In this instalment of Payments Powerhouses, we chat with Mary Li, founder and CEO at Atlas, about opportunities and challenges in the travel industry, insights on building innovative solutions to make travel more accessible, and key lessons on being a woman in leadership.
Mary Li is a renowned entrepreneur and travel industry specialist. She is the founder and CEO at next-generation low-cost carrier content enabler Atlas, her third travel-tech startup, following Wingon Travel and Aslan, China's B2B flight booking platform acquired by Alibaba's Alitrip (now Fliggy).
Mary: Aslan and Atlas are company names my daughter came up with when she was young. She picked Aslan [the noble golden lion who epitomises goodness in C. S. Lewis's classic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia] as she hoped her mom could be a hero who could save the world. Later on, during a visit to a map exhibition at the National Gallery in Singapore, she picked the name Atlas, as she wanted me to see the world from her eyes.
Regarding my obsession with the travel industry – to be honest, before I went into travel, work was just a job, but I began to find that very frustrating. I wouldn't be sitting here today if I'd kept it up for 10 years without travelling. Travel offers me the unique opportunity to connect with the world and connect with people. That's the mission of my company and my team: to offer the world affordable travel opportunities. We want to enable more people to travel because travel creates inclusion and acceptance in the world.
Within the travel industry, there are flights, accommodation, and activities; Atlas specifically focuses on flights. We view flights in two groups according to their distribution channels. Traditional airlines distribute their content through global distribution systems, similar to Singapore Airlines. Low-cost carriers or budget airlines handle distribution themselves, and Atlas works with them to reach more customers. We integrate their content, services, pricing, and inventories into one simple API that we distribute to agencies globally. Our aim is to make affordable air tickets from low-cost carriers more accessible to people all over the world.
Today, we have integrated over 200 airlines. Globally, almost 50% of air capacity is driven by low-cost carriers. A lot of people don’t realise that and to ignore it, is missing out on nearly half the flight capacity available to travellers.
First, let me talk about why low-cost carriers use their own distribution channels. A traditional Global Distribution System (GDS), a worldwide reservation system that acts as a conduit between travel bookers and suppliers, such as hotels, other accommodation providers and other travel related services, could cost a lot. For example, for a flight from Bangkok to Phuket on a Thai airline, it might cost $40 one-way, but you'd have to pay the GDS at least $5 or $10. That's a huge fraction of the cost.
Another thing is traditional airlines sell packages to passengers. When passengers purchase a ticket on Singapore Airlines, most don't realise they're also paying for movies, games, music, a glass of wine, and so on. But younger generations now don't want to be forced into buying packages; they want to personalise, because they have their own devices, they can watch whatever they want, or perhaps they just wish to sleep.
These two reasons are why there are two distribution channels in the flight industry, and this only came about quite recently. There aren't many players offering solutions to this problem. The benefits of low-cost carriers lie in helping passengers save costs and increasing personalisation, but they face difficulties in distribution. Language is one challenge – it's difficult for a Chinese person to understand Thai, and it's difficult for a Singaporean to purchase a ticket to South America. Another difficulty lies in payment: with so many payment methods, there are now many fraud cases worldwide.
Atlas is quite young. We started in 2019, just before Covid. It was sad! We had just conceived Atlas and were getting good volume before the pandemic hit. We had to switch off our distribution channel then and only started switching on our API and expanding our market last August. Nonetheless, we've built a very good reputation in Europe and the Middle East, and more online travel agencies have been reaching out to work with us.
ATRIP is a really interesting platform. When we started to work with agencies last year, we saw engineers or product teams communicating through emails, which was highly inefficient. I wanted to build something to help our agency clients easily visualise our API, our products, and especially our capabilities. Also, I'm a very confident person, and I don't shy away from showing my capabilities. I don't mind if people copy what I do. If my company and my team's products are so easily copied, then they’re not strong enough. I have confidence that ATRIP can’t be replicated.
One of our values is to ‘openly share’, so I told my team, let's visualise our API and show everything that we have, and show the agencies that we can address whatever pain points they have and how they can benefit from us through integration and implementation. We’re transparent about how many airlines we have, the areas where we're good or not, so that it's easy for them to make choices. So, that's what sparked ATRIP. Last year we released the ATRIP Flight Deck which is an agency’s control centre into everything they need to more efficiently manage their low-cost carrier bookings. It’s backed by data intelligence that is second-to-none.
There’s been some disappointment in the Asia Pacific region; today, we’re still 40% behind pre-Covid capacity. Why? Because China’s borders are closed [Editorial note: China reopened its borders shortly after this podcast was recorded]. China makes up more than 22% of market share, especially in the ASEAN region.
Let's look at flights. Airlines suffered a lot during COVID, and they were forced to reduce the frequency of flights. The spike in fuel prices has also made airlines very cautious in resuming more flight schedules. Today, everyone who wants to travel is finding it expensive. Europe started their recovery in March, and as Europe showed strong resilience, America and MENA followed. But in the Asia Pacific region, each country has its own restrictions, and people in Asia were also more cautious about travelling again.
Since 2021, we’ve seen more domestic flights in Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Recently when travelling, I saw that Chiang Mai was starting promotions to get more Thai people to travel there. In Siem Reap, there were promotions targeted at Cambodians too.
The travel industry has advanced technology, but it’s still quite traditional. Most companies believe they can build everything in-house.
I always consider what I'm good at and what I'm not good at. In the areas that are not our core-business, we’d coordinate with partners; for example, we’d look for partners like 2C2P for payments. I strongly believe that everybody has limited time and resources, so why not focus on your strengths and give the opportunity to other people and companies to work on what they are good at?
Back in 2019, I met up with some of my friends, and they would ask me, “Mary, why are you so lucky while we’re struggling to build our companies?” I told them that I'm actually not so smart, so my team and I focus on doing one thing well. I'm aware of who I am and the strengths of my company.
Firstly, we need to talk about global localisation. What does global mean? And what does localisation refer to? So, typically, travel companies use a universal API. But from my experience, every country and every agency has different requests. Even definitions for the same word can differ. When we talk about words like ‘segment’ or ‘instantaneity’, these are defined differently in different countries. So I thought about how Atlas could build something where global developers and operators can openly share their localisation experience and localisation knowledge to enable a simple universal API to become more localised. That's one challenge.
Another challenge lies in payments. It's still a huge pain point for the travel sector. How can we acquire instantly, with a lower risk of fraud, and how do we manage foreign exchange rates? That's another area where we need greater innovation.
Travel has two parts to it. We refer to one part as high touch, which means when you go to a hotel, you expect someone to attend to you, experience the smells, and perhaps get a hug. A large part entails human connection; otherwise, why do we travel? The other part is unique knowledge. When I was in a museum in Cairo, Egypt, I really wanted to immerse myself in the story, in the history, travel back 1,000 years, and lie down with an Egyptian pharaoh. And that part, bringing us back 1,000 years, is what AR and the metaverse can do. I think it can really help us experience history, and we always need to learn from history to avoid mistakes.
Many people ask me about my two years of working experience in India and how I survived there. In fact, I not only survived, I really loved India. Another thing is people always ask me to pick a country I've travelled to that I love. I can't, because I love everywhere I've been! Without this diversity, you can't know your limitations.
Atlas is a global company, and being a global company means having an inclusive culture. That means accepting different cultures and different kinds of people.
As the founder of the company, I spend most of my time with people. I always tell everybody that I'm not the hero; I have a wonderful team that makes the company what it is today. My job is to talk to people, listen to them, and share my vision and strategy, according to the different kinds of positions and cultural backgrounds, making the company strategy understood by every person.
I start my days with a 7 AM meeting with our New Zealand team, and I go to bed late after speaking to our European team. But I truly care about my team and whether they're happy. I tell everyone they can text me anytime they need support, and I’ll do my best to call them and listen to them.
I always believe I'm nobody; I'm just a normal, middle-aged Chinese woman. It's my team who are the heroes. My entire job, my entire responsibility, is to set the stage for them.
I don't normally share such advice because I believe everybody walks their own journey, and that experienced journey is your life. But I can just share my approach.
For 2023, I picked up a word for myself: honesty. Why honesty? As a female CEO, a woman, a mom, and a daughter, being honest with myself means showing up wholly as myself and accepting my weaknesses. I accept how I look, my body, and my emotions. I accept that I have the talent to compete and to work on a perfect product. That honesty has given me huge relief.
Many female leaders, and many women, struggle to be satisfied with themselves. They doubt if they are good enough, or they blame themselves. I used to always blame myself, questioning myself by saying, "I'm not good enough. Why can't I manage things well?" I underestimated myself, which became a huge issue for me for a long time until I figured out what it means to be honest to myself, my teams, and the people around me. If there's one piece of advice for all the women in the world, especially for female leaders, it would be to have more confidence.
Yes, I set up resolutions for myself every year. I enjoy reading novels, and when setting up my resolutions, my daughter advised me to be practical, increase my skills and read more business-related books. Things I don't like, but sometimes, you have to do things you don't like. So this year, I have to listen to more industry podcasts and read research reports. That's one of my resolutions.
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Payments Powerhouses is a monthly editorial series interviewing the movers and shakers of the payments and wider fintech industry in Southeast Asia and beyond. If you’d like to be featured on Payments Powerhouses, reach out to us here.