Gillian Tans interview

Your dream tech career doesn’t need to start in tech – ask Gillian Tans

About a month ago I started planning a little vacation. It involved a trip to Bali (booked via a travel agent) and a trip to New York. For New York I shopped around for the best accommodation deals but chose to stay away from AirBnB – not because I don’t rate the offering but because for this particular trip I wanted breakfast included and, as such, was looking for a hotel.

I ended up using Booking.com

The booking experience was relatively easy and painless. I’ve got a great spot booked in Time Square for New Years and I’m rather excited for a break in my favourite city. In April 2016, Booking.com announced Gillian Tans as their CEO (though she has been serving as president since January 2015 and was Chief Operating Office from September 2011). Interestingly enough, Gillian’s career didn’t start in tech and the web. She actually worked for a hotel group and started out in hotel management.

You don’t need to study tech to be in it

Gillian is proof that you don’t necessarily have to study tech to work in the industry. She’s also a great example to women everywhere potentially struggling in the sector or attempting to leave their footprint on it. I had the opportunity to take up some of Gillian’s time and ask her some questions about her role at Booking.com and how she transitioned in to the tech space.

Here is what she had to say:

Gillian Tans interview

Interestingly – I used Booking.com recently when planning for a New York holiday. This was despite being told to try a competitor that works on a sharing economy model. Has the rise of apps like Airbnb effected Booking.com at all? 

 That’s great to hear! I hope you had an amazing time in New York. It’s one of my favourite cities. Many people don’t realise it, but we’ve actually been offering holiday homes, villas, and cool city apartments on Booking.com for many, many years. In fact, we now feature 30 different accommodation types on Booking.com with 2 million choices in homes and apartments alone. As more and more people look to explore different types of stay experiences when they travel, we are continually making sure that the diversity of our offering meets and exceeds our customers’ expectations. Has Airbnb had an impact on the industry? For sure, but we welcome competition and disruption to our industry as it only serves to inspire us to keep innovating and creating new and incredible experiences for travellers who are looking for their perfect stay, no matter who they are or what they’re looking for.


One of the biggest issues with online booking is the fear of making an error in dates or the like. What checks and balances does Booking.com have in place to offer a safe way to book accommodation (and change it) ?

 At Booking.com, we want to make the entire booking experience as intuitive and convenient for our customers as possible. In case you’ve made a mistake in entering your dates in your initial search, you can easily update this on the property page. If you’re about to enter your payment details and notice that the dates are wrong, you can also easily go back and make changes. In essence, until you click that final confirmation button, you can make all the changes you want. We’ve learned over the years that our customers love flexibility. Mistakes can happen or plans can change and we get that. That’s why the vast majority of properties that list on our site offer at least some rates that offer free cancellation. This gives you the peace of mind you need to feel safe during the booking process that if you need to make changes, you can do that without penalty. Just make sure to always look for these free cancellation rates if there is any uncertainty to your plans. They are specially highlighted and easy to find. Now let’s say the worst happens. You’ve made a mistake or you have some urgent issue and you’ve made a booking that doesn’t come with free cancellation and now you need to cancel it or make changes. No worries! Just call our customer service team. They are available 24/7 and can help you find a solution so that you can get back to planning or enjoying your travel ASAP.

Gillian Tans interview

How much money does Booking.com take from each transaction? 

 Unlike some other companies in the online travel and e-commerce space, Booking.com only receives commission from one of its accommodation partners after a customer has stayed at their property and paid for their stay. At Booking.com, we develop products and innovative services that enable customers from all of the world to find their ideal accommodation in the most seamless and enjoyable way possible—and for that we do receive a commission from our partners, but only when it results in an actual stay that makes them money. Our commission rates globally are around 15% and amongst the lowest in the industry. We want our partners to succeed and grow their businesses in what is becoming an increasingly global and digital industry, but we don’t believe in passing any of those costs of doing business along to our customers. That’s why we don’t charge any booking fees to our customers at Booking.com and we never will. This is the way we’ve worked from the beginning and we believe it’s what’s enabled us to continue to delight travellers with the most amazing choice of incredible places to stay in the world, all for a great price.

Gillian Tans interview

As a woman in the tech space – have you ever felt your gender to be a hindrance to your career? On the same comment has it had a benefit to your career? 

 Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Netherlands and had lots of strong female role models in my life, including my own mother, but I have never felt that my gender had anything to do with my success in the business world or the tech space. I’m very curious by nature, driven to understand how things work and to solve complex problems. I’ve also learned that to be successful in the highly competitive e-commerce space, I need to be committed and driven to keep innovating, but that goes for both men and women. I think what’s also contributed to my sense of feeling empowered as a woman in the tech space is how obsessed we are with data at Booking.com and use it to make all of our decisions. This has created a very egalitarian environment. If you have great ideas, you can test them and if they work (as proven by data), it makes our product and the experience for our customers better. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what you believe in or who you love—if you can come to the table with creative ideas and work hard, there’s a place for you at Booking.com. And I really think that’s true for most companies like ours in the tech space.

Gillian Tans interview

Your career started in hospitality – was embodying tech into your foundation an easy move? 

 In 2002, when I first made the decision to leave a great job at a very successful company to join a start-up, as it turns out, it was the best decision I ever made in terms of my career. Looking back, I think what drew me to making the switch was the idea of working on a product that would make it easier for customers to do something that I was already really passionate about, that is, finding a great place to stay. It’s a simple mission, but a very human one, and I think that holds true for the majority of tech companies. With my background in the hotel industry, the notion certainly appealed to me and I was fascinated by the challenges involved, particularly from an operations and scalability perspective. What I didn’t know about tech, I learned on the job. I think much of what enabled me to excel in this ultra-fast-paced online environment was that I wasn’t afraid to be out of my element and learn new things. For me, at the core of every great tech company is a simple idea of how to make something easier or more convenient for consumers. If you can connect with that core mission, there are a lot of ways to contribute and be a leader in a tech company without having to necessarily be able to code yourself. You just need to have the courage to try new things, and be open to learning and making mistakes. If you have the drive to succeed, I’m living proof that you can make a career in tech, even if that’s not your core competency.

gillian tans interview

What is in your handbag right now? 

 When I’m in Amsterdam, I ride to work most days on my bicycle and so a backpack just works better for me. It’s handy to cram everything I need for the day in one bag and just go. I’ve always got my phone with me. It’s essential for keeping in touch with anything urgent at work, but it’s also my communication lifeline with my friends and family. I’m addicted to WhatsApp and use it constantly to check up with my kids or my girlfriends. Today I’ve also got my sneakers and my work out clothes with me. Oh and I also have my Laura Mercier foundation with me. It’s my absolute favourite and something I never leave home without.


I'd love to chat to you some more.


I usually send out a weekly mailer with a recap of blog posts but also some personal anecdotes. If you want to know about competitions or just catch up in a more personal setting then you might like to receive the mailer.

Enter your email and get the scoop first: