalized choices for customers through the combined hotel data of HDC and the user data compiled by OTAs (ex. Tajawal), offering the end-user the most personalized service possible.

“If we make it much easier for the client to make an educated decision, they will be much happier with the [choice] that they make and they’ll become a returning customer.”

As for user privacy, Amon explains that HDC exclusively handles hotel data, and that all user data and personalization is handled by hotels, OTAs, service providers like dnata, and others, who have to contend with regulations governing user data like GDPR.

“We don’t actually have access to that data,” he notes, which is handled by the aforementioned B2C companies.

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“’The end for HDC’”?

Addressing the obvious elephant in the room, the discussion naturally turned to COVID-19.

“I’m not going to lie. When it started, I called my co-founder and said ‘Kevin, this could possibly be the end for HDC.’”

Amon’s fear was justified. After all, the travel and tourism sector is among the most, if not the most, affected by the ongoing pandemic and lockdown, with one million travel and tourism jobs a day being lost, according to a World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) report released in March.

“[Hotels] cannot continue to wait – they have been for the last 20 years.”

“I think COVID-19 is forcing the industry’s hand a bit. As I mentioned earlier, the travel industry is not famous for being the most innovative industry. But, now we have seen – and that’s also the reason why we have managed to close the recent funding round – that once COVID-19 happened and the lockdown was put in place, everybody in the industry was shocked.”

When the dust settled, hotels “realized that they need to do something more innovative in order to come back once people start traveling again.”

“They cannot continue to wait – they have been for the last 20 years. They need to be more cost-efficient, they need to look at solutions that can bring them more clients so they can have a head start on the market – and that’s what we are doing, by offering hotels and booking partners a possibility to be more structured, more cost-efficient and to increase their revenue [through our database] and [our AI] recommendation engine.”

What travel and tourism companies need to do during the lockdown

Ultimately, Amon believes HDC “can come out of the COVID-19 situation stronger and we can scale quicker and more rapidly than we initially thought,” since the startup is seeing increased interest from hotels and travel partners that want to improve their infrastructure and services during the downtime of the lockdown.

Additionally, while he sees cost-cutting as the most logical step to take, which we’re seeing today already in the sector, they should also focus on improving their online booking services.  

In his opinion, companies should ask themselves: “‘How can I make it easier for the traveler to find me and to make a booking, and ultimately be happy with that booking?’” After all, pandemic has made us even more reliant on technology and e-services such as food delivery, online retail and even telemedicine. The hotel industry needs to keep up with the times.

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As for what happens after the pandemic, he believes things will be back to normal, despite the rise of trends like video conferencing.

“If you ask people what’s the first thing that they’re going to do once the lockdown is over, on top of everybody’s mind is ‘I’m going to travel again, I want to go on all the vacations that I had planned.’ I think people will forget relatively quickly, and sort of accept that we can again live like we used to do. Travel is here to stay – the travel industry is not going to go anywhere.”

Not all companies will make it out unscathed, naturally.   

“I am sure that there will be a consolidation, of course. Some players that had razor-thin margins will probably disappear, but I don’t think that the overall volume will be impacted on a large scale once everything goes back to normal.”

The industry’s way of doing things needs to change

“I think the time is right that a couple of those intermediaries just disappear. It doesn’t make sense to have 5 resellers between a hotel and the end-client.”

The coronavirus outbreak has forever altered the way many industries operate and carry on with their business. The travel sector is no different.

“I think as far as takeaways, firstly, hotels and travel partners are on a higher level of alert and realize that today’s available technology should be implemented more. Secondly, we are seeing a shift that had already started pre-COVID-19 – a shift away from bigger OTAs and towards smaller, more regional ones.”

According to Amon, hotels are increasingly looking for ways to be the direct distributors to the end client instead of going through OTAs and intermediaries.

“I think the time is right that a couple of those intermediaries just disappear. It doesn’t make sense to have 5 resellers between a hotel and the end-client – each with their price-markups and marketing fees, it just doesn’t make sense. Historically, it’s understandable why that happened, but now in 2020, that does not need to be the case anymore.”

Could the industry have been better prepared for the crisis?

“Could they have been better prepared? I doubt it. I mean, even in January or February, if you would have asked anyone if the world will shut down for a couple weeks or months, everybody would have said of course not. There’s no level of preparation you could have done. Hotels are also very much dependent on governments,” in regards to things such as travel restrictions.

“A lot of hotels here in Dubai we’ve seen here are closing temporarily. It’s a very human-intensive industry that we’re in. You can’t run a hotel with only 5 people.”

HDC has major potential for scaling and diversification 

Finally, Amon discussed HDC’s plans for the future.

“The plan for the future is definitely to put some of the money [that we recently raised] into R&D. We’ve already identified multiple sectors that we can go into, [possibly retail or F&B]. Basically, any service where you wouldn’t need a ‘single source of truth’ as we call it is a potential vertical for us.”

According to Amon, HDC had talks with Dubai Expo 2020, but given that the event is “only happening for 6 months, it didn’t make sense for them to implement [our API], but if you look at exhibitions that take place every year, it certainly makes sense for them to work with us, and we can rebuild our model so that it fits other industries as well.”

“So, hotels and the travel industry are the first niche that we are looking at, but we definitely see potential to grow into other markets.”

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