CIO interview: TUI Travel's journey of transformation

The TUI Travel of today is a very different beast to the TUI Travel of four years ago. The global leisure company has just celebrated its most profitable year - more than £15 billion in revenue and a 20 percent growth year-on-year in profit to £589 million in 2013. The major accounts system fault that caused a multi-million restatement of its 2009 financial results is now all but a distant memory.

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The TUI Travel of today is a very different beast to the TUI Travel of four years ago. The global leisure company has just celebrated its most profitable year - more than £15 billion in revenue and a 20 percent growth year-on-year in profit to £589 million in 2013. The major accounts system fault that caused a multi-million restatement of its 2009 financial results is now all but a distant memory.

Part of the company’s evolution is down to the appointment of a new group chief information officer (CIO), Mittu Sridhara. In the two years since he joined the company in March 2012, Sridhara has led a transformation of TUI’s IT organisation and governance to enable the company, which counts First Choice, Laterooms.com, Thomson and Thomson Airways among its brands, to deliver a new way of working that aims to foster innovation, while streamlining systems and costs.

Sridhara came to TUI from betting firm Ladbrokes, taking over from Jim Mann, who retired after 12 years at the leisure company. At Ladbrokes, Sridhara designed and delivered a three-year, multi-channel, end-to-end technology strategy for the company. He started his career at American Airlines, and also held senior IT roles at vehicle hire company AVIS Europe and Sabre Holdings, which provides IT solutions to the global travel and transportation industry.

He is therefore no stranger to technology transformation or to the travel industry. As well as this experience, Sridhara brings a vision of what he’d like the future TUI to provide for customers - an “end-to-end, connected and seamless” experience that “takes the hassle out of travel” by anticipating what travellers want, and fulfilling that requirement.

A seamless customer experience

Imagine, for example, a mother has forgotten to buy a specialist suntan lotion for her son for their Thomson package holiday. Perhaps TUI could offer to deliver that lotion - that she’s added to her holiday checklist in her MyThomson mobile app - directly to the seat on the Thomson Airways flight she is booked onto. And when she checks in for her flight, TUI could automatically check her into her Thomson resort hotel to save her the trouble of doing so when she arrives at her destination.

This is what the company aspires to do, according to Sridhara, which he says is possible due to TUI’s expansive footprint in the different verticals of the travel industry. But to get there, the company has had to completely reorganise its IT governance, moving from disparate groups to working as one across all brands and all 180 countries.

The importance of being “connected” and working as one is particularly significant after the problematic merger of First Choice and Thomson in 2007 that formed TUI Travel. As well as carrying out the already challenging task of integrating post-merger enterprise applications, the company added an additional layer of complexity by outsourcing parts of the new system. It resulted in two misaligned booking systems that caused a very costly accounting error. In 2010, TUI was forced to restate its 2009 financial results to the tune of £117 million, and its chief financial officer (CFO) Paul Bowtell resigned.

Unsurprisingly, Sridhara is keen to put the issue - which preceded him - firmly in the past. “[It] is way back in 2010, that’s been very much tackled and addressed from a financial governance standpoint,” he tells ComputerworldUK, before adding: “But compliance and security are very much key to everything we do.”

A new way of working

Instead of having separate IT teams in each country, TUI now has “hubs” of technical and non-technical employees operating in teams ranging in size between five and 40 people. The hubs are tasked to work on smaller technology projects that can be rolled out across the different brands, businesses and geographies on a single platform.

"Individual hubs are working on developing reservation systems, internal collaboration tools, all things related to web and search and the digital assistant"

When a hub is “mature”, it is expected to coordinate innovation and products across its area of expertise working with “spokes” in different areas of the company. The largest hub in operation at the moment is 16-strong, and several hubs can be in operation at any one time.

“We will continue to evaluate the structure to ensure that the ‘hubs and spokes’ continue to deliver the agility and product or solution innovation necessary,” Sridhara says.

He refuses, however, to divulge exactly how big the IT team is at TUI, except to say that “we’re a £16 billion organisation, so the IT team is very much in the hundreds”.

He puts this down to his desire to make sure that everyone in the company works to a common goal.

“We are a technology business to a great degree,” he says.

“We’re fusing teams to ensure they become multidisciplinary in the delivery. That’s what the hub concept is about. We want everyone [in the company] to have a good degree of technical and business understanding.  I don’t use the words ‘business’ and ‘IT’, because the minute you start using terms like that, you have a divide internally.

“There’s only one thing that’s true and that’s there is a customer at the end of this, and the multifunctional team has to deliver to that customer.”

Next Page: Common platform, common goals

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