By Muhammad Nabil

Being a General Manager of a huge conglomerate like AirAsia isn’t an easy task. I can’t even begin to imagine what goes through the head of the man who helped built a successful app that ties 2 fundamental aspects of travelling together, who made sure it’s the leading program in the segment, and still has time to spare for the occasional chat. Luckily, we managed to catch Darren Goh and talked to him about how he got into the travelling industry, his favourite vacation, as well as the future of travelling before flying off to Singapore 2 hours later.

Tell us a little bit about how you came to work for the AirAsia Group and your transition from journalism to marketing.

In my career, I’ve been very vertical, meaning like I spent 17 years on only travel, and the only exception was in journalism. I studied law, and when I came out, I joined The Sun as a sports journalist for the first 2 years; and the subsequent 2 years, I spent doing sub-editing. Cos for myself, I was a sportsman when I was young, well my shape and size now doesn’t reflect what I did back then hahaha, but I used to be very slim and I participated in long jumping. I competed in the national level, and of course, sports was something that I was very keen on doing. So when I finished law, and then I went to The Sun, joined the sports desk, and I was exposed and covered a lot of major sports events, like the Commonwealth games in 1998, ASEAN games, and my specialty that time was covering motorsport. So with the press on my side, we could go into any stadium and watch the Malaysian semi-pro and pro series after that. It was fun! And I like to write as well, even during my legal studies I did a lot of writing.

So I did this for four years, and then after that I thought maybe it’s time to transition, because in Malaysia at the time 30 years back, there was only 3 English medias. And there could be only 3 editors. And these editors and subeditors, they tend to stay there until they die. They will never leave that space. So I thought to myself, that I should branch out and do something else. So what happened was during the early 2000s, there was a craze for online travel. Content was king, so I joined a local MNC site called backpackasia.com. So it was trying to become a Lonely Planet Online, and journalists and writers going around the world and writing their experiences about it, so that was kind of my foray into travel. What I did was more of content travel, so people were writing content, and competing against each other, and trying to make money. It was hard la, content was king but content also doesn’t make money for you, unlike today, where you can be a blogger with many many fans and converting it through nuffnang and the like.

So before this, there were numerous booking agencies like Reliance Travel, for people who wanted to travel overseas, they had to come to agencies like these. But Reliance was the first startup and called it Reliancetravel.com portal with the chairman, Dr. Gan, who took me under his wings, and I was in the company for close to 8 years. So that was kind of my foray from journalism, to online backpacking website for travel, to an e-commerce side. So during the early days, people were not buying online travel as much because payment was an issue. People look online, surf and see content, but they still prefer to call or talk to someone about it. So what changed everything was AirAsia. When AirAsia offered the 1 ringgit deal, it suddenly changed the landscape overnight, because then people were thinking, why not? It was only a ringgit, so they called up their children who had credit cards, to do it for them and booked flights. Then from there we have other portals like Agoda, Traveloka, these are now the current stage players, but you’ll see that in the real real early days, you would have probably never knew such dot coms existed.

What are some of the unique challenges that you’ve faced as the General Manager of the AirAsia Group?

What keeps me awake at night, that bothers me is competition, coming into the space, cos when you’re the top name in Malaysia, there’s always gonna be new players coming into the space. But competition is good, it helps you to keep on your toes, because when you’re too far ahead for too long, you lose sight of what the consumer really wants. So part and parcel of the challenge is to satisfy the 3PS, Price, Platform, S would be the Speed, and the other P would be……… I’ll come back to that hahaha.

So basically one of the most important things to focus on is the site, the site must load to within a few seconds and display the right prices, if not then the person would go somewhere else, and we lose a potential customer because most probably they’ll be comparing 3-4 sites at once. Last time you had to go to other platforms, because people like to cross device very often, like in the morning you’re on your computer, then at night you’re on your phone. So the decision when you buy, is not standardised on a single platform. I like the model Netflix uses. You watch Netflix on the computer, then pick up where you left off on your mobile, creating a very seamless experience, and I think now in this current age, it’s more important than ever, to create a seamless field of view through multiple platforms.

And to be able to notify customers of incoming deals is also important. For example if the prices of a certain trip that they have been looking has gone down, they will be notified through email. So there’s always this constant innovation to give the customer what they want, when they want it in a very subtle and targeted way. Ah yes, I remember! The last P was payment. It’s important because after the customer browses and goes to the final page, and when they want to pay, the payment option isn’t available. So we try to conform to the 3Ps to provide a good e-commerce service.

Since you’ve launched the Muslim-friendly browsing feature, which one of those are you excited about and how will this shape the experience of users on the AirAsiaGo?

The feature is something we have thought of for a while now, and we know we can’t just put a half-baked program and to be able to produce something strong and solid, everything has to go through a stringent test to make sure that all parts of the program, totally lives up to the expectations. A lot of agencies want to have a similar sort of feature, but it’s difficult. Many components are needed like the supply chain of hotels, need to be Muslim compliant. When you go to places like Japan and Korea where we’re trying to penetrate the Muslim market, which is very very popular with the segment, things like hotel cuisine need to be considered. Long story short, it’s a lot of work. But we’ve all that we done, we’ve seen noticeable increases in traffic as well as sales. It’s a slow-burner, but it’s a start, and hopefully it’ll expand into a much more stable platform.

Now that AirAsiaGo has developed its service, what can you tell us about what the future holds for this app?

The good thing about the online travel space, is that we’re always changing and listening to customers. We also have an innovation lab, several labs in fact. Basically what it does is that it helps localises the needs of the public. So we gather members of the public, sit them down in a dark room and ask them to browse the computer on travel sites. So we track their parameters such as eye movement, what they are looking at, even heart rates and muscle movement. It’s a very scientific way, to know and create what works for the customers, and we fine tune it into the app. It’s important that we get these things right so that the scientists know and are able to tailor certain things to make the app a friendlier experience to use.

We’re also thinking of implementing a reward system on the app, so for example like they can accumulate points and use the points to exchange something in AirAsia, and that will keep the product uniqueness of AirAsiaGo. So far we are the only service that gives benefits when customers are loyal to the brand.

Travel is becoming a lot more accessible now thanks in part to AirAsia. Where do you see the future of travel going, with many people looking for affordable but unique experiences around the SEA region?

I would say that, people are looking to do things on their own. Millennials mostly. Not from our parents’ time, where they’ll still go to Reliance or Mayflower. I think you’ll find that people nowadays they do plenty of research on their own, share the research with their friends, get more people to join in if they can, also use the mobile phone to do everything. Like using your phone to check in and not with the boarding pass.

I think where this is going is more towards ease of purchase. We’re looking for more seamless ways to interact with the website. We are now more aware now of what our competitors are offering, maybe similar features that will become homogenous to us. So what sets businesses apart from the rest is the brand value. I think AirAsia has that, offering unique travel destinations and the 2 items we feel that tie it all together are the fact that we offer flights as well as hotels in a single app.

Tell me more about yourself. What makes your perfect vacation?

Depends on my stage of life! I mean now, I’m married with 2 kids. They are the boss, they decide where I travel. They watch TV, they see Disneyland, Hong Kong, “Oh daddy, I wanna go there.” So the tourism part is quite random. They don’t really care which country they land, as long as there’s fun things to do. I guess that’s how I travel nowadays, hahahaha. Now that I have kids, we have to travel on specific times, like on school holidays, but we all know that prices are a bit steep on those periods, so we try to get before that or after hahahaha. Even I do a lot of checking to make sure that everything is sorted. Remember to plan early always, not at the last minute.

What do you enjoy most about travelling?

If it’s for work, like I go to Jakarta and Bangkok often, then it’s picking up all the local mixes, seeing how people live there and and adapt to that in a sense. If personal travel, well I used to do a lot of backpacking when I was young. I remember backpacking all the way to Saigon from KL, using the train and bus. The best part about it is that you don’t have to stay at expensive places to enjoy.

You can rent a cheap place, nowadays there’s plenty of choices on offer to fit how many people are in your travel group. If for like a 2 person getaway, then almost always the priority is food and shopping! Everything else, attractions and whatnot, depends on what you like, but there’s plenty of things to do anyway and you’re bound to find something that’ll suit your fancy.

What AirAsia destinations should our readers consider for their next trip and why?

Sihanoukville in Cambodia is a good place to start! So now we fly Siem Reap, but this is inland. If you want the beach, then we also fly to Sihanoukville. The place can be best described as Pattaya in Thailand, beautiful beaches, but retaining the Cambodian culture, and affordable! And it’s only a 2 hour flight to the destination, so it’s not too bad. Especially now, we have a lot of deals, so if you have a long weekend, then why not? We also are going to have our inaugural flight to Hawaii, sometime this month.

What advice would you give to young people looking to succeed in the Internet driven world of today?

I think it’s back on the 3Ps. If you succeed in these, you’re pretty much set to accomplish what you want. I read in a Singapore paper once that there are over 5000 startups in Singapore alone everyday, everybody wants to be the next Facebook. But not everyone will succeed. Everyone wants to start a dotcom, and secure funding, but it’s not always that simple. I think you have to create a product that has it’s own reach, a niche market first, then add value to that. Come up with something realistic to report to the investors, and hopefully it’ll go well. Consistency in your approach and method is important, be open to learning, and don’t be afraid to fail. At least when you know where you went wrong, you won’t repeat the same mistake twice.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in your 17 years in the travel industry?

Be passionate in your trade. It’s been 17 years now and I can’t see myself doing anything else other than this. Be disciplined, love what you do, and rest assured the results will deliver.