Traveler sentiment has fundamentally changed following the pandemic, and the industry needs to stay in sync with these shifts. Travel companies with a digital-first mindset are best placed to recognize, address, and profit from the opportunities emerging from whatever the new normal turns out to be.
Digital-first is a familiar phrase, albeit an imprecise one. The definition varies among industries, geographies, and business models. In the broadest sense, digital-first travel companies are defined by their use of data and analytics to make decisions to drive their business forward. A digital-first company prioritizes acting upon the data, rather than simply collecting it.
Many studies have identified an accentuated demand from travelers for a seamless end-to-end experience, and technology is the only way to deliver this. But digital-first is not digital-only. Many consumer travel businesses have found a way to parse through to their advisers and contact center staff the automation, flexibility, and agility that technology brings.
Digital came into its own during the pandemic across many sectors. From people buying groceries online for the first time to conducting all of their work-related tasks from home, technology has been a lifeline for many over the past 18 months. Travel companies need to prepare for an even more demanding digitally-literate customer based on how other sectors have improved during the pandemic.
The pre-pandemic norms of the travel and hospitality industries no longer apply. Sellers and suppliers can explore the three following areas where digital-first companies are rewriting the playbook.
1. Gain Insights From Data
Most travel companies collect structured data from internal sources or basic legacy systems, but gaps emerge when looking at how the industry gathers and uses unstructured customer-specific data. The travel industry — which was at the vanguard of e-commerce when online shopping became mainstream — needs to catch up with how today’s online retail giants handle customer data.
The travel industry is now in a position to close the gap, thanks to the increasingly widening acceptance of the benefits that machine learning, artificial intelligence, and insight-led analytics can bring to a business.
Personalization is an area where digital-first travel companies have thrived, and there are products and services on the market to help any late adopters. But the original innovators have identified a new frontier in personalization: context.
If a travel company knows the context of a search query — other than just the origin, destination, and dates — predictability increases. Better conversion rates and a higher transaction value per customer can be identified using artificial intelligence to create the product which is right for the context of the trip. Preemptive and proactive upselling is a logical progression.
“The travel industry has been behind in leveraging data to the fullest potential,” said Roshan Mendis, chief commercial officer, Sabre Travel Solutions. “In buying and selling travel, context is incredibly important — if you can understand the context of a person’s travel, your predictability of what they might buy (next) goes up exponentially. Customers now expect you to know them,” he added.
2. Engage the Customer
A significant component of the new normal is that customers have changed, so any business which talked about customer-centricity before the pandemic needs to rethink what that centricity involves.
The fragmented nature of the recovery is creating a new use case for technology — for example, keeping track of the ever-changing government advisories around border control, tracking and testing, and quarantining.
Digital-first travel companies understand the need to have not only real-time access to accurate sources of information, but also a way to get that information to the traveler. Again, context is important, in this case where the traveler is in the end-to-end experience. The specific needs at the time of the initial searching might change when the traveler comes to book and could possibly change again before departure.
It’s important to reemphasize that cutting-edge tech and the human touch are complementary, and that omnichannel is table stakes for digital customer engagement. If a traveler has booked a direct flight but needs to talk to an adviser during their trip about a cancellation, that adviser needs the full context of the traveler’s journey — including their previous experience with the brand, their lifetime value, and more.
With access to the right technology, an empathetic human adviser can turn a call about a cancelled flight into a positive customer engagement.
“It’s really about bringing the information together,” said Manoj Chacko, business unit head, travel and leisure, at WNS Global Services. “It’s not about a lack of data, but how you use that data to make the right kind of decisions, so that you can be impactful to your customer.”
3. Invest in the Right Technology
The pre-pandemic arguments about whether travel companies should build, buy, or partner for their enterprise and consumer-facing technology still persist, but those businesses that wavered between the options need to make a decision.
Digital-first companies, as the name suggests, have made that call already, deciding what is the best combination for them to execute on their own strategy and achieve business goals.
Building proprietary technology is expensive, and not everyone has the necessary budget for it. And with tech talent in such short supply and high demand, the cost of development will only increase. However, at the same time, access to these products and services is becoming easier and more cost-efficient.
The emergence of software-as-a-service — as well as platform- and infrastructure-as-a-service — means smaller players can partner with bigger players and pay for access to tech they could not have built in-house. Buying or licensing tech from the developers is an option for some, and there are new types of licensing models emerging.
Travel companies need technology, and the options on the market are growing, in terms of what the products can do and how they are paid for.
“The computing horsepower and the methodology by which you curate that unstructured data and tease out the insights isn’t easy,” said Gabe Rizzi, president of Internova Travel Group. “It requires investment, it requires A.I. — it’s massive. We keep hearing that data is the new oil, but I don’t agree with that: Oil is finite. Data is infinite … we wholeheartedly get behind the fact that you need to innovate your approach, and you need to invest,” he continued.
So much of what travelers want from the industry can only be delivered with the right technology. Without it, there is no personalization, customer-centricity, or omnichannel experiences.
This was true even before the pandemic, which means that companies that had already reengineered themselves as digital-first are now in a strong position to identify and satisfy the demands of the post-pandemic traveler.
However, late adopters don’t need to throw in the towel. The enterprise technology ecosystem continues to evolve in terms of what products and services are on the market and the payment options to access them. Seizing the opportunities available now will help those companies begin to embrace the digitally transformed future that lies ahead.
To learn more about how businesses can adapt to and embrace the emerging digital-first, data-driven, post-Covid travel landscape, watch WNS and Skift’s recent webinar, Preparing For Travel’s Digital-First Future.