Skift Take

For travel agencies to navigate the next evolution of business-to-business travel booking, they need a forward-thinking technology partner that knows how to balance digital innovation with human expertise — especially in an industry known for its resistance to change.

This sponsored content was created in collaboration with a Skift partner.

The travel industry has been in recovery mode for the past few years, with overall global performance finally returning to 2019 levels in 2023. Driven by a global wave of digital adoption, the online travel sector is growing even more quickly — according to Skift Research, online bookings will reach $666 billion by 2024, 26 percent above 2019 levels.

Although the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic may be over, several challenges remain — including lingering supply chain issues, erratic fluctuations in demand, economic uncertainty, and new expectations around flexibility and safety. For the online travel sector, fragmented distribution is another persistent challenge, especially in Europe, where the underlying hotel supply is much less branded than in the U.S.

“To thrive in this unpredictable environment, travel agencies and travel management companies (TMCs) need to rethink their operations, reinvent their approach to digital transformation, and stay abreast of shifts in customer preferences, emerging destinations, and changes in industry regulations,” said Felix Shpilman, CEO of Emerging Travel Group, a Dubai-based company that has developed into a major global incremental distribution channel for hotels and chains.

Launched in 2010, Emerging Travel sources inventory to its own platforms — a collection of brands tailored to different audiences, including business-to-consumer users, travel professionals, and corporate travelers — as well as to other companies through API connections. Built for a business-to-business audience, its RateHawk brand is known for its robust technology platform that serves travel agencies and TMCs with user-friendly booking tools.

SkiftX spoke with Shpilman about the challenges facing travel agencies and professionals, the importance of balancing automation with the human touch, and how RateHawk differentiates itself through intuitive user-experience (UX) and user-interface (UI) design, combined with an extensive inventory of accommodations from numerous suppliers.

Navigating the Complexities of Today’s Booking Landscape

While the specific needs of leisure and business travel agencies, TMCs, and travel professionals looking for API booking solutions may be different, “they all earn a living through selling travel and deriving income from booking fees or commissions,” Shpilman said. “They need to continue surfacing relevant booking options with their customers in order to maintain profit margins.”

Surfacing relevant booking options with customers means managing constant fluctuations in pricing, promotions, and availability with real-time updates and synchronization across platforms. The evolving nature of travel preferences and the need for personalized experiences add to this complexity. The core challenge is that agents earn a modest percentage of the massive profits generated by the travel industry — and even before the disruptions caused by the pandemic, leisure travel agencies faced intense competition from business-to-consumer services that focused on discounting.

“Agents cannot compete with business-to-consumer services because of how the structure of the market works at face value,” Shpilman said. “The oligopolistic structure of airline companies further limits agents’ margins, particularly in the business travel segment. On the other hand, no business-to-consumer service has successfully replaced the role of leisure travel agents worldwide.”

This hyper-competitive landscape, coupled with the high cost of travel purchases, poses an enduring obstacle, but agencies should remember that customers will book wherever it’s most profitable and wherever they get the best service. Agencies can level up and provide outstanding service if they have the right digital tools in place.

How Technology Empowers Travel Agents and Professionals

Balancing human-to-human interaction with scaled-up technology services is a delicate act and a common problem across sectors today. In the travel industry, the human touch provided by travel agents remains indispensable, particularly in offering personalized assistance to clients.

There are concerns that a tech-first experience may remove the personal interaction that makes travel special — however, advanced technology can actually enhance the human touch. For example, generative artificial intelligence (AI) can concisely summarize conversations to reduce the time agents and managers spend taking and reviewing notes or sharing context when transferring contacts.

In other words, to paraphrase the sentiment expressed at Skift Global Forum in September, we’re not going to be replaced by AI — we’re going to be replaced by people who know how to use AI. Technology can evolve the role of travel agents, helping them compete with business-to-consumer services and freeing them up to make better and faster decisions.

“I don’t see a world where technology completely replaces the expertise of human travel agents,” Shpilman said. “Automated solutions powered by AI and machine learning will continue to improve, but AI will serve as a co-pilot, helping travelers book more easily and assisting agents to make better proposals. It’s a co-pilot on both sides of the transaction.”

Shpilman’s vision of a future where technology complements — rather than replaces — the expertise of travel agents aligns with the platform’s commitment to building functional and easy-to-use products for travel professionals.

“When we started building our business-to-business products in 2014, most travel agencies were still using text-based global distribution systems (GDS) to make travel bookings,” Shpilman said. “We saw a huge opportunity to reinvent the user interface and add the modern functionality agents need, so we applied our business-to-consumer knowledge toward improving the design and coupled it with an extensive inventory of accommodations from 220 active, optimized supplier connections. Combining this incredible under-the-hood tech with a beautiful platform interface is where RateHawk’s magic comes from.”

The RateHawk platform includes many innovative features that help travel agents conduct business more efficiently, including a Selection Tool designed to enhance service quality and client engagement by simplifying hotel selection and offering customizable templates, seamless booking processes, and branding options. Another feature, pay-by-link, allows agents to process payments directly with clients’ cards or via remote payment links, simplifying transactions and enabling business in various environments.

“These products are in high demand among travel agents, and we are constantly iterating and developing new tools to meet their needs,” Shpilman said.

RateHawk’s Rebranding Strategy and Future Outlook

Product innovation and differentiation, combined with overwhelming scale, can be a winning formula for success in the online travel sector. At World Travel Market in November, RateHawk announced a major rebranding initiative that encompasses an updated corporate identity, strategic reimagining, and the unveiling of a new logo.

“When RateHawk began as a startup, we lacked the budget and clarity to define our role in the business-to-business booking ecosystem,” Shpilman said. “Now, as we scale into new markets, this rebranding reflects how we see travel agents as unsung superheroes, overcoming challenges, navigating change, and exceeding expectations. We see ourselves as the agent’s friend and partner, and we wanted to communicate that more clearly.”

Looking ahead to an even more hyper-digitized and automated world, Shpilman believes travel will continue to be an expensive and complex purchase that requires human expertise and that there will always be a need for building functional tools that accommodate travel agents’ evolving needs.

“The travel tech sector is booming, but it hasn’t always been viewed as particularly glamorous,” Shpilman said. “But the development of digital technologies is reshaping the industry and making it more appealing. I love that I get to interview and hire a lot of young people around the world and get them excited about this dynamic industry — because we’re living in an immensely exciting time.”

Learn more about RateHawk’s business-to-business travel booking capabilities.

This content was created collaboratively by RateHawk and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

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Tags: booking, digital transformation, online travel agencies, SkiftX Showcase: Technology, the prompt, travel tech, travel technology

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