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Sylvia Jensen
Sylvia Jensen 27 December 2018

Online travel: a new era of disruption?

It is fair to say that the travel sector has consistently been in the vanguard of the digital age, embracing the sweeping transformation and disruption that has sent other sectors into tailspins. Whether it was the initial move online, or the more recent focus on mobile, travel brands have readily embraced the possibilities of digital technology and seen the potential to offer increasingly compelling experiences to their customers.

The success of this approach is clear in the data. Today over 80% of travel bookings are made online. For brands with apps, over 60% of bookings are already placed via mobile devices. Global revenues from online bookings is now estimated at $567 billion.

However, as travel brands know themselves, the digital age waits for no one. The sands are consistently shifting. With the rise of artificial intelligence, AR/VR and bots the travel sector could be poised for a new era of disruption.

To help understand these trends we recently hosted a Twitter chat with some leading voices in the travel industry. We wanted to identify what brands should be prioritising when it comes to customer experiences. Here we present the key insights from that conversation.

1. Consumer behaviour is changing

Macro trends in consumer behaviour are making personalisation practically a requirement  for travel brands today.

On the one hand, we are seeing increasing numbers of consumers who are confident about piecing together their own travel arrangements in a completely bespoke way, rather than relying on package deals. This trend is accelerating with a younger generation more inclined to individual travel. These travellers inherently demand more personal and local experiences rather than ‘bulk’ experiences.

At the same time, consumers are becoming savvier when it comes to buying travel. Access to information is greater, peer review sites like TripAdvisor are regular points of reference for consumers, and customers are increasingly comparing offers side-by-side at the research and evaluation stage. Transparency has never been higher.

As one contributor to the Twitter chat highlighted – these trends are combining to create a unique challenge for travel brands: “Customers demand two levels of personalisation - personalised customer journeys when making buyer decisions, and also personalised solutions/products when they do buy.”

These raised customer expectations mean the pressure is on for travel websites to deliver stellar personalised user experiences.

2. Personalisation can be a double-edged sword

More personal experiences are not just something travel buyers expect, there are clearly defined benefits for travel brands that embrace personalisation techniques. One contributor highlighted Thomas Cook as a brand that has identified that offering personalised added-extras and ancillaries increases sales by 10%.

Our chat highlighted numerous examples of today’s best practice when it comes to personalisation, such as budget airlines proactively identifying their most valued customers and automatically enrolling them into their loyalty programmes with exclusive services. As one participant put it: “Automation of perks like this is great for CX. If you make your best customers do work to access the benefits they're entitled to, then it defeats the point of those benefits.”

However, there is no doubt that personalisation forces brands to walk a tightrope. As one of our contributors emphasised, “brand trust takes years to build up and seconds to destroy”. Customers are putting a lot of trust in brands to handle their data correctly – if that brand then continues to present generic offers and the customer receives no benefit to giving up their data, that trust is broken.

3. Is better CX reconcilable with data privacy?

While personalisation can benefit brands and customers alike, brands are obviously having to deal with a host of new privacy regulation. Complying with these laws is a necessity, and it’s a responsibility they must take seriously. The key to making sure that compliance does not reduce the benefit of personalisation strategies is building trust with and transparency with consumers.

In a world of opt-in permissions brands need to focus on giving customers the answers they want and, as mentioned above, demonstrate the value that comes from sharing data. If brands are successful in achieving this balance customers will continue to give their consent.

4. Will consumers turn the bots on brands?

When it comes to the future of travel CX, our contributors put the spotlight on a new phase of personalisation trends. Rather than relying on brands controlling personalisation consumers could take that control back and make use of bots working directly for them. These could assemble travel options based on deep personalisation and intermediate with brands to negotiate the best prices –all in the blink of an eye.

This opens up the potential a CX that really is as simple as a customer saying ‘I want to go to X’ – the rest of the process is handled automatically based on their data and preferences. As a contributor explained, this would mean “buyer decisions will have nothing to do with brands”.

This not only has the potential to open up a new age of customer service, it also has the potential to reduce the privacy burden on travel brands. It’s an enticing prospect and something brands should be thinking about. Although it may seem counterintuitive to relinquish control, the brands that can enable this type of experience stand to benefit from skyrocketing trust and loyalty.

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