Moving Target

Travelling is a personal and emotional experience, regardless of whether you’re on a business trip or taking a holiday with the family, and the global travel industry is currently going through an interesting transformation, as it attempts to find the balance between automation and human interaction.

237

Arecent report from Skift and Adobe revealed that personalisation is the most important factor when it comes to the travel customer experience, and according to additional research by Google, alongside the increasing demand for last-minute travel is the need for artificial intelligence. Apparently, according to the research, 57% of travellers believe brands should tailor information based on personal preferences and past behaviours, and 36% said they would be willing to pay more for personalised services.

“There’s no doubt that artificial intelligence is here to stay in business travel,” says Nicole Adonis, GM of FCM Travel Solutions South Africa, which earlier this year rolled out the chatbot Sam. “The volume of data held by travel providers, including TMCs, such as traveller profiles, transaction history and personal preferences, make travel and AI ideal bedfellows. At the highest level, AI has the capability to improve customer service, to make that service more personal and improve travel planning.”

The technology companies – and the prominent players in this space – would seemingly agree.

“We are mixing AI (deep learning) with econometric models and behavioural economics, including the irrational behaviours of humans, to better model and predict traveller choices,” says Andy Hedley, GM of Amadeus Southern Africa. “Artificial intelligence and bots – from travel companion to travel assistant to travel essential – corporations and TMCs sit on a massive amount of data and should leverage this data as a way to build predictive analysis and benchmarks, and to offer relevant and instant information to travellers.”

“AI is the golden ticket that can unlock insights to create the personalised, tailored and customised experience travellers crave,” says Guido Verweij, Travelport’s Managing Director for Africa. “Advanced AI solutions eliminate the need to be reactive, allowing businesses to become more proactive and strategic through predictive capabilities. By constantly informing a travel AI, training it and providing it with access to the richest, most extensive real-time data sets, opportunities to deliver personal, frictionless travel experience become seamless.”

There’s clearly a huge opportunity for travel brands and entities willing to take the technological ‘plunge’ and open themselves up to this sort of change.

Further to that, automation is already helping companies to target and reach customers and deliver better services, but the change has just started. There is still a big opportunity to simplify customer journeys and personalise experiences in the travel and hospitality industries.

In addition, data on consumer demand and market insights are essential to understanding the industry and its customers, as well as predicting trends. As social media dominates the internet and changes consumer behaviour, analysis of online sentiment and demand can help companies identify opportunities and risks, as well as tailoring services and products based on what consumers are seeking and discussing, both positively and negatively.

Those are just some of the examples where technology is playing an even bigger role in the whole travel process.

“I think the focus is definitely beyond making trips easier through technology,” says Louis van Zyl, CEO of Carlson Wagonlit Travel South Africa. “It touches on maximizing value, educating buyers, making them the experts in their trip planning and execution processes, but also keeping them informed and equipped throughout the entire process, from planning to undergoing their trips, to ultimately returning home and completing the process.”

Van Zyl, though, is also of the opinion that technology shouldn’t remain purely “business”.

“I think an element we shouldn’t lose focus of is the element of fun,” he says. “I think technology can also help in breaking the monotony of a business trip and providing options for travellers to take time to enjoy what their business destinations offer outside of the work commitments.”

TMCs

Van Zyl’s views are interesting, because there’s a discussion to be had around how the modern-day travel management company buys into technological advancement and continues to remain relevant to its customers, particularly if one delves into the ‘automation v manpower’ debate.

“I can’t see TMCs playing bigger roles in the development of technology,” says Van Zyl. “That’s the space of the tech companies and it will be increasingly harder to compete with the experts. We are getting feedback from our customers that it is not more technology that they want, but rather technology that will assist by channelling them to the ultimate space or systems that would best suit their needs. More than any other time, I see a fundamental shift in the way the industry will operate and service business travellers, due to the coming technological advancements in the next year to year and a half.”

Whereas once TMCs functioned primarily to process bookings, now they must harness data and tools such as AI, predictive analytics and chatbots to provide value to their customers throughout the travel experience.

These are some of the conclusions from ‘Harnessing Technology to Empower Your People’, a report from Advantage Travel Partnership based on findings from the 2017 Advantage Conference and Business Travel Symposium, and a “Buyer Research Survey” conducted by the Institute of Travel Management.

“Through continuous discussions with members and research undertaken with travel buyers from ITM, we noted that technology strengthens the service of a TMC,” says Neil Armorgie, CEO of WIN and Global Product Director for Advantage.

“Human interaction remains the vital ingredient that business travellers and clients are ultimately looking for. Technology enhances this partnership, making for a more seamless relationship and therefore achieving better productivity for the client, which ultimately helps them grow their business.”

So, more a complementary relationship, as opposed to one where the two elements are in conflict, or competition.

According to the research, 87% of travel buyers were excited about the future of travel technology, but 76% said they were looking for help from business partners to keep them up-to-date on new developments.

So, in contrast to what Van Zyl was saying, this report recommended that TMCs should look to fill this role by making strategic investments in new technology and qualified staff, creating an appropriate balance of “man and machine.”

The paper went on to say that: “As much as new technologies will automate process-driven tasks, business travel continues to be an industry dominated by people and relationships, and the ability to deploy people into more creative roles should be an excellent opportunity to further personalize the travel experience.”

Along similar lines, Wings Travel takes the view that the TMC needs to be adaptable and flexible to meeting the needs of a customer and an environment in which technology now has a huge say.

“As the world becomes increasingly reliant on connectivity, the need for technology in business becomes vital,” says Nemanja KrstiĆ, Head of Technology at Wings Travel Management. “Delivering travel solutions has had to evolve in line with these trends and with that, new methods of conducting business, processing client data and sourcing relevant content had to be applied. TMCs simply have to embrace technology to deliver these services in a world that is always online.”

NDC

There’s no doubt that one of the hottest topics in the travel industry is IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC).

NDC is a travel industry-supported program launched by IATA for the development and market adoption of a new, XML-based data transmission standard.

The NDC Standard enhances the capability of communications between airlines and travel agents and is open to any third party, intermediary, IT provider or non- IATA member, to implement and use.

According to IATA, the NDC Standard enables the travel industry to transform the way air products are retailed to corporations, leisure and business travellers, by addressing the industry’s current distribution limitations:

– Product differentiation and time-to-market
– Access to full and rich air content
– Transparent shopping experience

But NDC has been a long time in the works, and IATA has had to work hard to get the travel industry onboard.

In fact, according to a recent report by ACTE, many travel managers still feel in the dark about the issue. The report said that almost a quarter (23%) of travel managers said they were “not at all” confident in their understanding of NDC and what it means for their programme. A further 58% said they were only “somewhat” confident in their understanding.

“I think we have experienced the initial euphoria of what it promises to bring to our industry, the despondency of the realization that it is not the ultimate answer to all our shortcomings, and the frustration of the initial teething pains,” says Van Zyl. “As usual, I think the early adopters have felt the most pain, but I have no doubt that IATA and the NDC proponents will ultimately overcome the initial challenges, like dealing with all the exceptions in transacting on this platform, including interlining and packaging ancillaries. As with all new and disruptive technologies, once realization sets in, these challenges will be dealt with and overcome.”

If one speaks to a broad cross-section of senior industry members, one gets the sense that the tide is turning and that the big players understand their role in driving this process and change.

“NDC is a top priority for Amadeus and we’re moving fast to integrate NDC content into the Amadeus Travel Platform,” says Hedley. “Leading business travel agencies including Flight Centre, Carlson Wagonlit, American Express Global Business Travel and BCD Travel have joined our NDC-X program to test the new NDC flow of ‘shop, order, pay’, so when our NDC-enabled solutions are industrialised in 2019, they can be ready to consume new content.”

“NDC is currently top of mind for TMCs,” says KrstiĆ. “The benefit to airlines of selling content via this channel surpasses any current traditional method. This point is only reinforced by official plans from the GDS companies embarking on huge development initiatives, ones that would completely change the traditional GDS business model and see their platforms themselves as massive content aggregators.”

Perhaps Adonis simplifies the issue even further, distilling it down to its core purpose, which must have the travel customer at the centre, because, ultimately, the consumer has to benefit from this major industry change.

“By integrating NDC content into our core booking systems, we will be able to personalise the booking experience for our customers even further,” she says. “This will ensure that we continue to offer the widest choice of content that is appropriate for our corporate customers’ needs.”

GDS COMPANIES

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.

“We are now more than a GDS,” says Hedley. “We’re a ‘Live Travel Space’ – an open, dynamic and connected space where all industry players can join and collaborate to deliver memorable journeys. We’re continually listening to travellers, business travel agencies, and all other customers we work with, whilst keeping a close eye on trends and behaviours, so we can develop technologies that benefit all.”

What Hedley alludes to and what seems to have been a major development in the GDS space is the collaborative nature of this section of the travel industry.

“Travelport transformed the traditional GDS concept into an open platform with XML connectivity and a graphically rich, single user interface to enable marketing and sales of not only full air content, but also full ancillary content,” says Verweij.

“Our open systems allow business travel agencies to deliver an end-to-end travel process – from proposal to booking to expense management – leading to improved ROI, efficiencies and cost savings,” says Hedley. “We’re freed from legacy mainframe systems and now with the latest technology we can approach things differently.”

GDS companies have now become leaders in the technology space, conducting research and developing products that benefit the industry as a whole.

As a result, the big GDS players – Amadeus, Travelport and Sabre – have been able to position themselves as the ‘go-to’ resource for technological development, making them an even more important and relevant player in the industry, as suppliers continue to look for solutions, efficiencies and cost-savings for their customers.

AVIATION

This year has seen British Airways trialling biometric technology to speed up boarding and arrivals processes in Orlando, Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

BA was the first airline to use this particular technology to board international flights. Customers in Orlando have been joining those flying with BA from Los Angeles who have been using the boarding process since November of last year. The gates at Los Angeles Airport, used by BA, have resulted in the airline boarding more than 400 customers in only 22 minutes – less than half the time it takes when not using this technology.

The biometric boarding gates remove the need for travellers to present their boarding pass and passport at the departure gate, simplifying and speeding up boarding. Customers simply look into a camera prior to boarding, wait for their biometric data to be verified, and walk onto the aircraft. Similar to facial identification built into mobile phones, the biometric e-Gates use high-definition camera technology and allow customers to pass through by recognising their unique facial features and matching them with the passport, visa or immigration photos.

Heathrow has also announced recently that it is rolling out an end-to-end biometrics trial that will see facial recognition replacing the need for traditional travel documents by mid-2019.

A recent IATA Global Passenger Survey identified airport security/ border control and boarding processes as two of the biggest pain points for passengers. According to the survey, to improve the boarding experience, the top desire of passengers is more efficient queuing at boarding gates (64%). The survey also said that these passengers would be prepared to share biometric information in exchange for a smoother journey.

The new technology will streamline the passenger journey through Heathrow from check-in to take-off, with the airport claiming it could reduce the average passenger’s journey time by up to a third. The new technology will use facial recognition at check-in, bag drops, security lanes and boarding gates.

Currently, manual authentication means that passengers need to present different forms of ID such as boarding cards and booking reference numbers, as well as their passports to different agents to show that they’re authorised to travel.

Delta is another airline taking technological advancement seriously. It has partnered with Georgia Tech to create ‘The Hangar’ – Delta’s global innovation centre, which launched in 2016. Here, a team of tech experts looks for opportunities to solve business problems and deliver a smoother travel experience, helping Delta to “up our game and future-proof our business”, according to Jimmy Eichelgruen, Director: Sales – Africa, Middle East & India.

Delta has also been trialling biometric technology and later this year will be launching the first biometric terminal in the U.S. at its Atlanta hub. This will give customers on direct international flights – including the Johannesburg service – the option to use facial recognition technology at touchpoints throughout Atlanta’s Terminal F. This will also apply to Delta customers flying on its partner airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Air France-KLM and Aeromexico. forward and once it’s up and running, will offer customers an end-to-end Delta biometrics experience, using facial recognition technology to: check in at the self-service kiosks in the lobby; drop checked baggage; serve as identification at the TSA checkpoint; board a flight; and go through Customs and Security processing on arrival to the United States,” says Eichelgruen.

Delta is also using technology to better understand and interact with its customers. That’s by unifying all its customer databases, so that it can meet customers’ needs from an experience perspective, not simply from a sales standpoint, but to also tailor their travel experience.

“This level of personalization is a big focus at Delta and we’re driving more engagement between our employees and customers across the business,” says Eichelgruen. “Flight attendants have been using Delta Sky Pro devices for a while now. These give them information on each passenger, such as frequent flyer status or any disruption to travel so they can engage with them better. We estimate that if 20 customers are recognized through the tool per flight, we can enhance the travel experience of around 50,000 customers every day. Meanwhile, at the gates, check-in and Delta Sky Clubs, NOMAD hand-held devices are enabling agents to get out from behind the desk to interact with customers and help them on their travels.”

CAR RENTAL

Here, a lot of the focus appears to have been on improving the customer experience, whilst the really “sexy” development is in the driverless cars space.

With regards the customer experience, Avis Budget believes it has taken a leading position in the United States, providing its customers with a self-service app that enables them to bypass the rental kiosk and to go directly to their vehicle. They are able to open and lock their vehicles with their mobile phone, as well as return their vehicle without assistance using their phone.

“Technology will enable customers to control their entire rental experience from reservation of rental to return and payment,” says Lance Smith, Avis Southern Africa’s Executive: Sales. “Technology will give them peace of mind regarding vehicle condition upon pick-up, and will allow them to quickly resolve any queries. Over and above this, with connected cars and the data that this will bring, customers will be able to choose the mobility solution best suited to their needs. Essentially, technology will enable mobility as a solution.”

The Avis Budget Group is also working with Google through their Waymo business on autonomous vehicles development. Smith is confident that the group’s future will include this innovation, but he doesn’t believe that wide-scale adoption of this technology in Africa will take place before 2025.

Nonetheless, Avis is exploring all technological avenues to stay ahead of the curve.

“We are embracing the technology journey as it will improve our customers’ experience, improve efficiencies and reduce the cost of doing business,” says Smith.

CONCLUSION

It’s tough to keep up, isn’t it?

There really is so much advancement and so much in the way of new technology in the travel space, and what’s clear is that the big players are all diving headlong into this space, to see where they can improve the customer experience, create efficiencies and just generally make the whole travel process a seamless one.

This can only be good for the consumer or end user.

THE ‘SMART’ HOTEL ROOM

All the major players in the hotel space – including Hilton and Marriott – seem to be working on a “smart” or “connected” hotel room, with AccorHotels the latest big group to make a noise about the progress it is making, with the company testing technology that uses voice activation and the internet to make the hotel room experience more accessible and personalized.

A model smart room at the company’s Paris headquarters incorporates a variety of technologies and accessibility features to accommodate up to three guests at a time.

They include:

– A Google Home voice assistant
– A connected tablet that controls lighting, music, the bed headboard, curtains, TV, and other audio-visual equipment in the room
– A special LED lighting system that senses motion at night to automatically turn on
– Sleep aids, like Dodow, described as a “luminous metronome that promotes both concentration or sleep,” and a Dreem headband that has “brain energy sensors and a relaxation system.”
– Aromatherapy aids like Sensorwake, which helps you wake up to a certain aroma, like coffee, tea, or a sea breeze, and Skinjay shower capsules that contain essential oils.

“Voice is the future,” says Damien Perrot, Senior Vice-President of Design Solutions for AccorHotels. “To be able to use it to access the TV, go to Netflix directly, or select your favourite song — we’re hoping to connect all of those elements to enhance the guest room experience. All of these elements and innovation in technology help improve the usage of the room.”

AccorHotels is testing the use of both voice activation and in-room tablets.

Perrot said the decision to use an in-room tablet was prompted by the fact that “many guests don’t want to have to download another app that they only use when they’re in the hotel. For this room, the decision was to put in a real tablet with all the functionality already built in, and they can use the tablet to connect everything.”

TRAVEL AND BLOCKCHAIN

Blockchain is fast emerging as the priority technology for future exploration among airport and airline CIOs globally, attracting the most research attention in 2018. That’s according to new research released by SITA.

The 2018 SITA Air Transport IT Insights shows that blockchain offers multiple use cases, ranging from passenger identification to ticketing, asset tracking and managing frequent flyers programs.

“The biggest obstacles standing in the way of a seamless passenger journey and truly efficient air travel are the siloed processes across the many stakeholders, including airlines, airports, ground handlers and control authorities,” says Gustavo Pina, Director of SITA Lab. “They act as significant speed bumps at every step of the way. By collaborating as a single industry, we can smooth that journey, and blockchain is one of the technologies that has the potential to make that possible.”

One of the key benefits of blockchain technology is the ability to have multi-enterprise applications. These work across multiple organizations locking data immutably into the blockchain rather than having individual applications running separately and exchanging data on a case-by-case basis. This is how this technology can provide a ‘single source of truth’ to all stakeholders.

According to SITA, today, 59% of airlines have pilot or research programs planned around blockchain for implementation by 2021, which is up from 42% last year. Similarly, airports also continue to experiment with blockchain, with 34% planning R&D projects by 2021. The most commonly expected use of blockchain for both airlines and airports is to streamline the passenger identification process, with 40% of airlines and 36% of airports saying this would be a major benefit.

While the focus in the industry is predominately on passenger identity management, both airlines and airports also see that blockchain could have major benefits across several other use cases. Airlines stated that they expected blockchain technology to provide benefits in the roll-out of passenger tokens for frequent flyer programs (34%) and e-tickets (31%). Airport CIOs have item custody change tracking (such as baggage) (28%) and operational efficiency (24%) as other areas that have potential benefits.

For more on blockchain in the travel industry, see here.

SELECTED NEW PRODUCTS

Here’s a look at some of the new products out there, as detailed by some of the big travel players consulted for this piece on travel technology:

FCM Travel Solutions South Africa – has launched its interactive ‘Smart Assistant for Mobile’ (Sam) that supports users with all aspects of travel via a conversational interface, answering questions, making recommendations, and performing actions.

Delta Air Lines – is launching customized travel sites for corporate accounts later this year and will be launching the first biometric terminal in the U.S. at its Atlanta hub.

Amadeus – has further developed its Transfers solution and recently released Travel Alerts Notifier (ATAN). With this product, travellers can keep informed of any changes to their travel plans throughout the entire trip cycle – from the initial booking up to their arrival back home.

Travelport – Trip Assist is a mobile engagement platform that allows TMCs to connect, support and engage end-travellers at every stage of their journey.

AccorHotels – is testing the ‘smart’ hotel room concept.