Andy hudson, Ceo of down-route talks about the company’s room and expenses booking system, going free to operator
A few years ago, Andy Hudson, who was then CEO of charter broker company, Private Jet Central, opened discussions with a hotel booking chain. Hudson had an idea for a room and expenses booking system tailored precisely for the needs of the business aviation sector and wanted to find a way of linking up with the mainstream hotel booking aggregator services. The idea was to leverage the buying power of the major aggregators of hotels, to provide the pricing and the hotel database that his new product would require.
“Initially I was looking for a way of getting the hotel booking company a toehold in business aviation. My charter broking company had recently begun providing aircraft management services and we knew all about the complexities of securing crew bookings when a flight was going to take an aircraft away from its home base for one or more days,” Hudson reflects. The more the idea was discussed, the clearer it became that what was actually required was a software product that did not yet exist.
“We soon realised that ideally, what was needed was a combined crew expenses and booking service,” Hudson recalls. One of the perennial problems every operator faces when he or she is managing an aircraft for an owner is the need to meet the bills that the aircraft is generating today on its flight, and to accept that they will be out of pocket until the crew arrive back and present all the receipts. Only then can a proper, receipted invoice be prepared for the owner.
Of course, the operator could always ask the owner to pay a lump sum up in front that can be drawn on for en-route expenses. However, most operators would rather not test their relationship with the owner in this way and would rather simply provide a service and stand being out of pocket until they are reimbursed. However, they all have a natural interest in keeping that out-of-pocket period as short as possible.
The beauty of the product that Hudson was envisaging was that the operator would get all relevant receipts delivered back to them by the system virtually as soon as they were being incurred by the crew. The owner could then be billed that much sooner, and certainly well before the crew arrived back with all the physical receipts, thus enabling the operator to reduce their out-of-pocket window.
“What we came up with was a product that could kill at least two birds with one stone, and that would be absolutely free for the operators. It would manage all the expenses and would simplify room bookings for crews on away-from-base trips. The application would also give the operator a much greater measure of control – if they so wished – over room budgets, the kinds and brands of hotels that could be booked, distance from the airport, and so on,” Hudson explains.
Expenses outside the system, such as when the pilot pays for fuel on a fuel card, could be caught simply by the pilot choosing an option from a drop down menu on the app on his or her smartphone or tablet, and then photographing the receipt. The instant the photo is saved it is immediately sent through to the operator.
With plenty of ideas for the new booking and expense app, Hudson started to put together a new team. He chose Jerry Saddington, Head of Marketing at his charter operation to be Chief Marketing Officer, Andy Baker Chief Commercial officer and a technical software expert, Lance Reck, an old friend of his, to be the new company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO). With Reck, Hudson proved the truth of the old adage that while it is good to be talented, it is equally good to be lucky! Getting a top-flight CTO to work for a small start-up is not an easy sell. However, Hudson and Reck had worked together in the mid-2000s on a banking authentication application and knew each other well from those days.
“The banking application went very well but once the banking crash happened in 2008 it was dead in the water. At the time I went back into business aviation and founded Private Jet Central while Lance became involved in other projects. We kept in touch every year or so and when this came up, I knew I wanted to get him on board,” Hudson explains.
In the end it was a fairly easy deal to persuade Reck to join and handle the development of Hudson’s new project, which now officially became known as ‘down-route’, with its own company and team, completely separate from the charter brokerage business. The application has a huge potential client base in business aviation and can then be cloned to other industry sectors – but more of that in a moment.
Reck worked hard on the beta version and inside 8 months has been able to pull the product together to the point where down-route now has more than 80 operators signed up, and at the time of writing was about to begin beta testing.
“How it works is that an operator goes to our site and applies to register. We have some fairly rigorous checks to ascertain that they are indeed an operator. The site on-boarding process will ask for their AOC, and if there are any difficulties in the site registering them automatically, the application gets passed to our staff for manual checking and verification,” Hudson explains.
The reason for the careful vetting process is that down-route has specially arranged pricing on some 800,000 properties around the globe and it wants to keep access to these properties restricted to its target audience. “We accept companies that are affiliated to business aviation, such as a business aviation catering company, for example, that might not have a biz av-sounding company name. But that kind of application would fail the on-site registration and would have to be cleared manually by our team,” he notes.
Version 1.0 of the system that launched in November has the photo-supported expenses claims component. However, the next release of the software will include optical character recognition which will allow all the expense details to be stripped directly of the photo of the bill in text form. This will do away with duplicate re-keying at the operator’s side, and the system also enables the pilot to check to see that the OCR system has interpreted the bill correctly before sending it back to the operator.
Monthly bookings should grow substantially once the company begins to include additional vertical markets. “We had a very interesting visit to the Fort Lauderdale Super Yacht show recently. Both ship builders and owners and operators were very interested in a down-route product tailored to their industry. We have also had very good discussions with the maritime sector. This really is a business that can grow and grow, and provide a tremendous service first to the aviation sector and then to other verticals,” he concludes.