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17 Jan 2019



It’s been 20 years since burst on to the scene and started to shift the travel industry landscape – and frankly it hasn’t stopped moving since.

Comparison style sites drive the price war in travel, but how can brands enhance and optimise their experience with newer tech to fight back and cut through the noise? What trends should we be paying attention to?

As a sector it’s perhaps one of the most user-dependent out there. A highly emotive and significant purchase that’s time dependent, extremely personal and has to have quality assurance baked-in.

It’s no surprise then that we demand such a smooth experience when booking travel. There is a lot that can go wrong in the customer’s eyes so trust is the biggest factor. Among the technological advances that crop up along the researching and purchasing journey, it’s the ones that feed that trust that will win the day. As customers want greater control over their travel experiences they’ll increasingly cut out the middlemen, want more granular organisation of activity during the trip and expect greater choice in accommodation.

The aggregators won’t go away. Although there is huge competition between the likes of Airbnb and Expedia, the market is so big that it’s still considered to be largely untapped. This fertile ground is pushing innovation through the roof and the experience economy is a key driver.

Despite ongoing innovation, customers are still keen to cut out the middlemen. This is where the ‘gatekeepers’ step in and leverage a channel they already know the user is dedicated to and familiar with. If a particular platform like Facebook can integrate services and become your tool for recommendations and related content, then it’s not long before you can rely on bot-powered messenger conversations that offer brand experience, customer service and payment interactions.

The analysis of your sentiment within social posts could be enough to steer you toward the correct support service. This connection with the big social players is likely one of the biggest factors in the predictions that 70% of travel will be booked via mobile by 2020.

Another disruption is happening within the concierge space, with sector maturity that will include a high-quality conversational interface via voice. You can already use voice to book travel through a handful of outlets connected to ‘gatekeepers’ like Amazon, but the choice is limited. The tipping point will come once the market opens up and the breadth of response and variety of offers for such an important purchase decision is abundant. Once the quality, relevance and speed is there then people will love that AI is effectively bringing back the traditional travel agent role but powered by big data and pre-qualified personalisation.

The true AI concierge takes the complexity and hassle out of travel. By monitoring other interaction points it will constantly learn what recommendations are most attractive and relevant and calculate how to match those to offers and inventory in real-time via seamless voice response.

The innovations and trends themselves don’t guarantee success if pushed forward in isolation. The total experience must flow and feel consistent in its style and stay true to the brand’s personality. There are lots of areas to play in but it will be how they are layered and connect that will separate the winner from the losers.

Take interesting developments in the content space as an example. Mixed reality (MR) that blends VR and AR is taking the layered experience to new levels. It’s relatively easy to integrate the ability to make me feel like I’m on the beach in St Kitts and that may well be all the push I need to buy that luxury break.

It’s when this approach sets the standard that more traditional businesses get disrupted. Very soon not being able to virtually stroll around my Airbnb holiday let of choice will become a deal-breaker. We should expect highly targeted programmatic advertising to stretch that brand experience out toward us to begin the first stage of refinement. If the accessible data is rich enough to know you regularly choose the same destination, have a dog or always book the in-flight vegetarian meal option then that should hugely influence the earliest interactions.

But here lies the rub. Customers’ expectations are high. We now embrace the idea of useful technology before brands can bring it to market. Everything from check-in and passporting processes to complex itinerary building have been revolutionised over the last decade and we want more of the good stuff. I’ve personally been to a UK holiday village nearly 20 times and no part of the customer experience acknowledges my repeat custom and the depth of data they have on me. They are happy to follow me with adverts that aren’t relevant and satisfied treating me like a stranger on their website. They give me wearable tech to unlock my cabin and changing room locker but fail to connect that to activity and health data while inside the resort. They make no attempt to improve my stay, discount my activities or up-sell me into bigger accommodation.

If you’re a travel brand then fix this stuff first.

Travel brands need to get the basics right as a foundation and build upon that with laser focused customer-centricity. This is the ultimate trust-builder and is the best chance of disruption proofing while harnessing data and adopting appropriate new technology – only where it enriches the experience.

Blog originally published via the Sagittarius website on 20 November 18.