Skift Take

The promise of a "connected trip" has become like the buffering wheel on a lagging digital screen. But a soft launch of a new TUI Tours platform could be one to watch in the push for flexible, frictionless travel booking.

Experiences play an integral role in the so-called connected trip, where travelers want to seamlessly plan, book, and manage in real time all aspects of their trip in one place. And TUI, the world’s largest tour operator, has just done a soft launch of what can best be described as its own flexible version of a connected trip with TUITours.com.

The company announced the group and individual tours platform would “provide fast and accurate itinerary development, with real-time pricing and availability, in a modern drag & drop system, simplifying the previously complex process of building tours.”

For now, it’s only available in Belgium to travel advisors and direct to customers, but there is a planned wider international roll-out during 2023 and 2024.

A Better Way to do Travel

However, the promise of the connected trip is part of a larger story.

Booking.com CEO Glen Fogel maintains the connected trip is about providing a better way to do travel. It’s about addressing bottlenecks and queues by allowing travelers to seamlessly plan, book, and manage all aspects of their trip in one place — including flights, accommodation, rental cars, and activities – with personalized adaptability in real time, to travel alerts and booking updates.

Although Fogel, who spoke at Skift Global Forum towards the end of last year, admitted that experiences are about customer value rather than “absolute profit for the company.” He remained unconvinced that the company could make the same amount of money from attractions as from other verticals like accommodations. That certainly does point to a bigger part of the story. You can watch the full interview here.

Enabling the Connected Trip

Yet, here we are in 2023, and the idea of the connected trip seems far from what industry evangelists would have us believe.

TUI estimates the growing multi-day tours market is valued at $100 billion, with annual growth of 6 per cent — yet, as we know — largely offline and highly fragmented. And the company now plans to drive further growth with the TUI Tours platform.

From a business perspective, Nishank Gopalkrishnan, chief business officer for TUI Musement told Skift in a separate interview the company is focused on being an “enabler” of the Connected Trip promise.

TUI Musement’s business-to-business partnerships account for over half of its business, he said, with the company looking to grow its performance, specifically with online travel agency partnerships like Booking.com, Priceline and Lastminute.com.

Long Term Game of Loyalty

While Booking’s Genius loyalty program is its flywheel to get its customers to book more accommodation, Gopalkrishnan believes adding attractions can be the essential connected trip value-add.

“And specifically with respect to experiences the reason why it’s so exciting is because experiences is not only about revenue or money. As a brand, if you’re able to have conversations with your customers in destination, it’s very valuable. When you come back home, you remember that a TUI or a Booking.com helped me have an incredible time. And that basically translates to more loyalty and more attention, which is essentially the long-term game, I would say for travel companies.”

Gopalkrishnan rationalizes that TUI’s decade-long skin in the game with experiences has already leveraged reach for online travel agencies who have leapfrogged through their learning and adaption instead of having to build it for themselves.

But most importantly he says the company has been digging in to understand how it can sell better to their customers in their ecosystem. TUI Musement has already leveraged AI for experience recommendations and automated transfer route planning. The company also believes ChatGPT has a lot of exciting potential for the travel industry, especially when it is integrated with large businesses and it can access their data.

“Experiences are the most memorable part of any trip, giving travel companies the optimal opportunity to grow loyalty with increased frequency, the ability to reach out to customers more often and stay top of mind the next time they want to travel,” Gopalkrishnan added.

New Technology

Could further development in generative artificial intelligence capabilities be the missing layer needed for a platform like TUI Tours to go all in for the Connected Trip, for any booking platform for that matter? That remains to be seen.

With TUI Tours, its customers and travel advisors are able to select from group or individual itineraries on TUI Tours, which they can then seamlessly personalize in real time with access to TUI and third-party travel components, including flights, accommodation, transfers, car rental, experiences, and guides.

Individual and group tours in 30 countries, including destinations in Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe,
and the Americas, are already available.

This reflects the demands of the modern traveler for greater flexibility and convenience, TUI spokesperson Peter Krueger said in a statement, detailing the new technology to enhance its product offering.

“Growing our experiences product portfolio is a key strategic priority for TUI. The tours segment in particular is a sizeable and strongly growing market. We are proud having successfully launched a new fully integrated platform,” added Krueger.

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Tags: booking.com, experiences, tourism, tours and activities, travel booking, tui group

Photo credit: Tian Tan Buddha, Hong Kong. Source: Unsplash Jason Cooper / Tian Tan Buddha, Hong Kong

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