Skift Take

What do Amazon's Alexa, personalization, and the tech arms race have in common? They were common refrains overheard this week at our inaugural Skift Tech Forum in Silicon Valley.

On Tuesday, Skift Tech Forum drew about 400 attendees from dozens of travel industry segments and 20 different countries to Santa Clara, California, in Silicon Valley, to talk about what’s next in travel technology.

Skift editors noticed a handful of ideas that percolated during the day’s talks, workshops, and networking breaks, including the growing digital divide, best practices in personalization, the promise of voice-powered search, and speculation about Amazon or another big tech player moving into travel.

The Travel Industry Has a Growing Digital Divide

It’s clear from top executives from the big players, such as Expedia and Alibaba — both of which are devoting tens of millions of dollars to tech development, such as cloud computing or artificial intelligence — that the gap between the tech haves and have-nots in the travel industry is widening.

Not all suppliers, such as smaller hotel groups or airlines or vendors, have been keeping with the times.

That’s one reason many travel companies fear what Amazon or a similar tech giant outside of the industry might do if they enter travel booking. They may be put at an even further disadvantage.

It isn’t just a big-versus-small company divide. Sectors are developing at different paces. As Sabre CEO Sean Menke said, the hotel industry is a decade behind the airline industry in tech development.

Airlines are also missing opportunities, Menke said, in that many don’t yet use dynamic pricing for seat assignments and bag fees. Sabre, of course, wants a piece of that action.

Personalization Requires a Deft Hand

Personalization “was the theme, the buzzword, and perhaps the most overused term at the Skift Tech Forum,” but is nevertheless “one of the single most important things happening in travel,” said one of the day’s speakers. Decius Valmorbida, president of travel channels at Amadeus, wrote the comments in a blog post reflecting on Skift Tech Forum.

Skift Research opened the event with a review of its survey results of how travelers are thinking about the issue of personalization versus privacy now; we’ll share more about that  in the coming weeks. In brief: Many travelers feel conflicted, and perhaps for good reason: Amanda Richardson, chief data and strategy officer at HotelTonight, joked on stage that Silicon Valley is “ground zero for bad data usage.”

Given that some consumers have grown wary, Hilton’s Chief Commercial Officer Chris Silcock said travel companies need to be judicious and only ask for personal information when they know they’re going to add value to the customer, such as using data on a user’s location to provide suggested recommendations for properties nearby that may be of interest.

Several speakers said their companies try to avoid these problems by inferring customer preferences through clues without having to collect personally identifiable information. United’s Chief Digital Officer Linda Jojo suggested she wants to avoid “creepy” personalization as she plans the carrier’s new mobile app.

Richardson supported this idea by giving the example that aspects of a trip itinerary, such as the day of the week of travel and the type of hotel a guest is staying at, can suggest if a trip is for business or leisure — enabling companies to provide relevant offers.

Voice Search Shows Promise

Expedia’s Chief Technology Officer Tony Donohoe said, “Voice is definitely the future” — a theme picked up by other speakers.

Matthias Keller, Kayak’s chief scientist and vice president of technology, said that his data team has been on “a journey” to find out what travelers want from voice-activated internet platforms like Alexa, Google Home, and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Many people use voice-powered internet to fetch and double-check practical information, such as when a flight departs and if it’s on-time, Keller said, rather than to book hotels, when using Kayak’s skill on Alexa.

“We actually see conversational commerce and voice as a user interface as probably what’s going to be the biggest channel maybe two to three years out to five years out for us,” said Mark Nasr, Air Canada’s vice president of loyalty and e-commerce, when talking about the skill his carrier built for Amazon’s Alexa for voice-based queries.

Nasr added: “I think what’s ultimately going to have the most traction in the near term in that channel is [customer] servicing — simple queries like, ‘Hey I want to take the flight two hours earlier,’ or, ‘Has my upgrade cleared yet?'”

Amazon and Other Big Tech Players May Enter Travel

Several industry notables speculated about what a potential foray into travel by Amazon or another internet commerce giant might entail.

When asked how long until the travel industry takes steps to sell travel via demand aggregators like LinkedIn and Amazon, Travelport CEO Gordon Wilson said, “It’s already happening.”

New technologies and business models are putting the basic building blocks in place, Wilson said. He cited his own company’s embrace of application programming interfaces, or flexible methods of exchanging data, as his own company’s hope to get a share of that activity.

Steven Taylor, chief brand officer at AccorHotels said, “We’re watching the tech platforms carefully.” He suggested that Amazon’s success in getting people to use voice-powered internet via its Alexa product may translate to changing customer behavior.

One reason why Amazon’s Alexa product excels at shopping-related voice requests is that it can leverage its vast amount of shopping data. It stands to reason that if it bought travel data, it could use to improve Alexa’s smarts, or natural language processing, for travel queries.

Keller of Kayak said perhaps Amazon could buy Lonely Planet or a similar guidebook publisher that has lots of point-of-interest data that could feed into better personalization.

Richardson of HotelTonight said Amazon has to “figure out recommendations for an infrequent non-repeatable purchase.” She said she loses more sleep over Google, which has more data on her and most consumers that could be relevant to travel recommendations than Amazon has.

Overall, these and other ideas at Skift Tech Forum 2018 fell under the day’s overarching theme of how new technology and business models are offering fresh ways for companies to retail and distribute travel content and to fulfill promises to customers in relevant ways. See for yourself in the coming weeks as we share outtakes and original research.

—Skift Editors Dennis Schaal and Brian Sumers contributed to this report.


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Tags: amazon, personalization, skift tech forum, stf2018, voice search

Photo credit: A scene from Skift Tech Forum 2018 in Silicon Valley. Topics we heard discussed include the growing digital divide, best practices in personalization, the promise of voice-powered search, and speculation about Amazon or another big tech player moving into travel. Skift

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