“As travelers, we focus on the journey,” says Jeff Katz of his new travel startup, Journera. “None of us are just focused on the flight or the hotel. It’s about the entire journey, whether it’s for work or for play.”


Jeff’s own journey has spanned nearly 40 years in travel and tech. An MIT-trained engineer, he worked his way up in the airline industry, spending nearly 17 years pioneering electronic reservation systems at American Airlines-owned Sabre before serving as CEO of Swissair.


Jeff Katz, CEO and founder of Journera (John Rosin/Technori)

For his next act, Jeff founded Orbitz, which was designed to compete with the first two big players on the scene –– Microsoft’s Expedia, and Travelocity, built on the Sabre software he had helped create. With investments from Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United Airlines, Orbitz launched in 2001. By 2003, the company went public.


But even though he was already a seasoned veteran of both travel and tech, Jeff says Orbitz had a humble start. “In the early days, I used to say ‘Orbitz is two guys and a dog. But the dog has a really good idea.’


“There were 10 or 15 of us in the beginning, and we didn’t have a line of code. Five years later, when the PR team was looking for a quote for our announcement, I said, ‘can we say, I can’t believe it worked?’”


It’s safe to say that it did. “We had excellent people at Orbitz,” says Jeff. “Some of them are working for Journera today because they have long experience and a high level of the craft in both the business of travel and the engineering of travel software.”


Plumbing for the travel industry


Founded in 2016, Journera is a software suite that travel companies can use to connect and provide options to consumers. Its core product, Journey Flow, is a secure, real-time data exchange platform that allows car rental, rideshare and lodging providers –– as well as restaurants and any other travel-related companies –– to proactively respond to travelers on their journey.


Consider this: your flight is delayed, but your Uber pickup and hotel reservation are updated automatically. Or your flight arrives before your hotel check-in time, and Journera enables that hotel to reach out and ask you if you’d like to check in early. Oh, and would you like to make a dinner reservation near the hotel?


Capturing and collecting data is nothing new for airlines, hotels and other travel-centric ventures. But in a hyper-competitive market, they tend keep it close. Journera’s APIs are changing that, allowing companies to create plug-and-play partnerships and seamless travel offerings on the fly.


“Journera is infrastructure,” says Jeff. “We’re plumbing. Which is a very respectable trade. And let’s face it, people make a lot of money there.”


Journera’s pipes run with the latest tech as well as a mix of veterans and new blood.


“We had hundreds of people building Orbitz from scratch and we have a really small, high-performance team building a much bigger mouse trap on the Journera platform,” Jeff says. “They handle hundreds of millions of live reservations today, using the very latest in machine learning and cognitive sciences to understand the customer and the data in real time.


“We couldn’t have even dreamed of doing that when we were building Orbitz. At Journera, there’s a combination of very experienced people and a lot of young people, too. They’re the leading edge expertise in data science and scaled real-time cloud computing. You weren’t going to hire people with 30 years of experience in that area, because it didn’t exist then. It’s not done much anywhere yet. It’s a brand new science.”


The Chicago advantage


Chicago headquarters are a common thread and a secret weapon that’s shared by Orbitz and Journera. “There are a lot of great people here and it is a center of commerce. It is the center of travel,”Jeff says.


“When we started Orbitz, it happened to be really opportune. There was a limited pool of people with experience building websites. But there were some elite players here, and we were able to grab a bunch and build the company from scratch.”


Today, Chicago’s elite tech talent is continuing to innovate under Jeff’s leadership in an office adjacent to the Merchandise Mart.


Because Journera is a B2B concept rather than a consumer-facing one, he’s particularly optimistic about its future in a market that’s constantly being disrupted. “Once you have a great customer base and provide benefits for your customers –– in our case, travel brands, you’re in it for a long time,” Jeff says.


“You’re part of the way those companies run their business. We don’t want to be one of those embedded companies that people love to hate. We want to create ways for businesses to elevate the customer experience.”


For Jeff, the recipe is a low buy-in, high-benefit model: “We call it low-friction –– the economics of elevating a guest’s experience, while all of the benefit goes to us and the brands. The infrastructure payment is small.”