Expectations from customers will get higher: they’ll demand the right experience at the right time, and it will need to be seamless. Personalization will be key.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ajay Waghray, a senior product manager at HomeAway, part of Expedia Group. Ajay and his team focus on developing products that help travelers have amazing experiences when shopping, booking and staying at vacation homes around the world. Joining HomeAway in 2012, Ajay and his team have been instrumental in developing the e-commerce and mobile experiences for HomeAway and Vrbo. The HomeAway and Vrbo mobile apps are among the Top 20 travel apps in the App Store and Google Play store.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My love and curiosity for technology started when I was a kid. One of my hobbies was taking apart the family computer — I messed with graphics cards and performed unnecessary software upgrades so I could experience the latest and greatest updates. The computer was often out of commission during some of my experiments, but it really stoked my fascination with technology.
I graduated from engineering school the month before Steve Jobs announced the very first iPhone. I felt like the world was about to change — and it did. Today, I work as a product manager for HomeAway on the mobile team. I love that product management marries technology and design to create experiences that customers really love: every day I work to make that little rectangle in your pocket more useful and fun.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I first started at HomeAway, lots of people in my life told me that mobile would never become a “thing” and that I should focus on desktop web apps instead. I wish I could tell you that only happened once! Today across all industries, there’s much more focus on disruption and how new waves of technology can be used to create the best customer experience possible.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my career, I was asked to present some fairly complicated material to hundreds of people at a company-wide meeting. The problem was I hadn’t had that kind of experience yet. A combination of feeling very nervous and unprepared made my sweat glands go into overdrive — our chief product officer later told me it looked like I had run a full marathon in the Texas heat.
In our line of work, they say having a plan is less important than planning itself. Now I make it a point to be very prepared every time I have to step up to a mic.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think HomeAway is unique in that the scientific method isn’t just a tool we use: It informs everything we do as an organization. We’re always trying to understand our customers by marrying qualitative insights with quantitative data. We run all the traditional tests: A/B product tests, customer surveys, usability tests… we even collect behavioral and biological data in our Innovation Lab, where our team of scientists use neuroscientific research methods to work with volunteers to find out which parts of booking a vacation are frustrating and how we can make them better.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
It’s a marathon, not a race. When I first started out as a product manager, I wanted to prove myself by making everything happen all at once. What I didn’t realize at the time is when you’re trying to do everything, you’re really doing nothing. Anything good takes time and effort: when you’re busy burning yourself out, you don’t have enough in the tank for what lies ahead. Investments in the future take time and making sure you’re investing in yourself and understanding that is one of the most important things you can do.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people that helped me along my way. If I had to pick a few, I’d start with my parents. They came to the U.S. to get a great education and to give me and my sisters a better life. They taught me the value of hard work, grit and remembering to have fun along the way! I wouldn’t be anywhere without them.
An honorable mention would also go to Tim Ferriss. I read “The 4-Hour Workweek” on the flight back from a trip with my family in India while I was still working at my first job. I still remember that chapter about quitting and following your passion. After reading that book, I walked into my boss’s office first thing Monday and quit. Best thing I ever did.
Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
We are always thinking about what new technologies and experiences are going to disrupt our industry over the next ten years? What expectations are going to change from our travelers as a result? In travel and hospitality I’d boil it down to four core innovations: adaptive experiences, virtual assistance, group travel and augmented & virtual reality.
The rise of mobile devices has truly changed the way we have to think about building products today. Because there’s only so much real estate on a small screen and customers interact with you in small micro-moments, machine learning has to be an integral part of our products. Customers don’t have patience for brands that treat them like a first-time visitor. And now you have a limited amount of space to interact with them. The great thing is that machine learning allows us to provide that just-in-time experience that adapts to your needs, wants, and preferences on mobile devices in a way that wasn’t possible before. We view that as a huge opportunity to invest in.
Virtual assistance is also critical in a world where mobile devices and voice are fast becoming the primary way customers interact with technology. Devices like mobile phones thrive in cases where you can provide simpler input. And voice is one of the simplest of inputs, but the bar is very high. Investing in this space we believe is the key to creating those great travel and hospitality experiences of the future. Imagine you could book a boat rental at the lake house you’re staying at by asking Google Home! That’s the experience of the future.
Trips with your group are precious moments for you to spend time with your loved ones. Planning that trip can be a real hassle though, and we believe it’s our job to make that process as easy as possible. Our focus is to deliver products that really help make that as painless and fun as possible. We actually just launched a collaborative trip planning tool that allows folks to like and save properties they’re interested in, then share the list with their family or friends, who can then vote on their favorite properties and add comments. We call this new tool Trip Boards.
Finally, virtual and augmented reality have a special place in travel and hospitality. They provide our customers with ways to experience their future and past trips that were not possible before. HomeAway is already leveraging some of this technology through virtual tours: an increasing number of the properties on our site include 360 degree immersive walkthroughs that provide more depth and clarity about a home, allowing travelers to look before they book.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
Travel is a very personal experience for connecting with loved ones and experiencing new things. We believe these innovations address various pain points in the shopping experience: everything from helping the group pick a rental that makes everyone happy to experiencing a property before you make that huge purchase through a virtual tour, all the way up to knowing everything you need to know about the place before you book and having everything you need for your stay through the help of a 24/7 virtual assistant.
Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?
- Expectations from customers will get higher: they’ll demand the right experience at the right time, and it will need to be seamless. Personalization will be key.
- Travelers are going to expect best-in-class recommendations from travel companies: brands who don’t come armed with excellent advice will lose credibility fast.
- Travelers are going to expect better tools to help make planning a big group trip easier and more fun.
- Travelers will expect these experiences to work seamlessly on any platform they are using. Thinking cross-device will have to be even more of a priority as new devices become available.
- Life is going to happen; plans and life situations are going to change. As travelers increasingly expect more personalization and customization, they will also expect more flexibility that mirrors the way they live their lives.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
One of my favorite things for my wife and I to do is experience cities and cultures by being in the heart of things. That means walking around, ducking into cafes and restaurants without a plan, experiencing art and architecture in different neighborhoods and seeing how people live. We also enjoy the outdoors and lately have been looking for more opportunities to stay in vacation homes that allow us to “nature bathe” and truly decompress.
Some of this may change when our son is born in June. I think that’s part of the fun and challenge in travel: the way you travel changes as your life changes.
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Working in travel is meaningful because at the end of the day, you know that the work you do helps people connect with their loved ones and find a place that helps them enjoy traveling together. I’ve also helped people on the other side of our business: homeowners who use vacation rental income they earn on our site to pay bills, enjoy retirement or even send their kids to college.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could start a movement, I would start one around creating simple, easy and effective ways to make a positive impact when you travel. How can you help the people in the destination that you’re traveling to live a better life? How can you leave the place you’re traveling to better than you found it? How can you reduce your impact on the environment when you travel? I think that would be an amazing movement to participate in.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on Twitter @ajaywaghray, but I mostly post on Instagram and Medium @ajaywaghray. Would love to see you there!
Thank you for these great insights!
The Future of Travel: “Personalization will be key” with HomeAway’s Ajay Waghray was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.