Emerging technologies for the intelligent retailer – Q&A with Travelport’s Rob Brown

Technology is already changing how we do business and will have an increasing influence on the entire travel process, right from the initial inspiration stage, through the journey, even after its conclusion. But, it is becoming increasingly difficult to meet expectations.

In recent studies from technology specialist Travelport, OTAs and travellers have both expressed equal concern towards the fragmented experience of the travel shopping process. With so many travel brands and options out there, the process can be extended much longer than first intended.

In the Travelport research, 40% of travellers found it ‘very painful’ to book everything separately, while 35% regarded not being able to access their bookings across all their devices ‘a key pain point’. For OTAs, the fragmented experience of buying travel leads to low conversion rate, low brand differentiation and low ROI on sales and marketing investment.

The Travelport research also highlights strong motivations of travel agencies to make travel retailing faster, simpler and smarter. However, many agencies still concern their companies’ activities with hitting this conversion rate of website visitors to the purchase of their booking – a focus that is setting back many agencies.

Travelport has identified six critical stages to any traveller journey, including inspiration, shopping, booking, pre-trip, in-trip and post-trip. At every step, travellers will engage with travel brands for a range of services, and experience hundreds of touchpoints on a variety of devices. “A typical accommodation purchase journey has 45 touchpoints alone,” acknowledges Rob Brown, global vice president and managing director for Travelport’s online business group.

“Various emerging technologies can be applied to optimise different touchpoints, ranging from artificial intelligence, biometric technologies, augmented reality, asynchronous search to data and analytics. NDC is a technology that provides flexibility to the shopper.

“New ways of unbundling services, selling fares and ancillaries through menu style pricing and tailoring are now possible, providing new opportunities for agencies to build more direct relationships with their customers – intelligent retailing.”

The Blue Swan Daily spoke further to Mr Brown to learn more about NDC-related content, the technologies driving it, the resulting process of intelligent retailing among agents and how Travelport is positioned to be a major player in this area.

From your observations, how big of an impact do you believe intelligent retailing (and the technologies that underpin it) will have on agencies? Will intelligent retailing render the traditional role of the travel agent/designer redundant, or will it call for a different breed of agents?

“In my opinion, OTAs still enjoy a privileged position. Our research shows that 80 per cent of Australian travellers use travel booking sites when researching for trips – the only other method for research that Australians use more are review sites such as TripAdvisor, as according to 87 per cent of respondents.

“However, OTAs also need to work more effectively to exploit this position. For example, during the booking stage, many OTAs deliver a competitive search response that allows customers to access combinations to one-way, roundtrip or multi-leg travel. As a business model, OTAs are better able to target the price-conscious customer into booking their trip.

“Blockchain technology, at its core, could impact OTA’s influence across the market. Across Australian industries, more than 20% of respondents of a 2019 ACS survey said they were considering applying blockchain technology in their organisation, or had already deployed it.

“The technology is underpinned by the decentralising capabilities that are so often advocated for – a threat to the somewhat monopolistic influence of OTAs. As a completely overhauling system blockchain is very far from ‘taking off’, but as a data-solution and supply-chain management tool, the benefits are almost endless.

“Shoppers are nearly always looking to compare for the best rates and fares. OTAs have the essential responsibility of presenting customers with the branded fares options available across the multitude of airline websites without them needing to visit each individual airline or competitor website to do so.

“It is why Travelport now displays more than 275 airlines with these types of fares, enabling the agency to offer more than just basic flight times and prices.

What is the level of awareness among your agency partners of this impact? How are they responding to this?

“Our agency partners are strongly motivated to make travel retailing faster, simpler and smarter. The word ‘conversion’, being one of the trendiest words in relevant discussion, undoubtedly holds considerable appeal to agencies.

“But agencies also need to understand that ‘conversion’ doesn’t solely mean bookings. There are specific goals that agencies can achieve at each stage of the journey, for example: converting page views to trip searches, searches to bookings, bookings to ancillary attachments, and so on.

How can travel agencies manage success in an industry that is becoming increasingly impacted by new technologies? 

“Data analytics and artificial intelligence have been cited as the backbone for future-oriented travel technologies.

“An important piece of advice we can give to travel agencies is to integrate closely with their data team, whether that’s in-house or a third-party supplier. Managing an effective data and analytics strategy can transcend the traditional agent into a role that is supported by relevant insights, offering much greater value to the customer.

“In this instance, the power of disruptive technologies such as AI can be used to effectively collate, analyse and distribute the data-rich content into insights the traditional agent can then utilise. New technologies provide an opportunity for better digital solutions that agents can service, rather than substituting their roles as travel agents.

“By mastering insights derived from big data, travellers’ experiences can be enhanced by airlines and agents being able to encourage repeat trips and attract new customers through personalised offers and demand-led marketing. A recent study by Travelport revealed the UK as Australia’s highest long-haul destination during the winter holidays. In the future, agents could provide more ancillary services i.e. onboard wi-fi, baggage and food services and personalised itineraries for travellers to the UK around this time.

“For agencies, the good news is that there is a wealth of data out there about traveller preferences and behaviours that will allow agencies to build comprehensive traveller profiles. The less good news, however, is that it can be difficult to know what to do with the volume of data available and how to turn it into actionable insights. This is exactly the kind of issues that well-established travel technology companies can help agencies tackle.

In personalising and adapting the customer shopping experience, how is Travelport using emerging technologies such as big data, AI and blockchain? What Travelport products are driving these processes forward?

“As with any large data set, AI works on collating the information concealed within and developing insights that will likely inform future strategies. In the case of travel retail, these insights can ultimately lead to personalising the customer’s experience. By using data analytics, Travelport Competitive Insights can help agencies capture historic and current passenger bookings, identify behavioural changes and visualise their growth opportunities.

“The IBM Travel Manager, a solution for corporations, is an AI platform delivered on IBM Cloud that combines IBM employee and expense data with Travelport’s global travel content on various routes. Offering personalised options through AI, corporate travel managers are provided with best times to buy, optimal routes and best-fit hotels. ‘What-if’ scenarios are built around the traveller. Instead of putting the traveller in an in-policy hotel five miles from the meeting, for example, it might recommend an exception that will save time and transportation costs.

“While big data and AI can provide the insights necessary to personalise along the purchasing journey, blockchain inspired technologies provide the processes that can more efficiently resolve traveller issues. Recently, IBM, Travelport and BCD Travel developed a blockchain solution for hotel commission reconciliation. By managing reconciliation, tracking and accounting for commission payments, blockchain technology has the potential to deliver real ROI to the hotel and travel agency.

How is Travelport providing NDC-content to its customers? Is there anything being done to make this content more accessible, easy to use and updated?

“At Travelport, we believe NDC is just a new version of what we’ve always done: providing choice to our demand-side customers through relevant, bookable content from whichever distribution method a supplier chooses to connect to us.

“Just recently, Travelport made its first API-connection bookings for Qantas using IATA’s NDC standard through Travelport’s new API, Trip Services. As the first live production of Qantas NDC booking through Trip Services, the development is the next step in Qantas’ plans for the Qantas Distribution Platform (QDP) to service differentiated NDC content, tailoring offerings to meet each travellers’ unique needs.

“One the one hand, we have been encouraging airlines to adopt the newest 17.2 standard. We are also working on the next generation systems to give travellers simplicity and control over what they are booking. In an intelligent offer enabled by NDC, products, fares and rules can change over time without the need for travel retail providers to recode their systems. This not only gives travel retailers flexibility in their pricing, whilst also empowering travellers with straightforward offer information.”

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