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Navigating e-commerce success in travel and beyond

Fail Faster

Episode 436


20 minutes

Join us on the Fail Faster podcast as we delve into the world of high-impact, high-visibility e-commerce strategies with Hailong Shen, Director of eCommerce Technology at Royal Caribbean.

He shares insights from his extensive career in the travel industry, touching on his experiences at American Airlines and Royal Caribbean Group. Discover how Heilong’s fail-fast mentality and focus on customer-centric innovation have contributed to the success of these industry giants. From streamlining payment processes to navigating challenges during COVID-19, we explore the dynamic world of e-commerce and its pivotal role in shaping exceptional travel experiences. Tune in for valuable tips on personalization, user experience, and the future of e-commerce in the cruise industry. Don’t miss this engaging conversation with a leader who’s truly steering the ship towards a brighter future in e-commerce and travel.

Podcast transcript

Vandana: Hello, Hailong. How have you been?

Hailong: Doing great. 

Vandana: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us on the fail faster podcast with our audience right here. And I would love for you to give us an introduction about your role a little bit about your background. Before we begin. 

Hailong: Sure. I’m Hailong and currently work as the director of engineering at Royal Caribbean as part of the global e-commerce group. So we’re responsible for the B2C websites for Royal Caribbean celebrity cruises. My sort of career background is I’ve started my career initially with American Airlines. I was there for about a decade. And really most part of my career has been mainly in the travel industry. 

I think it’s a fantastic industry to be love to travel myself. And I’ve also done a bunch of startups in between. So left American joined some startups, did some consulting, but found like travel is still where my right area of interest and where I did most of my domain and career. So here I am.

Vandana: Awesome. Very good. Could you tell us about some of the successful initiatives that you have been a part of at Royal Caribbean group? 

Hailong: And do you want to maybe perhaps talk about the previous ones because I did also work at American Airlines. So when I was at American Airlines, I was also mainly working with the e-commerce group over there, right, a.com. So I did a lot of work around the websites in terms of booking, like the booking process, reservations, a lot of loyalty. So I was part of the redesign of American Airlines loyalty program on the engineering side, right? I’ve always been an engineering career for me. 

At Royal, I initially started in the HR technology side. So we manage on the systems that support the 70,000 crew members at Royal. So spent two years over there. And now back to sort of my e-commerce right world we’re supporting, like I said earlier, the e-commerce websites. 

Vandana: So what is it about e-commerce that keeps bringing you back to that? What do you like about it? 

Hailong: Yeah, well, two things, right? One is high impact, high visibility, right? It’s, you know, e-commerce always bring a lot of revenue, right? You know, you’ve got the giants like Amazon, but essentially, it’s where consumers go and shop right for the experience and for the products. So that’s one set of things. And then second is also just the technology front end, right? So, you know, e-commerce isn’t around, and has been a game changer for everyday life. So in the last 20, 30 years, there has been a lot of innovation in this area, I think companies continue to find new ways to be innovative, and bring better customer experience, right? 

Vandana: So that is amazing. And that is a very vital point, right? Like, if you’re not able to touch upon the right nerve with your customers on the e-commerce platform, and establishing the security and the trust that they deserve, it’s not the right, you know, asset anymore than for the business. 

So I would love to know, what are some of the nuances of, you know, creating that impact that you’re talking about, with the e-commerce technology, knowing the customer’s mindset, like, what do you think about, especially when it comes to the user interface and the user experience? What are some of the things that you think about? 

Hailong: Yeah, and like, you know, like I said, like a majority of my experience has been in travel industry, and probably e-commerce too, right, even in America. And I wouldn’t say it’s always tying back to the customer, right? You want to understand what challenges your customer facing. And in this day of age, it’s so important that you’re not as opinionated, and you want to focus on sort of data learning. And I know this, this podcast is more about Fail Faster, right? Which I was very interested about, sort of how do we experiment in a way where it allows us to do things a creative way. 

But at the same time, I think at the end of the day, it’s all about tying back to the customers, right? Like you want to know what challenges and problems they’re facing. I’ll give some example, right? A long time ago, an American, we used to have a booking process specifically for the payment part, that used to take many seconds, right? At one point, there’s like six, seven seconds for the payment to complete. And that could be problematic, right? As a customer, if you hit the pay button, and it takes like a long time, you could be right, going back and doing things. 

So many things could happen or just a negative experience. And so at that time, right, we figure out what the challenge is, and we focus on those challenges. And really, right, to your point, it’s making that seamless experience for the customer whenever they’re on the e-commerce platform. 

Vandana: What have been some of the hiccups, like the failures, let’s say you set out to do something with a particular outcome in mind, and that did not happen for you? Were there any times that you encountered any setbacks as you were rolling out a project or a product? And then what did you learn from those? 

Hailong: To me, this is almost like part of the norm, right? You know, nothing ever goes smooth, right? There’s always going to be different problems. And every sort of, you know, what do you want to call it project or initiative? They’re unique in its own way. And you have your unique challenges for each, right? Some are infrastructure related. Some are right dynamics of like, you could be working with different partnership, different groups, with competing priorities. Sometimes this again, going to the fail faster as you thought something could work in a certain way. 

And, you know, you’d launch and deploy something, but the result is not what you think, right? Again, but it’s going back to sort of the main topic to me, it’s about speaking market, but at the same time, fail faster, right? How can we quickly learn a test of hypothesis, right? And that we figure out is it worth the investment? 

Vandana: Yeah. And we all have been through a very tough time, especially the cruise industry and the travel industry in general, but more so the cruise industry through COVID. And I’m sure that innovations and disruptions kind of took some shape in that during that time or coming out of that time. Can you talk about some of the things that Royal Caribbean Group, you know, did as or the mindset shifts that happened coming out of COVID, looking at a new era to serve the guests outside of COVID? 

Hailong: Yeah, I mean, like, you know, our leadership is very proactive and they’re, right, like very smart and caring, right, when it comes to the industry and what we’re doing with not just our customers, but also our internal employees and crews, you know, COVID definitely had a big impact on the travel industry in general. But we’re always focusing on what do we need to do, right? So when, you know, COVID hit us, we had to make sure our crew members are safe, they can safely get home. And then once COVID stops, it’s all about getting back, right, and getting everybody back safely, right, to whether it’s selling with us or making sure our employees are safe, right, from the pandemic. Yeah. 

Vandana: And when it comes to eCommerce, right, it can be like people are always feeling like, how much information to share, right? But there is always a tug of war between personalizing and experience and also managing the security aspect of that information that your customers are trying to share with you, right? So what are some of the things that you are thinking about as you’re creating the eCommerce experience for the, let’s say, booking eCommerce experiences? That’s where the rubber meets the road, right? So what are some of the things that you’re thinking about personalizing that experience and making it better for the future? 

Hailong: Well, I mean, I don’t know if I want to share the details of right, all the things that we do around, like, especially personalization side, there are a lot of innovative things we’re looking at. And there’s a lot of cutting technology that we’re working with. But just, you know, 

Vandana: Okay, understood. 

Hailong: It’s good to share. 

Vandana: Understood. And what is on the horizon now, whatever you can share, like, we want to know, what is Royal Caribbean to me and my family, I can only talk about me, but Royal Caribbean has been this brand, which really thinks about, you know, everybody’s experience on the cruise ship, right? So it’s not whatever be your family mix and ages, it just, you know, that’s what we the brand is always thinking about, how can they maximize their time on the ship? So what are some of the things that folks can look forward to? 

Hailong: Yeah, I mean, we’re always focused on the experience side, right? As you said, it’s all about vacation, how do we bring the best vacation experience right to our customers, our guests, right, both from a selling perspective, and then just on the ship, off the ship, I think you probably have seen right on the news, there’s a lot of good, amazing, right products and ship that are coming out, you got the iCub class that’s going to launch in 2024. 

So I mean, these are like, to me, like miraculous products, right, that we’re able to build, and I’m very fortunate to be part of it. So for us, it’s all about sort of bridging the gap, right? How do we give the guests right, the customers, the best information that they can see, whether it is from a presentation perspective, from a purchasing experience perspective, we have great, the greatest products, right? It’s all about making sure all the other experience lines up with the product experience that we have. 

Vandana: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. What are some of the challenges that you see to be able to keep up, you know, with the competition, like everybody, the cruise industry is all very crowded, but still, but you have been able to manage to be one of the top brands. So what are some of the things that you continue to foster in the teams? 

Hailong: Yeah, well, so my main responsibility is on the engineering side. So it’s more about like, making sure number one, working with our product teams and leaders to make sure we’re meeting the goals that we’re trying to do. But my responsibility is making sure to your point right from security, from scalability, right, just making sure we’re using modern technology to solve problems. So more focus on engineering. 

Vandana: Awesome. Anything else Hailong that I haven’t asked that you would like to share as a tip or technique to leaders who are, maybe to the young people who are trying to get into the travel industry? 

Hailong: Well, I mean, like I said, if people like to travel, it is a great place to understand. To me, it’s a fortune, right, to work on things that you have interest in. If I was not a fan of travel, then you wouldn’t have as much time. At the same time, whether it’s the airline or cruising industry, I myself as a customer, right, because I like to travel, I fly, I take cruises. So it is always easier to relate to sort of how do we what matters most to the guests and to the customers. 

My only I guess my question to your point additional stuff is, I was very interested in this conversation because of the fail faster part, right? So would love definitely to chat more around that topic. 

Vandana: Let’s chat more. Tell me, tell me what failed for you when you were on a cruise ship and last time, and you thought that this was a product, this was an experience you wanted, but it wasn’t the same. 

Hailong: That never happened. 

Vandana: Okay. So tell me more about failures that you have encountered. 

Hailong: Do you want to talk about maybe a positive example or negative example? 

Vandana: I would say fail fast. 

Hailong: Yeah. Okay. So to me, there are two sides, right? So there’s a positive side where, right, so we, I don’t want to mention this specific, but we work on projects where there has high impact, high value, right? Like I mentioned, maybe cutting technology, there’s definitely a benefit of it. If you can do something quick  you figure out the learning part of does that really meet the hypothesis that we had right around that in terms of like negative experience, going sort of relying on back to my personal career, besides the travel industry part of it, right? 

I mentioned I have been into many startups and you know, as you’re younger, you wanted to sort of move faster, right? To move fast, one of the ways would it be doing like a startup and just to do things that you’re going to move faster and working with a smaller group of people to potentially hoping to change things. I had a lot of personal learning. To me, that’s a fail fast experience, right? Because my startup experience was never long. I’ve never worked at a startup for four or five longer years. Maybe it is something that I could try, you know, in another life or something, right? 

But it was fail fast, right? I went to startup typically for six months to a year. And due to different reasons, a lot of learning, right? It’s a very different world. It’s very chaotic. You don’t always just work on the work site, right? You may have to worry about funding, worry about budget, worry about another round of contract, continue the business. There are different people in the startup world that you have to work with that they may be doing different things, right, than you would predict. So very chaotic, I guess the sort of the fail fast there for me would be I quickly figure out that’s probably not for me, you know, especially if I have a family, right? 

I mean, some sort of some part of stability, right? So I think that’s a fail fast experience for me where you quickly try something out, you know, you never know until you try it out. Like if you just keep doing a career path without going to a startup world, you wouldn’t know what it’s like, you would probably always be thinking about, hey, well, what if I’d done this? What if I’d done something else? So again, it’s fail fast. 

Vandana: Absolutely. So what did you bring a lot of learnings from that place of being in that ecosystem to establish? 

Hailong: Yes, absolutely. I mean, there’s entrepreneurship, right? Like even at a bigger place, a bigger company, a bigger enterprise, there’s going to be many areas where you need that entrepreneurship. Like I always believe that even if you’re working for a bigger company, but at the smaller groups, especially if you’re on the front side, right, if you’re working on a cutting technology, you do need that entrepreneurship mindset, right, to push certain things forward. 

Vandana: Absolutely. And what are some of the tips and tricks there? Like how do you make other stakeholders to take faster decisions on your ideas? 

Hailong: It is about data and facts, right? I think, which is kind of also common sense, right? I think for the most part, we don’t want to, again, it’s not to focus on things, right? It’s not, most of the time, it’s not about saying, hey, I think this is a great idea. But rather than focusing on, we believe this could achieve this outcome, and backing it up with facts and data to show why we believe so. 

And then that’s where the fail fast come in, right, which is, okay, how can we limit the cost of delivering something fast, right, and potentially valuable, like a minimal viable, right, solution, product, and then learn from that. 

Vandana: Awesome. Well, this was such a great time with you. Hailong, if there’s anything, let’s say if I was to put what Hailong said on a slogan, maybe on a ship, on a Royal Caribbean ship, what would that be? 

Hailong: Ah, I don’t know if I want to put on a royal slogan, like, we have a lot of….

Vandana: I mean, your belief as a slogan, something that you really believe in, as a slogan on a ship, because you work in Royal Caribbean or anywhere, for that matter, to guide people to give them something to believe in or hang on to. 

Hailong: Yeah, I mean, you know, so I think what we do here, again, it’s about the experience of the customer, right? Now, I don’t know if I could come up with a slogan to put it somewhere. Frankly, I might not be prepared to come up with a slogan. 

Vandana: That’s fine. That’s fine. Maybe it is. Experience is king. 

Hailong: Yeah, it is. 

Vandana: Okay, well, thank you so much for being on the show, for coming on our podcast today. Thank you so much. 

Hailong: Thank you. 

Vandana: Wishing you all the best in all the stuff that you’re doing. 

Hailong: It’s a pleasure. 

Vandana: Thank you.

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