TravelConnect 2018 featured enlightening discussions and diverse perspectives on how travel organizations of all sizes can leverage emerging technology and data intelligence to enhance the customer experience and grow a thriving business in the future.
Acclaimed global futurist and trendcaster Shawn DuBravac of Avrio Institute opened his keynote presentation by acclimating attendees with the customers of the future, and later shared in-depth insights about the modern-day traveler with ARC’s Chief Executive Officer and President Mike Premo.
Coupled with these discussions, the agency innovation panel featuring Dakota Smith, head of growth at Hopper, and Rebecca Gordon, vice president of customer success at Rocketrip, shared unique ways their agencies’ business models engage with travelers and drive business demand in the travel marketplace.
Here are several of the key takeaways from these sessions:
Customers of the future expect a seamless and frictionless travel experience, and businesses in every industry will need to make this a top priority in their long-term customer strategy. “Consumers, at the end of the day, want a seamless experience and that will be a mix of stable components that introduce innovative approaches and introduce entirely new ways of thinking about things,” said DuBravac. “I find that consumers are extremely forgiving early on with the technology… We expect more as technology matures and we expect more as the experience matures, but we like that experimentation… these things are continual. We don’t just move from point A to point B. Things work slowly. I like to say innovation works slowly until suddenly it doesn’t,” he emphasized.
Unlike other industries, the air travel industry is unique because it serves a vast population of customers who have varying needs and expectations. ARC’s Premo asked DuBravac to weigh in on the customer dynamics and preferences of today’s travel consumer.
“You have a massive audience; that’s one of greatest challenges. You are serving a very diverse industry; you are serving a very diverse group of customers. You have an aging population that is finding themselves with time and energy, and they want to travel, so you have to cater to their needs. Then, at the same time, you have 75 million millennials and you have 81 million [Gen Z] coming behind them. They are going to expect something entirely new because of the experiences they are enjoying today, so you are going to have to find ways that cater to these diverse needs and interests,” DuBravac said.
From an agency perspective, Smith discussed how his app-only online travel agency (OTA) is using innovative technology and data to alleviate the customer’s booking journey by providing transparent offerings and service. “Data is at the core of what we do, so we use data to create trust. We process hundreds of billions of flight prices per month and provide price guidance to our users. One thing that is really interesting is that we don’t necessarily try to get them to book a flight or a trip in the first day. We see users come in and we ask that they sign up for push notifications and ‘watch’ the trip, which is signing up for price alerts on how the trip moves. Users do this, on average, 100 days before they intend to depart. What we are truly trying to do is provide transparency and reduce anxiety.”
Smith added that Hopper is going a step further in their customer service model and finding value in various forms of technology to proactively connect with customers post-booking. “Hopper has quite a large support team called ‘traveler experience’ and it’s a mix of customer service agents and ticketing agents who can play the role of a traditional travel agent. We offer 24-hour customer support in three languages, so it’s either voice, chat-like SMS (text messaging) or email, so that should solve most connectivity problems. Now we are starting to get more in [a] proactive space, where we actually reach out to users who book on Hopper through a text message. It’s been pretty interesting to think about ways we can help consumers more after they book the trip. I’d like to think of Hopper as helping travelers with anxiety. After you buy the trip, we still care about making it a great trip and customizing it and getting [you] everything you want out of the trip. We still would like you to know that someone is there to help you [in case] something goes wrong [on the trip].”
Within the last few months, Hopper has raised $100 million for their app-only platform, and they have big plans to make the app better for its customers. Not only are they looking to expand their reach in international markets, but they are also planning to incorporate other languages that will broaden their appeal to serve travelers from around the world.
Meet the customers of the future: Millennials and Generation Z. “We have about 75 million millennials in the U.S. today, and you can see how they have changed the idea of retailing, shopping and commerce. Behind them, [there are] 81 million in the next generation, Generation Z. I like to call them the ‘gamer generation,’” said DuBravac. These digital natives rely on various forms of technology including mobile applications, online platforms, artificial intelligence and virtual reality to create a unique, enhanced and informed customer journey. “[Digital natives] are so accustomed to this technology that it becomes integrated and integral to every service that they engage with [and] every company they interact with. This technology becomes a piece of the fabric of that relationship,” he said.
Behind every piece of technology, there are multiple points of data — and the customers of the future recognize that this “real-time” data intelligence is imperative to building meaningful relationships with brands they know and love, as well as creating the experience they want out of them. Riddled with various engagement triggers and interactive data points along the customer journey, travel businesses can rely on this precise customer data to create a more personalized experience and offer customizable options that align with the customer’s buying behaviors, values and expectations.
“Today, we tend to think about customers in terms of ‘buckets’ and that is certainly the case when it comes to airline travel and fare classes and alphabet codes. But you can imagine that there’s infinite possibilities, infinite choice and as we start to digitize this information, we can start to make very personalized [and] customized options for these individuals.”
Shawn DuBravac, Avrio Institute
DuBravac expanded on how the days of “bundling” air travel services are long gone — now, it’s all about “unbundling” and showcasing customizable options to each traveler. “[As] digitization opened us up to new opportunities, new possibilities, that bundle broke apart and now we are rethinking the bundle. This is playing out in every industry. I would argue that the airline industry, in many ways, helped usher in this innovative period of disruption and breaking apart that bundle,” DuBravac said.
Unlike most leisure travelers who actively engage in the unbundled travel experience, some corporate travelers can find this process challenging to navigate — especially when most are adhering to a pre-defined travel policy. Companies like Rocketrip are demonstrating the value of a different travel management approach by rewarding business travelers for making the best decisions that still fall in line within their travel policy, all while satisfying the traveler’s personalized experience. “Our mission at Rocketrip is to build great company cultures, rewarding employees [for] making extraordinary decisions when they travel. As we all know travel is really hard – hard for the employee because we have to deal with the logistics, and then hard for the employers because travel is expensive [and] travel is hard to maximize,” said Rebeca Gordon, vice president of customer success of Rocketrip.
Gordon says that she often sees customers will make great decisions when there is transparency and when a reward is at stake to encourage “company-wise decision.” “[How it works is] employees will search for their travel as they do every day now and, when they do, Rocketrip will give them what we call a ‘price to beat’ – options for them to save money – and if they find an option like flying coach versus business, Rocketrip will give them rewards: 50 percent of what that trip would have cost. What we see is that gives your company long-term benefits, by giving them choices, and it really improves [the] traveler’s satisfaction.”
This year, Rocketrip raised 15 million dollars and plans to invest this capital to enhance the user experience and support innovative solutions that will add value to their corporate travel partnerships.
The physical and digital ecosystems have been blurring lines for decades; however, in recent years, revolutionary technology has caused a disruptive shift, accelerating the process of their convergence. “The lines between the physical world and digital world are blurring significantly. We spoke the language that computers could speak and now, slowly over time, we moved computer systems down this continuum to look and feel a little more human. Now we are introducing an entirely new way, a new paradigm of interacting with computers. We are using voice, we are using automated systems [and] chat bots,” said DuBravac.
By far, Generation Z will be the population to watch, as some of the most popular technology (e.g., virtual reality) has seen significant signs of adoption as both a form of entertainment and also a part of their daily lives. “Companies are going to gaming conventions to recruit these individuals because they like the way they problem solve, they like the way they approach issues and they are very comfortable with toggling between a digital environment and a physical environment. [I] fully anticipate [them] being able to make transactions in a virtual environment,” he said.
DuBravac discussed with Premo some futuristic concepts, from pilotless airplanes that could address pilot shortages to using image recognition to book travel in a different way. While both ideas still seem more science fiction than reality in today’s world, it remains to be seen in the future. For now, artificial intelligence, voice, automated systems, chat bots even augmented reality are all becoming real concepts and alternative ways to book and experience travel in the near future.
“I do see a lot of experimentation and a lot of exploration and I think that is a good thing. Behind the experimentation and exploration, there is innovation and so that will open up a lot of opportunity. I spoke a little bit about image recognition [and] how much that has improved… we don’t talk about it much but image recognition has improved as much as voice… As far as I know, it is very difficult today to search for a destination based on a photo, but think about how much photography we consume…to be able to say [one day] ‘Wow, that looks interesting,’ snapping a photo from a magazine cover that then gives you travel options is something we might start to see. I think there is a lot of other technology percolating on the surface. We mentioned virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence that we are starting to see integrate more into the experience — and as a result, entirely new opportunities and experiences will be born,” said DuBravac.
Registration for TravelConnect 2019 is now open! Join us October 3–4, 2019, at the Lansdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg, VA, just a few minutes outside Washington, D.C. To register or for more information about the 2019 conference, click here.