Can technology help travel brands meet growing expectations?

With the world opening up for travel again and Asia rebounding, the travel and hospitality industries are quickly gearing up with new technologies that promise to deliver ease of use, convenience and personalized experiences.

From digital IDs that make it easier to rent a car to fintech innovations that make it cheaper to pay for items overseas, consumers want solutions to make their next trips better than before the pandemic struck in 2020, say industry leaders at this year’s WiT Singapore 2022 conference.

In this new world, travel and hospitality organizations have to work even harder to generate goodwill and deliver new experiences that consumers expect as they go back on the road, according to the executives gathered.

“Persistent trip” is one thing consumers can expect in the coming years, says Omri Morgenshtern, chief executive of Agoda, in a panel discussion during the conference. 

“That’s essentially the notion of booking all your travel components through one platform in a UX that supports that. The more you book, the cheaper it becomes. The reason we emphasize persistency is because the key thing to notice is that people book different elements of their trip at different times, and cannot be expected to know everything at the same time. This requires a completely new UX and was never cracked. We’re all over this problem.”

Consumer fintech is another area Agoda is working on. 

“Customers want more and more flexibility. Price freeze, cancel for any reason – i.e., allowing you to cancel even if the policy is non-refundable with the OTA taking the risk, automatic upgrades if a cheaper option exists before you check in, are all services that will become a must.”

In a decade, he envisions Agoda being a full travel platform, adding: “Any service you consume while traveling, and everywhere, physical or virtual. When you travel, we want to give you the services, and make sure the more elements you book, the cheaper it becomes for you. If you get the flight, accommodation and attraction through us, quite frankly nobody will be able to compete with the rates I’m going to provide to you.

“The bundling piece is happening now, but in the real world. I think (and hope) in 10 years the lines between physical and virtual will get very blurry. I’m not talking metaverse vs. real. I’m talking a combination – say imagine you step into a hotel room and the decoration on the walls is virtually personalized for you. The view outside the window … etc. This will all become a reality I believe.”

Another interesting development comes from Web3 and blockchain technologies that promise greater ownership, control and portability of the digital data that end-users generate.

Portable data

Theoretically, users could use their history of travel or dining to better plan a trip, for example. 

Better yet, that data could be used to identify themselves for a personalized itineraries as they crossed borders.

Data ownership like this would still take some time because of the nascent stage of technologies today, says Eric Gnock Fah, co-founder and chief operating officer of Klook.

However, when it takes off in future, it could be potentially disruptive because it means that businesses will have to find new ways to target users, he adds. 

“Brands need top-of-mind recall.”

One area that he sees improving is artificial intelligence. For example, chatbots today are often “glorified FAQs” that don’t give users genuine solutions to travel problems, according to Gnock Fah.

In the future, AI can help to dig deeper and find the cheapest prices, some of which are not transparent between retail and wholesale today, he adds.

Related to this is the use of AI to automatically improve experiences for users, without them having to repeatedly look for a good deal.

Customers could be automatically upgraded to a better flight or hotel room, for example, when a better offer comes up, says Morgenshtern.

At the same time, AI can help make bookings refundable instead of forcing expensive fees on people, he adds, noting consumers’ expectations of flexibility from today’s digital services.

With rapid digitalization the name of the game, travel organizations have to find new ways to innovate on the fly. This means not doing everything alone, say WiT panelists.

“An insular approach can’t really work usually,” says Rod Cuthbert, founder of Viator, former CEO of Rome2rio and board member of Veltra Group and Jayride.

If a team does not look outside themselves and ask others how they solve their problems, he adds, then it will be hard to find answers to tomorrow’s challenges.

Cuthbert adds: “The industry has come through the pandemic in good shape. One reason is because we can reach out to others in the industry and share ‘how bad are you?’”

One challenge in the years ahead is reducing friction, say experts, who point to the confusion travelers face today when entering countries with varying entry requirements.

This has been made worse by the shortage of staff to meet post-pandemic demand, they add.

“It’s a hydraulics problem,” says Timothy O’Neil-Dunne, principal at T2Impact. 

“Far too many people want to do too many things, especially at airports.”

However, he does see the sector bringing in digital smarts to smoothen such processes in the future. The best, he says, is yet to come, now that travel is returning.

Seamless experience

If there were a “magic interface” that could link up airports, hotels and car rental companies to keep each one informed of any changes to a trip, things would be a lot more seamless, says Christine Tan, an independent hospitality consultant.

Despite the improvements in technology that promise new experiences, what ultimately will win over customers is still customer service, she points out. 

“A good product is not good enough if you have no customer service,” she stresses.

Indeed, traveling is ultimately about an experience, which the pandemic’s restrictions have deprived people of for more than two years, the audience was reminded.

The good news is, travelers are raring to go, because there is no digital replacement for being physically atop a mountain and enjoying a stunning view, for example.

Klook’s Gnock Fah says: “All the material things we want, we can get [digitally], but an experience, you can’t get that. People have missed that experience through travel.”

* This article originally appeared on WebInTravel

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