HALL OF FAME 2019

WiT is pleased to announce six more inductees to its Hall of Fame, which was launched in 2017 to recognise and honour individuals/ companies who have had the greatest influence on the progress and professionalism of the digital travel industry in Asia Pacific.


Here are our 2019 recipients:

Hichame Assi, CEO, HotelsCombined/managing director, APAC, KAYAK

A Third Culture Kid (TCK), born in France and of British and Syrian descent, Hichame Assi joined HotelsCombined, the Sydney-based hotel search engine and price aggregator as head of strategy, online marketing, in 2010. From there, he quickly rose up the ranks to CEO, taking the company from growth to growth and it was during his stewardship that the exit to Booking Holdings was accomplished in Dec 2018. Whatever you think of the valuation – some reports saying it was a steal for Booking – it was a well-deserved exit for a lean and self-funded team that remained focused on the customer and healthy partnerships since its founding in 2005.

 

Under Assi’s humble and quiet style of people-centric leadership, HotelsCombined achieved success in tough Asian markets like South Korea and Taiwan and it was clearly its success in this region that caught the attention of KAYAK. Today, as chief of APAC and Global Accommodation for KAYAK, Assi continues to wield influence in the APAC digital travel space, and uses his APAC experience to influence across other markets. He’s also an active mentor of startups in the Middle East and is an Advisor to RefugeeTalent, a tech startup that was formed at a TechFugees Hackathon. He is also involved with a US-based charity that does work with Syrians on the Turkish border.

Kei Shibata, CEO, Venture Republic

Kei Shibata is a pioneer in travel search in Japan. He and co-founder Kenichi, with no travel experience between them, decided to set up travel.jp in 2001  – when online travel was pretty nascent in Asia, let alone Japan. This was at least four years before Wego and Qunar were founded.

 

The early years were tough but the turning point happened between 2011 and 2013 when the company went through a series of transitions – IPO, followed by a management buyout, followed by the sale of its e-commerce business so that it could focus on travel. Its first attendance at WiT in 2010 opened Kei’s eyes to the possibilities of expansion and today, Venture Republic has investments in travel startups in markets such as South Korea and Singapore.

 

In July 2018, it struck a deal with LINE Corporation, which took a 34% equity in the company, making it the first online travel player in the world to “marry” a messaging giant, forever changing the notion of how travel can be distributed and sold.

Louise Daley, deputy CEO, Accor, APAC

Louise Daley is a good example of how you need not be limited by your specialisation. Trained as an accountant, Australia-born Daley rose up the ranks of Accor to become CEO of the Accor Plus loyalty dining programme (which is unique to APAC) and in 2016, became deputy CEO of Asia’s fastest growing hotel company.

 

Her first attendance at WiT in 2011 opened her eyes to the burgeoning travel tech and startup ecosystem in APAC. Recognising that technology would further disrupt the hospitality industry, she stepped up to the challenge of immersing herself in, and engaging with the travel tech startup ecosystem.

 

Driven by an entrepreneurial spirit she’s leading the charge in innovation and tech at Accor in APAC, acting as advisor to several startups. She is particularly interested in the food & beverage sector, and played a key role in the acquisition of Glasgow-based RezDiary, a restaurant management and reservations platform.

 

As the only executive from Asia sitting on the New Business board of Accor, she is always keeping a lookout for interesting startups that Accor can develop partnerships with.

 

Daley is also active with organisations which mentor and coach young talent to give them opportunities in building meaningful careers in hospitality.

Stuart Crighton, CEO & founder, Cleartrip

Building an OTA in India is a tough calling, and it’s even tougher when you’re a foreigner, but that hasn’t stopped Stuart Crighton from building Cleartrip, which he co-founded in 2006, into one of the country’s most successful travel startup stories. Crighton, whose father was born in Mysore and who grew up with the smell of curry wafting from his paternal grandparents’ kitchen, will be the first to tell you how challenging it’s been – the early rejections during fund-raising, legal troubles which almost landed him in jail, the insanely competitive and complex landscape of India.

 

Yet he’s innovated and persevered in building up Cleartrip not only in India, but also the Middle East. Its acquisition of Saudi Arabia’s Flyin in 2018 gave it a solid beach-head for expansion in a rapidly emerging market. It’s raised funds from investors such as Concur Technologies, DAG Ventures and Gund Investment Corporation and it now has the mission of becoming the OTA to the emerging world. One thing’s for sure, if you can make it in India, you can make it anywhere.

Stephan Ekbergh, CEO, Travelstart

Legend has it that he started Travelstart with $25,000. Well, if legend is right, then Stephan Ekbergh has certainly come a long way. He certainly has gone a long way to achieve success. In 2004, after having built up Travelstart in Sweden, he moved his family to Capetown, South Africa, to take on a new country and continent.

 

His career in travel, which spans more than 30 years, has been full of ups and downs, from riches to rags to riches – and today, Travelstart stands poised to expand its business across Africa (with new investors behind it) as well as the Middle East. Its forte is emerging markets and Ekbergh loves conquering new frontiers.

 

He’s said he’s driven by naivety. “It’s a great quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuitable you are to do what you’re about to do. I have been naïve in believing that you could build a multibillion rand company with no external capital when you’re up against well-funded players. I’ve been naïve in believing I could create superstars out of people with no school or natural ability, I’ve been naïve in trying to build ‘kick-ass’ technology solutions with very little means and on and on.”

 

The second trait is perseverance “which is a great replacement for talent. Talent is overrated anyway. If you train twice as hard for twice as long as your peers and if you constantly move your endgame forward, your chances grow exponentially. Naivety and perseverance have served me well.”

Gillian Tans, chairwoman, Booking.com

A true pioneer in online travel, Gillian Tans joined Booking.com in 2002 and was there when Priceline acquired the company in July 2005 for $135m in cash. Not only did she stay through the transition and integration but broke the glass ceiling to become CEO, a role she held from April 2016 to June 2019, before being named Chairwoman.

 

Under her watch, Tans launched in 2017 Booking Booster, a 3-week, zero-equity accelerator programme and €2 million fund to support scale-ups to grow their sustainable tourism venture. Each year, it brings 10 startups to Amsterdam to put their business plans and impact to the test. Startups from Asia have frequently shone in this programme.

 

An advocate as well for women in tech, she also led Booking’s initiative this year to grant €500,000 in scholarships to undergraduate and postgraduate women studying computer science, engineering, technology, and mathematics, in partnership with Spelman College and Cornell University in the United States, as well as the Indian Institute of Science-Bangalore and the Thapar Institute of Engineering and Technology in India.

 

“The future of innovation is in the hands of men and women equally, and it’s our responsibility to help right the sails,” she says.

 

As chairwoman, advising the company’s leadership on the long-term vision and operations for the business as well as key growth initiatives, Tans continues to wield great influence on the future of online travel around the world.