ForwardKeys CEO, Olivier Jager, discusses the company’s future strategy, at the heart of which are its numerous and diverse ‘data smarts’ and a bigger-picture approach.

ForwardKeys was established in 2010 when two friends with backgrounds in hospitality – Olivier Jager and Christophe van Zwynsvoorde – identified untapped potential in forward flight booking data as a valuable resource for hotel revenue management.

At the time, the newly emerging concept of ‘big data’ was generating a buzz among organisations hoping to harness its power to facilitate decision-making. Yet for all the excitement, few companies possessed the ability to glean actionable insights from the significant volumes of data being produced.

This made ForwardKeys’ big data analytics capabilities a hot commodity, and it was not long before organisations from other segments – not only hospitality but also destination marketing and travel retail – were approaching Jager and Van Zwynsvoorde to request their support and expertise.

With destination marketing organisations (DMOs) and travel retail brands soon accounting for the majority of its client base, ForwardKeys was inspired to develop segment-specific, use case-based products – Destination Gateway and Traveller Statistics – to address their requirements directly.

“What these companies needed was not big data for big data’s sake, but targeted insights that, with the right tools, could be extracted from that data,” says Jager, chief executive at ForwardKeys. “Our aim was – and still is – to provide clients with comprehensive and versatile access to the right piece of information to help them understand and predict the impact of travellers on their business.”

The smart approach to travel analytics

At the heart of ForwardKeys’ proactive approach to product development and customer service is a concept it refers to as ‘data smarts’. Fundamentally, data smarts are a means of answering real business questions using real business intelligence.

For example, ForwardKeys’ Total Air Market, the most comprehensive air travel dataset in the industry, is also a data smart. This is because it applies real business intelligence – drawing on data from a variety of sources and running it through a dynamic proprietary algorithm – to answer real business questions.

“Since Total Air Market is such a rich and powerful dataset, it can answer questions that are broad in scope or highly specific,” explains Jager. “It can tell you, for instance, the total number of travellers that arrived at your destination in a given time period, but it can also show you how many passengers departed from a particular airport terminal in a particular date range.”

Insight into the flow of travellers by airport terminal offers a competitive advantage to travel retail companies and media agencies, allowing them to adjust their inventory based on the number and kind of travellers likely to be at their terminal of interest and when. Even in the case of broader questions, the data answering them can be analysed from numerous angles, with focus on specific markets, time periods, traveller profiles, journey types and more. For any business that relies on international travel, Total Air Market can provide invaluable decision-making support.

Further examples of data smarts include Recovery Index, included in Destination Gateway, which tourist boards can use to monitor the evolution of issued tickets to their destination as the air travel industry rebounds following the Covid-19 pandemic. By doing so, destinations can adapt their marketing strategies to target, say, previously lucrative source markets that have failed to fully reactivate in the wake of the global health crisis.

Meanwhile, Long-term forecasts, offered in Traveller Statistics, allow travel retail and media companies to predict, for the decade ahead, annual global departures and arrivals by region, sub-region, country and airport, as well as the performance of nationalities by region and sub-region. Equipped with this information, airport retailers, duty-free operators and media agencies can make informed business and marketing decisions – and prepare detailed roadmaps for the years to come.

However, data smarts are not just a means of boosting market reach and profitability. For the modern DMO, it is increasingly important to consider the social and environmental impact of tourism alongside the economic aspect.

“While tourist boards were previously only interested in attracting as many travellers to their destination as possible, modern destination marketing prioritises quality over quantity,” says Jager. “DMOs still aim to bring a good number of visitors to their destination, of course, but they are more concerned about attracting the right kind of visitor – the kind who will have a positive impact on the destination from a social and environmental perspective.”

Looking beyond the airport

For ForwardKeys, helping destinations to encourage more sustainable tourism means providing bigger-picture data. The company is therefore developing a range of smarts that look beyond the airport, informing the user where tourists are staying, what they are doing and where they are dining – regardless of whether the destination has an airport of its own. In addition to being able to track tourist movements, users will benefit from advanced demographics information such as purchasing power, age, gender segmentation and origin down to postcode level.

Moreover, ForwardKeys clients will be able to monitor tourist behaviour by destination product, with the main products being nature and beaches, cultural and historic sites, symposiums and events, nightlife and gastronomy, and shopping. They will also have the capacity to determine whether a tourist group’s economic, social and environmental impact contributes to or detracts from a sustainable tourism strategy – information that can be used to promote responsible tourism based on a more diverse and beneficial mix of visitors.

According to Jager, the concept of ‘looking beyond the airport’ reflects not only the data smarts themselves but also ForwardKeys’ wider strategy moving forward. “In recent years, ForwardKeys has developed a reputation as a leading consultancy to the aviation industry, and although this is a positive indicator of our success, we aim to position ourselves as a travel intelligence specialist,” he says. “As such, we will provide our clients with a comprehensive understanding of the traveller beyond their journey to and from the destination, homing in on their movements and behaviour at the destination.”

As well as providing data on tourists’ preferences regarding entertainment, culture and gastronomy, ForwardKeys is working on functionality that will allow destinations to track tourist spending data. Users will be able to compare these figures with travel forecasts to predict how much money visitors to their destination are likely to spend, by nationality, and ascertain peak spending periods. This is just one example of a multitude of beyond-the-airport smarts that ForwardKeys has in the pipeline.offer through the ForwardKeys platform is our own creativity.”

Through the forthcoming Connect, ForwardKeys will offer smart data as a service, enabling subscribers to access an extensive library from which they can select the specific smarts that are relevant to their business requirements and objectives. The product is geared towards experienced analysts who need to navigate the data, provide their colleagues with custom reports and embed these reports into their own business intelligence applications. It is equally well suited to data engineers and developers who will use flat files and APIs to integrate ForwardKeys data into their own BI application, business processes or, more generally, their own platform.

Like with segment-specific products Destination Gateway and Traveller Statistics, which deliver easy-to-digest insights to business users, all smarts accessed via Connect comprise individual or combined datasets that have been enhanced using data science, artificial intelligence and data engineering. As ForwardKeys develops its relationships with new and existing data providers, the number and variety of smarts stored in its lake-based data hub – and delivered via its various platforms – will continue to increase, addressing as-yet-unanswered business questions and emerging industry challenges.

“In the years ahead, we plan to establish new partnerships and gain access to previously untapped data sources, allowing us to better serve the needs of existing customers while positioning ourselves as a valuable partner to companies in different segments,” says Jager. “By following the data smarts principle and looking beyond the airport, we open the door to a wealth of opportunities. The only limit to what we can offer through the ForwardKeys platform is our own creativity.”


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