The CTO of the Manchester-based OTA, Stefan Nordin, tells Lee Hayhurst how it is already reaping the benefits if its move to new city centre digital headquarters
On The Beach believes it has seen an immediate impact followings its relocation to new digital headquarters on the outskirts of Manchester city centre.
The leading OTA’s new Aeroworks base, a refurbished former factory a stone’s throw from the city’s Piccadilly Station, is already establishing itself as a digital hub for the wider business community.
The interior of the three-story building has been designed to provide staff with an open, light and modern environment, encouraging innovation through collaborative and agile ways of working.
In the building’s basement, along with the obligatory table football, pool table and retro arcade games, there’s large canteen area and events and entertainment space.
On The Beach has used this facility to run technology meet-ups, inviting in staff from other local firms to discuss and share thought leadership in areas like marketing analytics and optimisation.
It is also hosting an academy for specialists in the Ruby programming language on which On The Beach’s business was built, and is expanding that to other coding specialisms like Microsoft.
Podcast: OTA boss tells Lee Hayhurst about expansion and why flexibility is key in a volatile market
Chief Technology Officer Stefan Nordin, who joined from online gaming giant Betsson Group in October last year ahead of its move into the new offices in November, said:
“We decided not to run these overtly as a recruitment activity, but indirectly it means people are seeing that this as a nice place to work.
“We’ve definitely become something of a hub for the technology community in Manchester and people feel comfortable coming here knowing they won’t be approached by recruiters.
“With the plans we have to grow our technology team to twice its current size at least, we would never have been able to do that in the old offices.”
As well as tapping the pool of local talent, On The Beach is now able to bring in staff from outside of the EU having obtained a Tier 2 Sponsor Licence for working visas.
The firm says it is seeing quality candidates from the likes of Belarus, Turkey and Brazil and it expects to benefit from being located close to where the new HS2 high speed rail line will terminate.
Since January, it has taken on 35 techies in roles across the board including data scientists, developers, testers and managers.
The OTA has begun the search for a director of software engineering and it is hiring a new director for infrastructure to oversee all of its hardware requirements.
And the firm is currently rated highly on Glassdoor, a jobs site that allows current and former employees to rate employers and is widely used among jobseekers in Manchester.
Nordin said all this means that On The Beach can “raise the bar” when it comes to recruitment so that while it has an ambitious timescale for growth, it can target bringing in the very best talent.
“The important thing is we are going to grow,” he says. “Exactly how long it will take I’m not really concerned about that. But now we can raise the bar for the people we are bringing in.
“I would rather get 50 really good people than 100 that are good but not that good. I think we are in a position to be a bit more picky. It looks to me like we can be picky, and get the numbers.”
When Nordin joined On The Beach he spoke to Travolution about the importance of creating a diverse workforce, not just in terms of gender and nationality but professional background.
He said from a nationality point of view the firm is already “pretty diverse” and in terms of gender “we are okay, but not where we want to be”.
Limited availability of female graduates taking the right courses is a challenge, but Nordin said he now feels the firm can take its time finding the right women candidates for the right roles.
“I think we are an attractive company to work for,” he said. “That’s the message we want to get out to all candidates.
“And when it comes to getting the right gender and diversity mix, I don’t think we’ll have to compromise. But we might have to take a little bit more time.”
High up on Nordin’s agenda is bringing in experience and know-how from outside of travel, especially for some of the firm’s more senior positions.
“A lot of people in this company have been here for a very long time. In many cases they have not see or experienced any other industries,” he says.
On The Beach’s new home is already encouraging its technology, marketing, design and product teams to work together on optimising the website’s features and customer experience.
This will no doubt ensure that an OTA that has always focused on the detail will continue to lead the way in key areas like converting brand traffic and getting the most bang for its marketing bucks.
But Nordin said there’s a bigger and broader vision for what the firm’s technology platform should be capable of supporting.
“This company’s always been good at finding the low hanging fruit. I want to find the opposite. It’s important to shape up the technology to enable growth.
“If we stop focussing on the low hanging fruit and make more significant improvements we can drive growth instead of just trying to support it.”
Growth could come from entering new markets, as it has done with eBeach in Scandinavia and expansion into long-haul, or from further Mergers and Acquisitions activity.
In recent years On The Beach has acquired rival OTA Sunshine Holidays and tailor-made tour operator Classic Collection which it is using as a platform for Classic Online, a new B2B division.
Nordin said work on the firm’s technology was required in both cases to enable them to run on its systems, but in the future he wants a platform set up to support multi-brand integrations.
This would also support faster integration with hotel and airline suppliers, he says. “We want to turn ourselves into an integration machine. I do not like doing things twice or three times.”
Nordin used the motor industry as an analogy in which cars today are built on generic platforms on which new bodies and styles can be placed to create new products.
“It’s all about identifying what the consumer cares about and what they don’t. As a car owner, I want it to drive nicely, and if the engine is the same as in other cars, I don’t really care about that.
“Of course, we have our contracting teams getting really good deals and prices, but as an OTA we don’t really have exclusivity on, say, a country like Greece.
“You should build your tech to maximise connectivity so that it can integrate all providers and our platform ensures all our sites get the right product from the right providers.
“It’s not about buy or build, the key thing is building a platform that can do both. How are we building what we can never get from a third party provider?
“This ensures whoever come up on the market we can very quickly integrate that to create a more compelling offer to the customer.”
The flexible platform approach will enable On The Beach to react quickly if new channels like voice or Apple TV start to come to prominence.
But Nordin said today desktop and mobile remain the dominant devices for holidaymakers, the latter as a research tool and the former for more considered shopping and booking.
“I do not think we have seen the best way of booking a holiday online developed yet, but I don’t think that voice is what is going to change that. And I’m not sure about things like virtual reality.
“Right now mobile phones and laptops are the primary channels for everything online, at least in our industry.
“There is a merger between laptops and tablets going on, but will that revolutionise things? It’s still a bit messy typing on a screen compared to a keyboard.
“I could potentially see Apple TV or Chromecast used going forward when people want to plan their trip on the big screen in the living room.
“Regardless of how important certain technologies are, they have to be there for our customers, not the other way around. Understanding the customer and the business is so important for any CTO.”