In August, we sponsored a Forbes Forum titled “Entrepreneurs go the distance” in partnership with Forbes Media. The subject of the evening roundtable event, which took place at the Forbes Media offices in Manhattan, was entrepreneurs and the emerging technology that supports their businesses, with a special focus on the mobile revolution.
Following a cocktail reception for attendees and panelists, the event began with the panel of five entrepreneurs and corporate executives presenting to an intimate gathering of approximately 45 attendees, primarily company founders and CEOs from a variety of industries. We were there to live Tweet highlights from the event for our followers using the hashtag #UnitedRoundtable.
Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine, served as moderator of the panel, which featured two United representatives – Tom O'Toole, our senior vice president of Marketing and Loyalty, and president of MileagePlus®, and Dave Hilfman, our senior vice president of Sales – as well as entrepreneurs Georg Petschnigg, co-founder and CEO, Fiftythree, Inc., and Gene Zaino, CEO, MBO Partners.
The panelists set the scene
Rich kicked off the conversation with a short introduction to the mobile economy in which today’s business leaders operate. He then turned the discussion over to Gene, who discussed the extent to which today’s business leaders must be mobile. “These people are constantly moving around,” he noted. “The concept of an office has changed.” Gene pointed out that today’s entrepreneurs “…can work anywhere to do what [they] need to do and “…the toolbox of the independent worker…is improving, with more and more tools out there: social networking, the cloud, mobile, high bandwidth.” These tools make it possible for individuals to get their work done without having to be part of a large office.
Panelist and entrepreneur Georg Petschnigg relies on this set of tools to run his company. Fiftythree’s main offices are co-located in Tribeca and Seattle. He attributes the dynamic work environment to the company’s diverse employee base working on both sides of the country.
Rich asked the United panelists about the needs of today’s business traveler. “They want to be connected, they want to be mobile and they want to be informed,” said Tom O’Toole. He went on to point out that while few industries have been as affected by the restructuring of ecommerce, digital channels, mobile devices and related technology as the airlines, “if you look at what is happening in our company today, it's advancing far beyond the operational norm.”
Wi-Fi and the connected traveler
Narrowing in on the revolution in mobile technology, Rich asked specifically about United’s developments in Wi-Fi. Most inflight Wi-Fi service is terrestrial (cell tower-based); however, as Tom observed, “we needed to go with a satellite system, and we decided that early on.” He identified two main reasons for this choice. One is that we offer daily flights over the North Pole and the Pacific Ocean, which have no access to terrestrial cell towers. The second is that we believe our global customers now expect and depend on the bandwidth that a satellite-based system offers.
The small-business customer
Rich inquired about the panelists’ customers, and specifically, United’s global sales force. Dave Hilfman explained that his sales team engages not only global Forbes 2000 companies but small business entrepreneurs as well. “We have built relationships with key corporations and small businesses around the world,” he said, referring to popular online travel management companies (TMCs) such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz as well as large travel companies like American Express. “We’re working hand-in-hand with business travel entrepreneurs who are joining the ranks of TMCs and expanding the travel pie, which we need,” he added.
Data analysis and the customer experience
“The zeitgeist of the day is data,” Rich announced, introducing his final topic for the panel. He asked for United’s insights – specifically what data conveys about entrepreneurs and their traveling needs today. Given our relatively advanced analytics capabilities, Tom said, we’re often asked about our use of targeted data. However, right now United is focused on “the use of data to inform, advance and enable the customer experience. The combination of data, digital channels, connectivity and mobile devices will enable us to do things in customer experience and customer service that we never could do before.”
Social media and the customer experience
Rich asked Dave if it’s possible to use United’s social media channels, particularly Facebook and the “Twitterverse,” to determine if United was having a good or bad day in terms of customer experience. “We hear from customers all the time [on social media]…and we’re paying attention.” Dave confirmed. “Our social media team spots things very quickly and that’s very helpful for us.” Tom emphasized the importance of real-time monitoring and the fact that, on any given day on social media channels, the customer dialog is about the day’s news as it affects flights – especially unusual weather events.
Questions from the audience
In the question and answer session, attendees asked about the addition of a digital wallet to the United app for mobile devices (“a core initiative at United”), how United made the transition to an active social media presence so quickly (“it’s still very much a work in progress,” but was realized by recognizing “the very consequential, practical changes in our customer base”) and if our strategy has transformed or stayed the same regarding customer acquisition versus customer retention (“we look at both sides – customers who traveled with us last year but have dropped off and customers who are traveling with other airlines”).
Looking to the future
Rich wrapped up the evening with a final question for the panel: “How will your world look five years from now?” Georg reminded everyone that the iPhone was released about five years ago and expressed his hope for a world filled with even more creative tools. Gene’s prediction was that we’d be approaching an “independent majority,” with more people working independently than as employees of companies. Tom spoke of realizing an enhanced customer experience enabled by connectivity, mobility and information. “That’s where we’re headed in four or five years,” he said, adding, “frankly, for tomorrow.”