How technology is transforming the travel industry: a TTE 2017 round-up

Travel Tech Europe at Kensington Olympia

We all know technology is changing the world, making it a smaller place for all those connected. But how is this affecting the travel industry, where the job of travel agents can now be done by users on phones, laptops and tablets, whenever and wherever they choose? Last week I went to Travel Technology Europe, the largest event for travel tech buyers in Europe, to get a better understanding of the problems the sector is facing and learn how 6,000 travel industry professionals are attempting to use technology to provide a better experience for customers.

Personalisation and the elusive ‘Golden Profile’

Personalisation is said to be the number one technology concept in travel this year, which was evident in its presence in many (if not all) of the sessions, with specific emphasis on using it to enhance a product, rather than for marketing. Panelists in the ‘Booking futures’ session referred to the ‘Golden Profile’, which collates all of our personal data from the multiple channels that store it. But with bookings feeding through a long chain of suppliers before reaching, for example the hotelier, how can the hotel obtain this information and then utilise it in a way that enhances their guests’ experiences, without feeling intrusive?

Paul Richer moderates 'Booking futures' at TTE 2017

The question was also raised about how accurate this ‘Golden Profile’ data actually is. We have the ability to broadcast the person we want people to see via social media, rather than the person we actually are. Therefore when looking at total revenue management, if there was the option to offer a customer a cheaper room rate based on their apparent love to spend their money at the bar, how accurate would this data be?

AI and making customer choices easier

Terry Jones, Chairman of Wayblazer.com referred to data to as the ‘new oil’ for AI, “worthless until it is refined”. His insights supported those of Andy Owen-Jones (CO Founder and CEO of BD4Travel), who said that consumers make better decisions when they can see differences. If you curate your content and structure it well, you simplify the choices for your consumers. But searches often only provide clues, with very few bookings being completed for the original search term. This unstructured data provides the opportunity to simplify… enter AI.

Terry’s talk, ‘Why AI, and why now?’ was by far the most popular of the day. He spoke about the technological leaps that have inspired the latest wave of AI innovations and why travel companies must embrace them to survive over the next few years.

He highlighted technology that has the ability to read images, and understand if they are romantic or active, or for individuals or families, which could enable you to display the most appropriate image on your homepage when your customer searches for ‘romantic honeymoon with spa facilities’. It could also recognise that while a search is for ‘activities in London at the weekend’, it will be raining, so the customer is presented with a selection of suitable indoor activities. Which relates back to content strategy and presenting your customer with a simplified selection of results. Terry’s conclusion predicted that AI will become the new UI, so long as you solve real problems, make it easy to use, and deliver measurable results.

Chat bots to the rescue of abandonded bookings

Customers will always need to, at least, feel they are in control, whether this is by opting out, or actively choosing to embrace time-saving technologies by signing in with e.g. Facebook. At point of sale, it was rightly highlighted, you don’t want to kill any momentum or energy by presenting the customer with endless forms to complete.

Some customers get to this point in the sales funnel with no intention of completing the transaction, because they’re using it as a tool to uncover any hidden costs. Andy Owen-Jones explained that at this point you could implement a chat bot to offer those customers a discount by way of voucher code if they were to book in the next 20 minutes. This could help regain trust and potentially convert that otherwise-abandoned transaction into a booking.

WhatsApp-selling and the digital concierge

Having your guests’ payment and contact details provides opportunities to upsell once they are on their travels, and pairing that with real time data can allow for unique and helpful offerings. For example, using WhatsApp, you can let your guests know of spaces on tours, or tips on must-dine restaurants. Should they wish to add the stop to their itinerary (simply by replying with ‘yes’ or ‘no’), you already have their card details and personal information, allowing you to make bookings for them, and arrange transport to be waiting for them at reception. All while obtaining insight to improve future personalised messages. A digital concierge, if you will.

Optimising experiences for conversational interfaces

Amazon Echo has presented a new way to make travel plans e.g. booking an Uber without even entering the Uber app. Considering the simplicity of language that is now required with the option of voice control, how will travel site SEO-marketing adapt to support this? With voice comes a new level of brand responsibility.

With more and more people booking their hotels via their smartphone, it is imperative for the travel industry to invest in their mobile offerings. This is where efforts are currently being focused, even though most bookings are still being made on desktops. Expedia integrated a bot with Facebook messenger last year to help people book hotels, but there’s nothing to say that this technology couldn’t be supported by travel agents behind the scenes. This is where the lines between ‘bricks and mortar’ and ‘clicks and mortar’ get blurry.

Conclusion – get ready for the next wave of travel transformation

The opportunities presented to the travel industry by these new technologies are huge. But while it’s all very well aspiring to offer highly personalised, artificially intelligent customer experiences, getting the implementation right is crucial. Data needs to be refined before it’s useful, customers need to retain the feeling of control throughout their experiences, and the needs of suppliers must be taken into account by vendors.

Having previously worked closely with travel agents it was a very insightful day. I feel that the advance of digital technology in the travel industry is, despite a bumpy take off, about to accelerate rapidly. At the moment there’s still that underlying worry of what it all means for traditional business models, but the tipping point, where the pressure of customer expectations overwhelms this resistance, will come soon.


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