Creating the connected trip means online travel agencies will have to become high-powered, tech-first, traditional travel agencies. It sounds cool but probably isn't feasible without major upheaval across the global travel market.
It looks like online travel’s next buzz term has finally entered prime time.
The concept of the connected trip is making headlines as online travel leaders have done the rounds over the last few months, presenting a new paradigm of truly traveler-centric travel booking and service.
What exactly is a connected trip? Well, it is everything. The term appears to have appeared out of the ether over the last few years, being mentioned by online leaders across travel.
In recent months, the CEOs of both Booking Holdings and Expedia Group have used it as a placeholder for future growth possibilities. The stock value of the two companies has plummeted, the result of digital marketing on Google not packing the same punch as in the past. The connected trip seems to be the juicy nugget that represents the future development of online travel agency technology; imagine, if you will, a world where everything that is broken in online booking is suddenly fixed.
Online travel agencies want to move closer to the capabilities of the global distribution systems that power them, combining disparate trip elements into something of a dynamic package they can service once there is a disruption.
Algorithms will push other trip elements to customers booking a single element, allowing them to book personalized choices; travelers will even be able to import trip elements booked directly or on other platforms to have everything connected up in one place.
Expedia Group has been doing this for a while now through its vacation packages option, just without the personalization and high level of service such a concept demands. Packaging has been done in online travel for nearly two decades and the connected trip represents the culmination of this product type.
What a Concept
Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel explained his vision for the concept in November at an RBC Capital Markets event appearance.
“If you want to create this connected trip that makes [a trip] so much easier, you’ve got to do all parts of it,” said Fogel. “If there’s any break in that product, then it’s not a holistic, seamless way… I’ve talked about this a bit in the past: if you have a flight and something goes wrong in that flight, well, the problems are going to cascade through the rest of the trip if your flight is canceled or delayed. If we have that flight information, we’ve done that flight, we can then correct every single other part of that trip and fix it for the person.
“If you ever had a flight you had to change, then you have to change the pickup at the airport, you have to change your restaurant reservation because you’re not going to land in time to actually make that business dinner that you were planning to make. Those things that we can do ourselves in the future in this connected trip seamlessly, frictionlessly, now create a much better experience that will build the loyalty, that will have people come back to us direct. That’s the win.”
Fogel’s lengthy description of the concept raises many questions. It’s a bold goal to have customers treat Booking.com as a direct channel. United Airlines isn’t also going to reschedule your dinner if you are stuck on the tarmac for hours, but Booking could.
It also sounds exactly like what a traditional travel agent or personal concierge already does, without any of the nuance that comes from knowing your client, and resembles the service provided by a travel management company, which usually only service bookings made through its own platforms due to travel distribution’s financial incentives.
Beyond the App
Ultimately, as travel booking and service moves out of the website or app and into messaging and the mobile operating system layer over the coming decade, being able to seamlessly piece together smart personalized trips will become the holy grail.
If personalized service is taking place automatically, it will be communicated through messages or the digital assistant on your mobile phone; the app won’t even be necessary. It’s only a matter of time until this is a reality. It is hard to see how an online intermediary will have enough behavioral data on customers, though, to accurately predict what they want during a disruption, particularly because travelers tend to be both brand disloyal and infrequent customers.
“The mobile world is really where everything is moving towards,” said Fogel. “And we need to make sure that people know and are aware of all the things that, that app can do. In the connected trip, the app really is a center for the example I just gave. It gives you so much more information that… you can do an action on it immediately wherever you are.”
The deeper questions surrounding how the connected trip will functionally work have not been answered. One can sense a potential shift to treating leisure customers like business travelers, bringing the core capabilities of corporate travel into the consumer space.
Will airlines cede their ownership of the customer to a booking site in order to allow this sort of flexibility? This is possible through direct relationships and New Distribution Capability technology that is slowly entering the real world, but global airlines are still keen to drive direct business with access to ancillaries and other direct booking perks.
Will hotels with listings on dozens of booking sites be game to delay check-in or switch rooms at the last minute due to a flight disruption? The cascade of impacts for travel providers is immense and will seemingly have to be negotiated in real-time.
Google’s Cold War
It will be fascinating to see the partnerships and battle lines drawn if both Booking and Expedia are committed to building their own versions of the connected trip.
Another obvious issue with the concept is that travelers have entirely bounced off itinerary management tools in the past, leaving a trail of failed startups in their wake. If the goal is to automate all the annoying parts of the travel experience, why would travelers take the time to update their Expedia or Booking account with a reservation made on another platform? If the platform doesn’t recognize a single booking, the new product has failed.
Taken as a whole, this concept resembles what Google has already done. Google already scrapes your Gmail inbox and places your reservations in one place (formerly the Google Trips app, and now inside Google Maps itself). You can book experiences and restaurant reservations inside the same app that holds your flight and hotel information. While the automated service layer isn’t there yet, it also isn’t for online travel agencies. Google is a technology titan with a history of delivering on automation and (albeit wonky) personalization. Online travel doesn’t quite have the same track record of both innovation and consumer adoption.
In competition against Google, online travel agencies need to pull out the big guns. An arms race to build the connected trip is great news for global travelers, however, and represents a major opportunity for stagnant online travel giants to build products that actually solve problems for travelers. Whether they will be successful in bringing a bold new vision to market is another thing entirely.
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Photo credit: Lengthy lines at Newark International Airport in New Jersey. Bart Everson / Flickr