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Booking a trip is complicated, with dozens of platforms and providers jockeying to sell accommodations, flights, and experiences. Yet as travelers have become wiser and more empowered by digital tools, they are now looking to more actively determine the shape and contours of their trips when they are already in a destination. Having an increased level of choice and flexibility at the fingertips of travelers will lead to a new era as travel brands act as trusted guides and enablers of the rarest and most valuable travel phenomenon: serendipity.
The emergence of co-creation and collaboration between travel company and traveler has become perhaps the most impactful change the industry has seen, the end result of a long period of digital development by the global travel sector. The control that travelers now have during every phase of their trip will begin to revolutionize the sector starting in 2019, and smart travel companies are paying attention to ways they can empower their customers without eroding the value of their brand.
For decades, the online travel revolution didn’t really extend to the tours and activities travelers experience during a vacation. Companies like Expedia and ITA Software pioneered the software that undergirded e-commerce for flights in the late 1990s, while Booking.com helped to bring online the long tail of hotel properties in Europe and around the world over the last decade-plus.
Today, the tours and activities sector is undergoing a similar expansion in the digital space. There are numerous reasons for the slow speed of digital adoption, ranging from the extreme fragmentation of tour operators to the buying habits of consumers, who tend to book activities anywhere from a few days before their trip to a few hours before a tour takes place, limiting the need for robust online booking.
As travelers choose travel apps over a hotel desk or information booth for booking tours and activities, though, a major opportunity has emerged for established travel brands to sell those activities alongside their usual products. Travelers want more control over their trips than ever before, and new digital tools allow them to co-create a trip within the structure of the apps and services they already use. The technical plumbing is now in place to allow a new wave of engagement with travelers from a wide range of industry giants ranging from Google to TripAdvisor and relatively new players like Airbnb.
It’s still early days, but Airbnb has made one of the most robust efforts to integrate its Airbnb Experiences venture with its traditional homestay product, accompanied by a recommendation-fueled itinerary management service baked into its mobile app.
“We so far have seen that hosts can be empowered to provide something that hits their passion and also makes the guest’s trip a lot better,” said Joe Zadeh, Airbnb’s head of experiences. “We are seeing the growth experiences to be even faster than the growth of our personal homes visits because we already have an engaged travel audience that wants to have a real local experience.”
Google has straddled both sides of the line this decade, providing flight and hotel booking tools to consumers while also deploying the capability for travelers to track their itineraries using Google services.
Over the last year, there has been a major convergence emerging from both sides of the company’s bifurcated strategy; the Google Maps app now serves up dining and activity recommendations, while the company’s traditional travel selling efforts have become integrated in a more robust way into Google’s wider suite of technology tools.
Want to track that affordable flight to Paris for your anniversary in six months? Want to remember that hipster coffee shop in Austin for your next visit? Now you can do it seamlessly inside Google’s ecosystem with proactive notifications from Google services.
TripAdvisor launched a social networking platform to allow users to save and then book elements of a vacation when they are ready to travel. Enabling travelers to choose, instead of pushing them offers and deals they don’t want, will soon become the new normal for smart travel brands. Travelers no longer have to spend hours before a trip pricing out activities or manipulating the timing of their trip for the best experience; they can now do so via the same apps they’ve used throughout the planning process, pulling f rom options they’ve already saved to their account. Global hotel brands are also getting into the game, with a slightly different calculus behind their strategies. A major problem faced by hotel and flight providers is f requency of use by customers; most people travel a couple times a year, and many never travel.
So how do you encourage existing customers to visit your platform more often while attracting those who don’t travel to your travel brand? By building a platform with relevant products for locals in addition to travelers. Local residents also eat at restaurants, need on-demand deliveries of purchases, and crave unique local experiences showing them the parts of their city they have never seen.
AccorHotels’ AccorLocal program is the first example of what these platforms will look like, using the company’s hotels and local connections as a services platform for Parisians. Why not book a spa treatment at a hotel, then follow it up with dinner at the property’s best restaurant? Airlines, too, have moved to sell better seats, lounge access, and in-destination experiences in more integrated ways than ever before. While global airlines are reaping a financial windfall by charging fees, an even bigger opportunity is to become more deeply integrated into the wider trip booking and planning experience for customers.
Travel companies face a major challenge as they concoct marketing efforts to educate travelers about the options available to them in a world where the boundaries between travel sectors are breaking down.
The coming changes will also flatten the ecosystem, allowing smaller providers of experiences and services to compete against enormous legacy companies retooling on the fly to capitalize on a future def ined by co-creation. As companies like Amazon and Uber have shown, consumers value convenience and affordability above all else. The wise, empowered consumer of the future will choose the travel services that suit them best instead of incumbents. Control is power, and travelers want more.