Marko BalabanovicMarko Balabanovic won an award for Innovation in Multichannel Marketing at Econsultancy’s Innovation Awards last year, and this year he is a member of the judging panel.

I’ve been talking to Marko, who is Head of Innovation at, about labs, how the team looks to innovate, and some of the products it has created…

Can you tell me about the innovation team at

Within the European side of the business, we have a small group called labs, which is responsible for the more ‘risky’ projects. This means we can develop and build new projects and launch them in beta to see if it works out or not, and get feedback from customers.

Where does it sit within the organisation? Do you have much autonomy?

It is designed to be reasonably independent, and operates a little like a startup within Unlike the average startup though, we are launching a lot of different products, four last year, and three so far in 2009.

We operate reasonably separately from the rest of the company, and we have license to try things out. If something doesn’t work, we can quickly withdraw a new product or service and kill it.

However, if it turns out to be successful, then we can transfer the product to another area of the company.

What kind of innovations have you introduced recently?

This year, we are concentrating exclusively on mobile products, but last year we worked on different ways to do search on the site.

With most travel sites, people have to enter destinations, leaving dates, airports, return dates: lots of fields to fill in before they can search, which is sometimes not very inspiring.

To get around this, we created Pronto, which is a single box where you can type in a specific query. For example, ‘I want to go to Paris’, I want a hotel in Venice’ and so on. Pronto makes sense of these sentences and produces results that match.

When did it come about?

The labs team has been going for two years in its current form, but
there was previously a smaller team looking at the development of new
products. There are seven of us in the team, including me.

One element is trying to encourage innovation across the company as a
whole, so we have events like an bi-annual hack day, where we have 24
hours to build and create something new.

We’re not the only part of the company that is innovative, but this was
set up because it is easier to look at new technical ideas in this way.

Is it more difficult to innovate in a recession? Do you have to work harder to justify investment?

There is always going to be an increased focus on how money is being
spent when the economy id like it is, but the things we are doing are
experimental and we are not directly affected by monthly financial

Which of your concepts have been adopted for the main website?

The Pronto search feature has gone from an experimental activity to being something that customers can use. It isn’t heavily promoted on the UK site, but it’s a tool we offer our affiliate networks, and it’s a search option on the French version of the website. We’re in the process of proving its worth.

How has it worked so far?

It has been quite popular so far, and it has the added benefit that, because you have given people a search box that enables them to type what they want, you can learn more about the kinds of searches that people want to do.

This is information you wouldn’t normally find out through the standard search fields, and helps us to see trends and adapt the main site to suit this.

Are pureplays / young companies like more likely to be innovative?

There is definitely a culture of innovation in this company, and a spirit of trying new things out.

It has always had this spirit of innovation, and the brand itself has that reputation. Perhaps people who want to come and work here are those that are willing to try new things out. I’m no sure age has anything to do with it, but there is an atmosphere in the company that makes this easier.

Can you tell me about the NRU iPhone / Android app?

We’ve been trying to see how, with the new classes of mobile handsets that have been released over the last 9-12 months, which features like compasses and accelerometers, we can create apps to make the most of these phones. It provides the opportunity to build a much more interactive experience for customers.

NRU visualises the things that are available around you, cafés, restaurants by moving the phone around. We launched it for Android phones at the beginning of the year, and more recently for the new iPhone 3GS. 

Where does the content for the app come from?

In Europe, we use a mixture of restaurants from our FoneFood app, and also pull in content and reviews from Qype. In the US we partner with ZAGAT for content and reviews.

What else are you doing with mobile this year?

We’re trying to move beyond our current apps, and to be cleverer about recommending based on the current context; location for instance. We have three new products launching soon, but I’m unable to give any detail on those at the moment.

We are trying to take a step back from the current model that a person is at a desk typing search terms into Google and accessing the site’s homepage.

As things progress, there will be more contexts in which people are accessing the site and services, there will be more movement between different devices; laptops, iPhones, netbooks etc.

If you develop just for the desktop web, you don’t have to worry about contexts, but there are a lot of ideas that could work in different situations and on different devices.

Do you see customers booking and making transactions on via mobile?

Completely. Even now, there is nothing to stop this happening, other than the fact that many companies have not adapting their sites to allow this to happen, creating smaller versions of booking forms and checkouts.