Ever Evolving

Technology is now such an integral element in the overall travel process, but it’s changing all the time, meaning TMCs, airlines, hotels, car rental brands and GDS companies are having to work round-the-clock to stay ahead of the game and remain relevant.

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Travel technology. Where do you start?

It’s impossible to think of a time when our travel didn’t involve the internet or a mobile phone.

Yet, that was once the case, and it wasn’t that long ago, as most travel industry veterans recall.

“As recently as the 1990s, booking a flight took some planning,” says Jimmy Eichelgruen, Delta’s Sales Director for Africa, Middle East and India. “It involved a good deal of research and a trip to a travel agent or a call to the airline. Tickets would have to be printed for passengers or arrive in the post, and they would have headed off to the airport with a big folder of paperwork. Check-in was slow and laborious, and there were no kiosks or simple bag drops.”

Fast-forward to the end of the 1990s, with the emergence of dedicated travel sites, and suddenly the world was a different place. Simple travel booking behaviour changed forever, with technology extending its influence into other areas of the industry and beyond the actual booking process.

And, as technology continues to evolve and update almost daily, the traveller and/or travel booker has become more and more demanding, expecting more of the technology at their disposal and continuing to seek improvements to enhance the process.

Quite simply, we’ve all become greedy and demanding travellers, particularly as it relates to the business travel space.

“Tech-savvy business travellers are demanding a more connected travel experience,” says Andy Hedley, General Manager of Amadeus Southern Africa. “Today’s business traveller expects choice, flexibility and a higher quality total-trip experience. That’s from searching and booking to real-time information and experience ‘on the road’, right through to post-trip reporting.”

Hedley’s right – this has become expected, with the travel technology space almost a victim of its own success and rapid advancement, particularly as it’s now seen as the key element in driving down costs, which, in a post-2008 global recession environment makes it an even bigger player.

“Technology is the key driver within the business travel space,” says Claude Vankeirsbilck, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer at Tourvest Travel Services. “It offers customers full transparency, scalable control to unlimited inventory and pricing that collectively will drive down a corporate company’s travel costs.”

We’ve almost lost sight of what attracted us to travel technology in the first place, when all it was, was a means of connecting the traveller and making the world a smaller place. It’s important to remember that, as that is still one of the greatest attractions to travel technology – a role it continues to play.

“Travel technology opens up the globe and brings the world to your fingertips,” says Rob Collins, Group Chief Strategy & Operations Officer for Sun International. “It is now possible to attend meetings and events in places that were previously inaccessible – today the world really is a global village. For travellers, technology enables them, for the first time, to search within their interest category to find tailored travel offerings. So technology is giving us far greater choice.”

But, it’s almost too much choice, isn’t it? With so much on offer, how does one focus or keep things simple, with so much at our disposal?

For Pine Nel, Chief Information Officer at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, it’s important to not lose sight of how technology can best be utilised, in order to get the most out of it.

“Technology should connect previously disparate systems, roles, bits of information or people, with the simple aim of delivering beyond what was previously thought possible,” he says. “It is through making these connections that we will continue to deliver services that exceed customers’ growing expectations.”

Euan McNeil, General Manager of FCM Travel Solutions in South Africa, would seemingly agree.

“In the corporate travel space, the key is to introduce technology that drives automation and the ease of service for both the customer and the client.”

And that’s a pretty good place to start.

TMCs

Whilst we’re talking travel management companies, this is clearly one area of the industry that has been heavily impacted by technological advancement, with the role of the TMC changing significantly in the past 10-15 years.

“Technology has been a great enabler, allowing the TMC industry to grow from an area of specialisation within the broader travel industry to a truly unique and independent vertical,” says Nel. “Although the traveller is still at the centre (and becoming more so), the information surrounding every request has exponentially increased. This has opened up opportunities to deliver creative solutions previously thought of as unattainable.”

“Corporate clients now have the ability to book their own travel – this in itself has changed the travel industry – and have more control over their travel expenditure as well as more transparency in terms of fares and products offered,” says Vankeirsbilck. “Technology has driven and will continue to drive traveller behaviour in the future.”

Of course, with all this technological advancement has come great expectation, particularly on “Every TMC is currently under pressure to showcase their value to clients due to enhanced technology available in the market,” says Nemanja Krstić, Head of Technology at Wings Travel Management. “This requires a consistent approach in terms of managing the client’s travel spend and demonstrating in various ways the true value of our partnership.”

TMCs are also finding themselves under pressure to develop new and unique products in the tech space that allow them to stand out from their competitors. FCM Travel Solutions, for example, have introduced FCM Connect, a technology ecosystem housed within a single platform.

“FCM Connect helps with profile management, trip approvals and online booking, as well as traveller tracking, programme reporting and data analytics, which are essentials within any corporate travel booking tool,” says McNeil. “Corporates need access to key metrics in real time, so reports that blend historical travel and expense data with up-to-date data dashboards give them immediate visibility of their travel spend.”

Similarly, Tourvest developed and launched its own online travel management solution – Travelit – five years ago.

“Travelit has been fully integrated within our business to deliver a low-cost service proposition,” says Vankeirsbilck. “Whilst Travelit has essentially been developed as a self-booking end-to-end online travel management solution operating within our various travel management brands, we have used the opportunity to integrate the solution within our business to improve our own so-called ‘offline’ service solution.”

Carlson Wagonlit Travel have also developed a host of products in the tech space, with Nel identifying the fact that technology needs to now play a role across the entire business – a little like the reference Vankeirsbilck makes in the previous point – and not just remain confined to the booking space.

“Multiple role players with varying priorities ranging from procurement through safety and security to finance all orbit every traveller request,” he says. “CWT has always taken a very structured and scientific approach to ensure that none of these players get excluded from the technology loop. Technology is therefore deployed in concentric circles radiating outwards from the traveller. CWT Portrait, CWT to GO, our integrated OBT partners and strong Travel Councillor information automation tools integrate outwards with Safety & Security, Power Centre, approval, BI (including CWT AnalytIQs) and data reconciliation.”

Of course, a key element in the modern-day TMC offering is how technology integrates with policy, to ensure corporates keep a close eye on and manage their travel spend.

“Wings boasts a ‘best-in-class’ reporting tool which is accessible via URL and includes live data with many enhanced features offering clients a snapshot view of their travel spend, travel patterns and detailed insights into traveller behaviour, allowing a proactive approach in terms of managing their spend,” says Krstić. “We have also recently launched goSecure, a travel risk management solution for our clientele which allows them to track and communicate directly with their travellers via a mobile application, coupled with our sophisticated Wings24 Emergency contact centre, where risk and traveller safety are proactively managed on behalf of our clients.”

Krstić touches on an important element in the TMC space – that of duty of care, something McNeil picks up on.

“Duty of care in the corporate world is critical, so technology needs to enable the company to track travellers accurately, but also to inform them proactively of any potential disruptions, delays or threats to their safety,” he says. “Travellers can then also access up-to-date information and resources throughout their journey via their mobile using this technology.”

These are just some of the areas in which today’s travel management companies are using technology to better serve their customers.

“With the evolution of corporate travel and consumerisation of business travel today, the question is not ‘should corporates introduce technological suites available to all travel stakeholders?’, but rather ‘when?’” says McNeil.

HOTELS

The hotel experience is another travel area that has changed beyond recognition, with the world’s hotel groups now in a race to see who can develop the latest technology the quickest, and roll out the most cutting-edge in hospitality gadgets.

That’s across the board, taking in elements such as the wi-fi offering, mobile platform, social media, loyalty programme, and more advanced features such digital keys and chatbots.

As with most other areas in travel, the hotel industry is almost unrecognisable from what it was 10-15 years ago.

“As technology advances, we in the hotel industry must too,” says Dale Simpson, Curator of the new Radisson Red Hotel V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, which has technology at the heart of its offering. “If you take the concierge, for example, people now use their mobile devices as a concierge. With such impetus on mobile devices, hotels must offer fast uncapped wi-fi, locations to easily charge those devices, and clever apps which interact and enhance experiences.”

According to Simpson, technology shouldn’t replace service, but rather enhance it, and he uses the example of the traditional barrier of the front desk.

“Our concierge teams work off mobile platforms, allowing them to assist guests at their tables, book tours, restaurants or anything else while you sit and sip a beer,” he says. “We also use tablets for orders in our restaurants which allows our team to remain present with the guest, check on their stay and ask how they are, instead of scurrying off to tap in orders on a machine sitting behind a bar somewhere.”

Further to that, the Radisson Red’s self-check-in machines enable guests to enjoy a quicker experience if they wish, and the hotel’s RED app allows people to check-in even before they arrive, using their mobile device as their key card. Guests can also use the app to chat to the hotel and other guests, and also order their food and drink.

One of the early adopters in the digital key card space were Hilton, who rolled out their offering in 2015. The year before, Hilton had already made significant digital strides, with guests given the option of checking in and choosing their exact room from digital floor plans, as well as being able to customize their stays by purchasing upgrades and making special requests for items to be delivered to their room, on their mobile devices, tablets and computers.

Digital keys duly followed in 2015, with President & CEO Chris Nassetta saying at the time that: “Travellers can use their smartphones as boarding passes to get to their seats on an aeroplane, so it is only natural that they will want to use them as a way to enter their hotel rooms. We have spent the past few years testing a number of different options to make this vision a reality, and we are developing proprietary technology that is safe and reliable for our guests to use, and cost-effective for our hotels to install.”

It’s interesting to see that the check-in process and interaction with staff at the front desk appears to be the area where arguably most of the technological focus, in terms of the hotel industry, has been in recent years. That, and getting the wi-fi offering right.

“Luxury hotels are embracing new technology where it enhances the guest experience or brings efficiencies to back of the house,” says Mark Wernich, Director of Business Development: Africa for Preferred Hotels & Resorts. “Examples include guests being able to use their own devices to check-in or having complimentary high-speed wi-fi in every area of the hotel.”

Wernich goes on to caution – like Simpson – that technology shouldn’t replace service, but should rather be complementary.

“It is unlikely that technological changes will completely replace well-liked traditional services,” he says. “Personal contact and personalised service remains a key differentiator. Back-end efficiencies will always be welcomed – so long as they do not negatively impact or overcomplicate the overall guest experience.”

Another area in which hotels and hotel groups are leveraging technology is the loyalty programme space, and it’s here that Preferred Hotels & Resorts has made big strides fairly recently. In 2016 the group developed a mobile app for its points-based loyalty programme iPrefer to enhance the customer experience for members.

“More travellers are relying on their mobile devices to manage their travel plans, so it was an opportune time to create and launch a mobile app,” says Wernich.

Through the app, members can search and book stays at more than 600 iPrefer participating hotels worldwide, access exclusive offers such as member rates and the iPrefer Last-Minute Escapes, which offers travellers up to 30% off best available rates, update their profiles, view past/upcoming stay history and related points earnings, and immediately access and redeem Reward Certificates. Members using the app also receive push notifications regarding special offers, and American Express cardholders have the ability to enjoy an expedited process through American Express Checkout.

“In Africa we see a lot of potential for iPrefer and the mobile app,” says Wernich. “By 2020 there will be nearly a billion mobile users, so the potential for the loyalty programme among frequent corporate travellers is worth tapping into.”

AIRLINES

Like hotels and hotel groups, airlines across the world are using technology to improve both their back-end processes and the customer-facing elements of their businesses.

In terms of customer experience – and already alluded to earlier by Eichelgruen – the whole booking, checking-in and boarding experience changed some time ago and now the race is on to take this airline customer experience to the next level.

Onboard wi-fi is just one of the hot topics in the airline space, with most of the world’s big players all having trialled it over have dived headlong into offering it to their customers, whilst some airlines have been a little more circumspect, following less-than-convincing feedback from customers.

British Airways is one of the latest big players to start offering wi-fi on its flights. This is being rolled out across its long-haul network, whilst short-haul wi-fi will commence later in the year when BA becomes the first airline to offer connectivity using Europe’s first 4G high-speed inflight network. Some 90% of the fleet will be connected by 2019.

BA customers will be able to use their own devices to browse the internet, access email and check social media. They will also be able to stream video content from sites such as Netflix and YouTube. There will be a choice of two options: Simply Connect or Connect Plus. Customers can choose whether they connect for one hour or four hours of the full flight. Simply Connect supports basic web browsing, email and instant messaging, with prices from £4.99 ($6.50), while Connect Plus provides a faster connection speed supporting video streaming services from £7.99 ($10.50).

BA insists, though, that it is not taking its eye off the customer service ball and the airline is using technology to help customers to simplify and speed up their journeys through the airport, with the opening of BA’s first three automated self-boarding gates for UK domestic flights at Heathrow Terminal 5. The automated gates use facial recognition technology to allow customers to simply scan their boarding pass before walking straight onto the aircraft. Customers are already able to self-service bag drop at Heathrow and Gatwick, enabling them to drop off their bags before proceeding through security.

These are in addition to existing technology such as the British Airways app, which allows customers to save multiple boarding passes to their devices, and is available on the Apple iWatch. It also gives customers in Heathrow’s Terminals 3 and 5 ‘push notifications’, alerting them when their departure gate is open and when boarding has started.

“We invest and innovate where our customers value it most,” says Alex Cruz, British Airways Chairman and CEO.

Behind the scenes, BA is using technology to ensure more efficient, punctual departures by deploying Mototok tugs. The airline is the first to deploy the devices across multiple aircraft stands. The equipment is currently used to move Airbus short-haul aircraft and replaces the traditional diesel tugs, allowing a single ramp agent to push an aircraft back from the gate remotely. Emissions-free and capable of moving aeroplanes with precision, five Mototoks are in operation at Heathrow Terminal 5. BA plans to roll out the Mototok across its short-haul operation by the end of the year and is exploring the possibility of introducing the technology to push back long-haul aircraft in the future.

Also pushing the envelope are Delta Air Lines.

“Technology is at the forefront of everything we do at Delta to assist our employees to better serve our customers and help them stay connected,” says Eichelgruen. “Most recently, we introduced free in-flight messaging via our wi-fi, making it easier to stay in touch with those on the ground. We are also introducing auto check-in to avoid queues at the counter and pre-select meals so our Delta One customers can choose what they would like to eat before they fly.”

“We’re constantly striving to find ways to improve the customer experience and look to technology-led innovation that can help us solve challenges, as opposed to chasing the latest ‘shiny object’ in the tech world.”

According to Eichelgruen, that’s one of the reasons why Delta launched its global innovation centre on the campus of Georgia Tech near its headquarters in Atlanta. The airline calls it ‘The Hangar’ and it’s run by Delta employees who partner with students, start-ups, entrepreneurs and others within the innovation space to come up with solutions to solve operational and customer experience challenges.

An example of the kind of work The Hangar has developed is Delta’s biometric boarding pass test at Washington-Regan International Airport, which allows eligible Delta SkyMiles members to enter the Delta Sky Club and board the aircraft using only their fingerprints as their boarding pass.

“There are more than 40 projects in various stages of development and testing, and while not all will come to fruition, they are examples of how Delta is thinking about the future of travel, today,” says Eichelgruen.

CAR RENTAL

Not to be left behind by the TMC, hotel and airline industries, the car rental market is also having to re-invent itself, largely due to questions regarding its relevance, following the emergence of car-sharing services such as Uber.

The car rental companies will tell you that the likes of Uber are only having a small impact on a small section of their business, but more importantly, this technology has forced the big car rental players to re-look their models and overall service offering.

It’s arguably the reason why the likes of Lance Smith, Executive: Sales at Avis Southern Africa, say that “apps are the future of mobility and car rental.”

“Our smartphones are now the communications hub from which we manage our daily lives, and any business serious about customer service and about growing their market share needs to service their market in the app-based environment.” says Smith.

“For us – and our customers – this means that the entire car-rental experience will change. The old model of customers queuing for service at a car rental counter, then painstakingly selecting options from a checklist, is on its way out. Current technology is about creating a customized, bespoke customer experience at the customer’s convenience. Today’s car rental customer, for instance, wants to select a price point, choose a make and model of car, complete with handy extras like GPS, bike racks, car seats or mobile wi-fi, and then make their booking.”

This is what Avis is trying to achieve with its new app.

The re-engineered app allows current and future Avis customers to search cars by size or features, locate rental locations and choose special offers. Extras can be selected, bookings can be amended or upgraded, and loyalty benefits can be tracked. The Avis Now functionality within the Avis app is even more advanced and already has 500,000 subscribers in the United States alone. This functionality allows users to make and manage bookings, then skip the counter and go directly to the Avis Rent a Car lot, where they can locate their car using the app, then unlock it with their smartphone and drive off.

According to Smith, with three of the largest rental locations outside the US, South Africa will see this functionality rolled out within the next 12 to 24 months.

Already in place is a fully responsive, mobile-enabled website, complete with Avis Preferred Loyalty programme and the Avis Preferred app providing electronic vouchers for redemption at Avis Rent a Car branches.

Almost all customer interactions can now be electronic, including invoicing, and Avis is also testing new-format, paperless rental agreements, where the customer signs on a tablet, and their agreement is in their email inbox before they leave the branch.

“The rise of on-demand car services has shown how eagerly South Africans embrace new technology and the unlock-and-drive functionality will no doubt be a hit when it is added to the Avis app in South Africa,” says Smith.

“The app platform can also be used to navigate the next major mobility disruptor: Zipcar. Zipcar is an innovative car-sharing service and part of the Avis Budget Group. Customers join the service for a monthly fee, and are then able to reserve and drive any one of the numerous Zipcars located around major cities.”

According to Smith, Zipcar has caught on massively and currently has more than 10,000 cars on fleet, across 500 cities in nine countries. In cities where the service operates, it is common to find Zipcar locations at airports, stations, universities, businesses and residential complexes.

Far from being a rival to car rental, Avis sees Zipcar as a complementary service.

“I can see Zipcar finding an enthusiastic uptake at universities, retirement villages, small communities and certainly in residential complexes,” says Smith.

Self-drive, or autonomous vehicles, are also poised to enter the mainstream. In the USA, Avis Budget Group has already entered an agreement to provide fleet support and maintenance services for autonomous vehicle company Waymo, once part of Google’s parent company.

Another innovation set to disrupt the mobility space is electric vehicles.

“Our experience from our rentals of the BMW i3 and the Toyota Prius is that consumers support the idea of sustainable solutions, but will only truly embrace them when their price point is the same as combustion-engine variants,” says Smith.

“If and when electric vehicles enter the mainstream, they will be part of a matrix of varied mobility solutions – car rental, transfer services, on-demand, Zipcar, personal vehicles and more. All of these will comprise smart vehicles and smartphone apps integrated in a web of connectivity with the user at the heart of it.”

That’s just one of the car rental world’s big players showing how this travel industry segment can avoid being left behind in the technological wake of its competitors.

THE GDS SPACE

The global distribution system (GDS) companies in the travel industry originated from a traditional legacy business model that existed to inter-operate between airline vendors and travel agents. During the early days of computerized reservations systems, flight ticket reservations were not possible without a GDS.

However, as time has gone on, many airline vendors have now adopted a strategy of ‘direct selling’ to their wholesale and retail customers (passengers), whilst the advancement of technology across the board has also forced the GDS companies to re-look their models and offering.

“Over time, Amadeus has diversified its operations by also focusing on IT to deliver services spanning beyond sales and reservation functionalities,” says Hedley. “We have diversified and expanded our business with travel data, mobile payments, Rail IT and Airport IT. In 2010, we announced our first mobile app, CheckMyTrip, which lets travellers manage their entire trip from flight to hotel, car rental and rail, on their phone. In 2012, we launched virtual card payments, and this year, Amadeus company Navitaire unveiled the world’s first VR travel search and booking experience. We also became the first travel technology provider to run a GDS and Passenger Service System (PSS) exclusively on open systems.”

In the Southern African market, Amadeus, Travelport and Sabre are the major players and all have seen forced to re-think what role the GDS companies now player in the travel industry.

“Our travel industry has seen major disruption in recent years,” says Richard Addey, South Africa Country Director, Sabre Travel Network. “Today, passengers have power over travel – choosing whether to travel by plane, rail or car, and whether to search online, use an agency or phone a supplier. Travellers have an entire ecosystem of options, services, apps, channels, and data streams – and travel companies like Sabre provide the platform that serves up these options.”

So, it’s the evolution to becoming a ‘platform’, as opposed to the original role of a ‘go-between’ between the airlines and travel agents. To their credit, the big GDS players have evolved significantly and are now seen very differently – that is, as industry leaders in the tech space.

One of the areas in which they are leveraging that influence is in the data space, where the phrase ‘Big Data’ has caught on and remains a hot topic.

“Big Data in travel comes from every moment in the traveller’s journey, from airline bookings to hotel check-in,” says Hedley. “Their actions create data which presents an opportunity for travel companies to provide better-individualised services to the traveller and to improve his or her experience. Amadeus is well positioned to make this work, and we have approached airlines, travel agencies and DMOs offering them tools to not only better support their business decisions, but to also enable them to predict passenger, customer and visitor behaviour. Amadeus Travel Intelligence helps our customers leverage advances in technology and analytics in order to transform the increasing amount of raw travel data into actionable Big Data and stand out from the competition.”

Addey has a similar take, with Sabre now offering its own suite of data-focused products.

Sabre’s Intelligence Exchange for airlines has been proven to add 10% to airlines’ revenues, and its customers include British Airways and Etihad,” he says. “Then there’s SynXis Analytics Cloud for hotels – the first analytics platform to apply Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to the hospitality data for uncovering anomaly patterns and predicting future scenarios. It will enable hotels to store 360-degree guest profiles and in real time offer tailored products and services to people on an individual basis. Sabre Profiles allows agencies to easily store, access and update customer information including hotel preference, type of rental car needed, and even the different airlines they like to fly when travelling for work versus leisure.” Ultimately, though, the GDS companies want to remain relevant and an integral part in the travel ecosystem.

“Our ambition is to facilitate the entire travel journey from door-to-door, and in the process, we want to improve the travel experience for hundreds of millions of people every year,” says Hedley. “We do this by connecting key players in the travel industry and we give companies the tools to serve travellers better and manage their own businesses more effectively.”

THE FUTURE

So, what does it look like?

Can anyone accurately predict just where we’ll be with travel technology in, say 10 years’ time?

“I think development will continue to focus on offering people the information in one place, at the right times and to allow them to make more choices,” says Simpson. “I also believe Virtual Reality (VR) could have a huge impact on the meetings market and how we showcase hotels.”

Virtual and Augmented Reality keep cropping up when one starts asking about the future.

“The key megatrends are artificial intelligence, conversational interfaces (chatbots and voice), and digital realities (virtual and augmented reality),” says Addey. “Through advances in connected intelligence, agencies will benefit from much better automation, improving the services they are able to provide to customers handling some of the routine work of itinerary management, freeing up time for agents to build relationships and respond to customer requests.”

“I suspect that we are going to see a significant increase in machine to machine communication and real-time information sharing will become as commonplace as it is with current net native systems,” says Nel. “Machine learning and AI will make its way into multiple customer and traveller interfaces across the value spectrum. Ultimately though, we see the traveller becoming more empowered and the shackles loosened as TMCs strive towards delivering a more consumer grade experience (while continuing to deliver to all customer stakeholders).”

So, what does that say about the future?

“The future is upon us,” says Smith of Avis. “Boundaries are starting to blur and everything now seams feasible. At the centre of this network of possibility is us – the city dwellers of the future who will reap the benefits of all the exciting technology to come, and make it our own.”

Fair enough.