The year 2020 hasn’t been kind to the rental car industry. COVID-19 precautions pushed Hertz into bankruptcy court. Avis slashed $1 billion in spending. Europcar needed an infusion of 307 million euros.
But at least one rental car company is weathering the storm. Auto Europe, which helps travelers find rental car deals across 180 countries, doesn’t own any Fiats, Citroëns or BMWs. Instead, it has call centers, data centers and e-commerce systems. It also has millions of customers demanding fast, efficient service.
Auto Europe hasn’t escaped the pandemic’s wrath. Bookings are down from 2019. Its business partners have parking lots full of unrented sedans and subcompacts. But years of technology investments are allowing the company to adapt through uncertain times.
Auto Europe’s story is worth exploring because it underscores the importance of making savvy, far-sighted decisions about the technologies that drive a business. It also shows the value of being in the right place at the right time — even if that means getting there seven years early.
How Auto Europe is Riding Out the Pandemic
Auto Europe isn’t one of those sexy startups disrupting industries. The company has been around for over 65 years, starting as a broker and wholesaler helping travel agents secure rental cars for their clients. The rise of the internet helped the company widen its reach to individual travelers.
“Unlike a lot of other companies in the travel industry, we don’t have many physical assets — like cars or planes — that are sitting idle when business is slow,” said Karen Schaffer, vice president for eCommerce at Auto Europe Group. This business structure spared the company from a lot of what hobbled the travel industry in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re lucky that we’re a global company,” Schaffer added. “While the North American and Australian markets are pretty much at a standstill, we are down only about 20-30% in domestic Europe from last year.”
Auto Europe’s core assets are technology infrastructure and the people who provide customer service on the company’s e-commerce operations, including 43 versions of their website for individual markets in Europe.
“When we get a request from a client or a travel agent, we go out to all suppliers in real-time and get rates back to the customers as quickly as possible,” Schaffer said. “We also respond to questions and issues from customers both prior to renting as well as during their rental.”
Thus, somebody who needs a sedan for their day trip to the hills of Tuscany can visit an Auto Europe site, find the best price and pick the car up at the Florence Airport. This has to happen around the clock, every day of the year.
“The speed of the network and response is vital to our success from a customer service standpoint,” Schaffer said. With networking so central to the company’s business, there’s no substitute for optimum IT infrastructure.
Auto Europe Moved Early to Virtual Infrastructure
In 2013, Auto Europe’s IT team made a far-sighted bet on hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), which uses virtualization technologies to combine networking, storage and computing on a single device. HCI creates virtual versions of servers, network switches and other anchors of IT infrastructure. Because it’s so much more practical to duplicate software than hardware, HCI creates substantial reductions in the cost and complexity of data centers.
“One of the biggest problems we had was trying to manage the old model of infrastructure consisting of a traditional SAN and multiple ‘big iron’ systems,” said Peter Doyon, Auto Europe’s IT director.
“Scaling that environment was almost impossible. Adding new server infrastructure meant we had to upgrade all our fiber switches or the entire SAN, and the older nodes were usually incompatible with the newer ones. We needed a solution that would enable us to incrementally stack on nodes and expand out quickly as needed.”
Matching travelers with the best rental car options in real-time requires extreme agility and speed in IT operations. In other sectors of the travel industry, hotels stand for decades and cruise ships float on hulls of riveted steel. Auto Europe, in contrast, relies on flexible assets like virtual machine clusters and cloud ecosystems.
“Things can change very quickly in our industry,” said Doyon. “When a new contract is signed, we need to be able to boost the capacity on a cluster very quickly. In the old environment with our big iron and NAS systems, we’d be facing up to six months to get things deployed.”
In 2013, Auto Europe made a bet on Nutanix, an HCI pioneer with a track record spanning all of three years. Today, Nutanix is a global HCI success story, measuring revenue in the billions and making headlines across the financial markets when its CEO announces his retirement. Auto Europe couldn’t know that back then. They just knew the technology matched their needs.
In 2020, Auto Europe’s Nutanix Enterprise Cloud infrastructure had 42 terabytes of storage and supported more than 650 virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) users.
“Scaling is fast and simple,” Doyon said. “Now it’s just a phone call to place the order. We get another block in a day or so, and in less than two weeks, it’s rolled out into production.”
The Right Tools for the Transition
While the pandemic caused havoc in IT departments worldwide to support millions of remote users, Auto Europe found the transition much less painful.
“Having the virtual desktop and Nutanix infrastructure in place has given us the flexibility to transition seamlessly to a completely remote workforce,” said Doyon.
“Had we not been forced into going 100% remote so quickly because of the pandemic, we probably wouldn’t have done it this soon. We were completely convinced it would be more of a daunting task than it ended up being with Nutanix.”
Schaffer of Auto Europe says the company expects business to remain slow at least through late 2021. Still, it doesn’t take magical powers of prognostication to suggest there will be a lot of pent-up demand among travelers who have been staying home to stay safe.
When the travel business recovers, Auto Europe’s technology decisions — some spanning most of a decade — could be the fuel system that keeps their engines hitting on all cylinders.
Tom Mangan is a contributing writer. He is a veteran B2B technology writer and editor, specializing in cloud computing and digital transformation. Contact him on his website or LinkedIn.
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