Meet Our Members: Sundar Narasimhan, SVP & President, Sabre Labs

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Why is a Texas-based travel technology company that’s been around for over 50 years opening a lab in Boston? Sabre Corporation, creator of the airline industry’s first automated reservation system and a leader in technology solutions for the global travel and hospitality industry, cut the ribbon on its new Boston office in August. We had the opportunity to attend that milestone event and to chat with Sundar Narasimhan, SVP and President, Sabre Labs and Product Strategy, about the focus of the Boston Innovation Lab and the reasoning behind locating it here.

Here is our conversation with Sundar.

Give me the Sabre Labs elevator pitch
The mission of the company is really connecting people to other people and places, using technology that’s at the center of the business of travel. People travel to meet other people, people travel to see places, and Sabre really is the platform that facilitates a lot of travel in the industry.

Why is a Texas-based company opening an office in Boston?
Sabre is a global company. Even though we originated as a division of American Airlines that is based in Texas, we are global. We have development centers in Krakow, Poland and Bangalore, India, and we have offices across the globe. Our marketplace, the airlines we serve, are not just U.S.-based—we serve a global market of over 400 airlines and hundreds of thousands of agencies and online travel agencies (OTAs) around the world.

And so, even though it’s a Southlake, Texas-based company, we have had offices all across the globe. And the interest in Boston was literally about looking at the talent pool that’s available in terms of technology, technical universities, and people who are here with very good education, in terms of the modern software platforms we’re building while also recognizing that this area is filled with companies that have actually innovated in travel. ITA Software (now part of Google), for example but that’s not the only company. In fact, TripAdvisor got started here. Kayak is down in Cambridge. There are innovative companies like Hopper, who have a big presence here. I have a map that shows approximately 20 travel companies, from startups to established entities, in the area.

We not only recognize the talent pool that we can draw from that are new and innovative but also the older, more experienced talent who have lots of knowledge about how the industry works, who worked in some of these companies. And it’s blending those two that you really can’t do in that many locations in the world. In other places you can get really smart talent, young people, but they don’t know much about travel. And this is an old industry that’s been around for 40 years.

The technology that drives it, you need to know some of how atypical fares work, or how schedules work or what a hotelier means when they say a rate code. So that kind of knowledge is available in what I would call the worker population in these other companies that we also hope to draw from. And last, but not least, if you look at those agency folks, and if you look at customers like WestJet, or JetBlue, or American Airlines, they have offices here too. So, we can really set up what I call the collaboratory, in that it’s the talent. It’s innovation by people who innovated the last decade but still have very good ideas about how to change the industry, the domain knowledge.

Also, the business is moving to the cloud. As you know, Amazon is just down the street. And we are a very strong partner with Amazon and with Red Hat, which is also down the street. We’re using those kinds of technical partners too. I really think you need all of these elements in order to create that innovation and build those platforms on top of the new cloud-based technologies that are coming to the fore. And Boston is uniquely centered to exploit and take advantage of all of those.

What is a Collaboratory?
Collaboration is a term that everybody understands, right? In terms of developing products these days, it’s not just a mad scientist or two young graduates in their basement. That used to be the case. These days often, to find the product-market fit, creating those minimum viable products requires collaboration. But most companies also realize that not all ideas actually succeed. And they have to invest in a portfolio, a pipeline of products, and some of them are really in a laboratory setting so that it is not actually guaranteed to succeed, some of them may fail. In terms of keeping that pipeline of innovation flowing, what we really believe is, you have to try maybe 10-20 things, and actually have a graduated pipeline where you’re taking ideas from pilots to proofs of concept, to actual release products. When we say collaboratory, that’s the concept we’re trying to get across—that we’re collaborating within our product development groups, within product management, with customers, and then actually in a laboratory setting where there’s not a fear of failure. So that we can try new things in a very rapid cycle and see what works, and then if some things are truly impactful, then take it to market, in a much wider scale.

Can change bring opportunity?
Sabre is very uniquely positioned. The next decade is going to be pretty interesting in that a lot of the old platforms are moving to the cloud, so there’s literally opportunity to reinvent some of the processes. That doesn’t happen that often. The other important thing that’s also going on is the airlines, the travel agencies are in a very competitive environment, so all of them are seeking to generate more revenue for themselves while providing what I would call truly innovative user experiences. Our strategy is one that’s based on retailing, distribution, and fulfillment, and it’s all of those three areas that I feel like Sabre—given its breadth of customers, and breadth of technology—can actually change what is getting deployed in terms of what travel products get created and sold, how they are priced, how they’re actually distributed, through which channels they are made available to users.

And Sabre is unique in the marketplace, in that we are one of the few companies that have end-to-end products. Literally, the check-in desk or the mobile app that’s checking you in for a JetBlue flight is hitting a Sabre system. So, we have the opportunity to change that experience for all our business partners, but ultimately, the goal really is for them to provide value to their end-users and customers. We feel that as a platform, if we build these capabilities and bring them to the marketplace, we can actually change travel, change the business of travel. And that’s what excites me to be here.

Sabre is a unique American company in that it invented a lot of this platform 40-50 years ago.

If you look at the heart of it, pretty much every competitive system that’s out there that’s competing with it was built on Sabre technology. The reservation systems in the global distribution system mainframes originated in Sabre, and that still continues to be the case. We’re not resting, we are thinking about the renaissance of Sabre. What is the new Sabre going to look like? What are we going to build? And that’s truly exciting. Because the breadth of customers we have, and the breadth of agencies we have, literally gives us the opportunity to recreate this platform.

What is Sabre Labs’ focus?
The big change from say 40-50 years ago is that computers can do a lot more these days. We’re all walking around with computers in our pockets that can do more than what the mainframe used to do 50 years ago. And that’s very important because I think it excites people to think about all the things they can do to change travel.

In terms of my own group, Sabre Labs, one of the key things that we’re trying to do is utilize the enormous volume of data that Sabre collects. This is data about what people are shopping for, people are looking to do, etc. And using that data and coupling it with computers that are becoming more powerful and available in the cloud, means that we can fundamentally rethink what the products are that are being offered.

People use the term machine learning and AI often loosely. But it’s really about data, understanding customer intent and providing that personalized travel recommendation that you want. I still think that today, if you ask most consumers, they go to 30 sites to book their travel. And they don’t buy all of the things they need in one single unique place. The travel agent of the past used to give you that type of service, right? If you’re planning a trip in Peru, the flights there, the hotels, the train trips, the tickets to Machu Picchu, all of those things are what an agent would take care of. Your experience wasn’t that, at the end of the day, you had great memories of the services they provided.

Today by fracturing that, even though the technology allows you to book flights very fast, to book hotels, you have to go somewhere else, and you really can’t get the train tickets on the same site. So, it’s become a sort of a fragmented experience, where the consumer can get a much better experience, and whoever the company is figuring that out, providing those kinds of products in a way that customers can identify with, is going to be a market leader in personalized travel. Creating that new set of products and then creating the platform that supports those products has us excited.

What is your message to the local community?
The message to the Boston community is that Sabre is reinventing itself to address this huge market need, and we sit on a treasure trove of data, and we’re looking for smart engineers to come and join us in this mission. You’ll be working with cutting-edge technologies in the cloud, and with the latest and greatest in terms of machine learning, artificial intelligence, all the big data that may be somewhat overhyped but with applicability to the travel domain, which we believe is a huge market. And so that’s the message to send to the young folks and to the experienced folks alike—come and help us in this mission.