Exploring the digitisation of the travel industry this World Tourism Day

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This week, the travel industry will be celebrating the United Nations’ annual World Tourism Day (WTD) and this year’s theme is all about “Tourism and the Digital Transformation”.

Over the past two decades, developments in technology have played a fundamental role in the growth of the tourism and travel industry. The establishment of Online Travel Agents (OTAs) helped to empower tourists – offering them access to a wider selection of travel options at reduced prices – and boosted profits for travel suppliers who found themselves with improved access to a global customer base.

But how will more recent technological advances impact the travel industry? How can new technologies including big data, artificial intelligence and digital platforms be harnessed to boost growth and improve the customer experience? Here, I explore key trends:

Getting personal with data

Given the cost and time-constricted nature of vacations, making travel decisions can prove arduous for travellers – often not helped by the number of options search engines serve. So how can travel agencies help diminish the effort required to book a holiday? How can they improve the customer experience and make their offerings more meaningful?

Big data – and the ability to harvest and store a rich set of transactional, machine and social media – is set to play a huge role in tackling such customer demands. Through the collation of vast swathes of internal and external data relating to a traveller’s previous interactions, behaviours and circumstances, travel agents can gain a much more accurate picture of their customers, and in turn, offer truly personalised travel experiences.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will help travel agencies derive value from data more efficiently, supporting personalisation at every stage of the customer journey, such as recommending hotels based on recent searches and tailoring add-on suggestions after booking. For example, a young Australian couple on their first international trip together will likely have different needs and preferences to a German family that may be visiting the same destination around the same time.

Beyond data analysis and trend spotting, AI-powered chatbots are also set to be a game-changer for the travel industry. Savvy travel brands are now using chatbots to help simplify the booking process, save customer time, and improve the overarching customer experience. Expedia, for example, now has both a Facebook Messenger[1] and Skype bot[2] to help travellers efficiently organise and book their holidays within the safety of their app.

Expedia is also developing voice-activated search capabilities. Using Amazon’s Alexa, Expedia customers can now ask questions about their hotel bookings, flights, loyalty points balance and rental car reservations. Although, customers can’t make a flight or hotel booking through Alexa yet – this functionality is apparently in the works. 

Identifying with biometrics

In addition to voice recognition, the travel industry has gone one step further with the introduction of biometric authentication. Although a fairly new technology in this space, facial recognition in particular is becoming increasingly popular amongst airlines and airports. For example, Delta Air Lines is partnering with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to launch a ‘biometric’ terminal at Atlanta Airport. Delta will be deploying facial-recognition technology to replace passports and tickets. This is expected to be rolled out to other airports if it leads to reduced boarding times and shorter queues. If successful, this could be revolutionary for customer experience in airports.

But it’s not just the aviation sector taking note of biometrics. Alibaba’s OTA Fliggy just launched facial recognition ticketing for tourist attractions, which is intended to help reduce ticket scalping during busy periods. While the technology is still in its infancy, it will be exciting to see how its adoption will spread.

Fostering conversion with virtual reality 

Virtual reality (VR) is also set to play a more substantial role in the future of travel services. In 2016, as many as 1.5 million units of dedicated VR headsets were shipped, with some finding their way into the hands of travel agencies who are beginning to experiment with the use of VR as a truly immersive ‘try-before-you-buy’ experience.

Travel agent Matoke Tours, for example, recently invested $30,000 to launch a ‘Virtual Gorilla application’ which allowed users to virtually track gorillas in Uganda [2]. According to Matoke Tours owner: “the app enables us to convey the intensity and emotion of the travel experience before the journey has even started”.

Thomas Cook has also began using VR to offer customers the chance to experience destinations like New York in ten of its stores, including Stratford [3]. With the group seeing a 180 per cent uptick in conversions where the headset was used, the power of VR to boost sales on the high street is clear.

Making it all possible with innovative supplier payments

With so much hype around innovative new technologies and their ability to boost the customer experience, it’s perhaps easy for travel agents to neglect the importance of streamlined back-end processes – such as supplier payments.

Innovative B2B payment solutions, such as virtual cards can help to eliminate the cost, risk, and pain associated with paying suppliers, integrating with agency workflows, and making the entire payments process quicker, safer, and more efficient for all parties. In addition, they can have a positive impact on the number of listings travel agencies are able to offer their customers, because agencies can add more suppliers knowing that they are better protected from risks. This boosts traveller choice and empowers agencies using virtual cards to maximise the benefits available from data and personalisation.

The power of tech

Like most industries, innovation in technology is becoming a key differentiator amongst businesses in the travel industry. Especially since online behemoths such as Airbnb and Booking.com continually raise the stakes. Technology is transforming the way consumers experience travel; from using VR to ‘test the waters’ before a trip, to not having to lift more than finger when booking a holiday, consumers are consistently being surprised by the level of convenience offered by innovative travel businesses. I’m pleased that World Tourism Day is celebrating the importance of digitalisation in the industry and I can’t wait to watch as new developments roll out!

Anthony Hynes, Managing Director and CEO, eNett
Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy