Travelocity and kayak.com founder to speak at Wilkes event

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Oct. 2—WILKES-BARRE — No, travelocity and kayak.com founder Terry Jones is not confused for the comedian of the same name from Monty Python's Flying Circus, though this Jones readily admits the other one always comes to the top of a Google search for their shared name. "My real name is Terrel," Jones said, "But I don't like that."

And no, Jones did not come up with the idea of a gnome for travelocity's mascot. "That was after I left," he said, "but he does look a little like me."

The founder of two companies that helped transform the travel industry and other start ups since then, Jones will be the next speaker for the Allan P. Kirby Lecture Series Oct. 21 at Wilkes University. The lecture begins 7 p.m. at the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center on the Wilkes-Barre campus.

The lecture title is "On Innovation: Powerful Ideas to Create a More Innovative Organization," and if you judge by his resume, Jones is particularly suited to comment on the topic.

"I got out of college and I thought I was going to Vietnam. I had a low draft number. But I got rejected because of my eyes," Jones recounted. Through a college roommate he landed chance to travel the world for year through a TWA Airlines connection, which prompted him to get into the travel industry. "Six months in the manager said 'let's do a start-up'."

So they did.

At a time when there were barely a handful of companies given the green light to work on trips to Eastern Europe and Russia in the age of the Iron Curtain Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's efforts to thaw the cold war. This led to work on a computerized ticketing system, still a new idea in the industry, which was sold to American Airlines, where he landed his next job, working his way up to chief information officer.

That's where he helped develop travelocity, a new idea in the business made possible by the deregulation of the Internet. "It was sort of the third start up I worked in," Jones said, except it was a start-up within an existing company, a notion often referred to as Intrepreneurship. "I ran it for six years," he added, but opted to leave when the computer division of American bought travelocity.

That's when the company came up with the gnome, which Jones said was a good idea. It not only gave travelocity a recognizable icon, it reflected the company's notion that, even though it was computer based, it was a personal service so "you never travel alone."

From there Jones moved into the world of venture capitalists, lining up support for his next start-up, kayak.com, which he helped run for eight years before selling it to Priceline. The difference between travelocity and kayak seems small but was a big innovation.

"In travel and in most ecommerce, you turn about five to seven percent of the people who show up on your website into sales. That's pretty abysmal, actually," Jones said. In figuring out what was happening, it turned out people would use travelocity to find the flight and airline they wanted to use, then just go directly to that airline to finish the transaction. Kayak "created a site that, when you click on what you want, it will take you to that site."

Even better, since you had already used kayak to pick the flight, day, time and everything else, it took you to the page where you finish the transaction, putting in your name and credit card number. "There were not a lot of sites that did that back then."

Kayak also worked hard on making the mobile app of its version fast and friendly when smart phone apps were still a pretty clunky. To the modern consumer hooked on the ability to do everything from their phones, "speed makes a difference."

While he has done other start-ups since then, including one flop, Jones has been building a career as a speaker. At Wilkes, he is "going to talk about really good principals of innovation," he said, noting that the notion of change when everything seems to be going along fine used to be hard for successful business people to grasp, though that may have changed thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and all the change it forced.

"The two things I think are most important are culture and team," he said. "The culture has to be one that understands you are going to experiment a lot to see which new ideas are good, and you're going to fail. In the corporate world, failure is not applauded. You have to be willing, as a leader and a company, to kill projects, not people." So a failure shouldn't be a permanent black mark on an employees work record.

In business, "your delivery muscle gets a whole lots stronger than your discovery muscle," he said, meaning you get focused on making what you have succeed and forget about looking for new ways to do business. "You do quarterly earnings over and over, and when the world moves on and that doesn't work anymore, you're the buggy whip guy."

He cited Dyson, which started as a vacuum company but recognized the technology of moving a lot of air fast had other business potential. "So they went into all kinds of air care, into air treatment for the office, into hand driers in restrooms. They innovated around their core technologies."

To get a solid team, Jones said, "it's not about hiring your best friend, it's about hiring the best person." travelocity searched globally for the best engineers. "And the last question you ask them is "who's the smartest person you know, and then you go after that guy."

It is all about "innovation" and "disruption," which Jones pointed out are "two sides of the same coin" (and the topics of two separate books he penned). "The only reason you call it disruption is because you didn't do it. You ask "how did that start-up do that," instead of "how could we do that?"

Jones offered an example: He was asked to speak to a national limousine association, after Uber had begun changing that business. Uber has long insisted it's a technology company that develops apps connecting drivers to riders, and not a car service company. The people at the limo association "asked 'what should we do about Uber?' I said "get some software!"

He rattles off a lot of similar stories about companies looking to change before their core business gets buried by outside disruption: Car companies announcing moves to fully electronic vehicles, Shell shifting from oil production to building car charging stations, and self-storage companies fully automating the process to the point where a customer can ask for something to be retrieved and have a robot do the work.

"You've got to listen, and look where the trends are," he said. "You've got to ask yourself, what's that going to lead to?"

Those who want to attend the lecture, which will also be livestreamed, can register at wilkes.edu.

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