I was chairing Travel Distribution Summit Europe 2014 the week before last. Over the two days, we covered a lot of very topical topics such as OTAs vs direct reservations, metasearch, mobile, social media and more. It was a very good conference with a high calibre of speakers from many different sectors of travel. However, it left me thinking that there is one area of travel that technology has yet to tackle well. We are getting there but I don’t think that it is yet good enough.
Pre-Internet when travel agents primarily sold travel from high street shops, there were necessarily geographic constraints that meant agents served their local communities. As they were agents for many different kinds of travel and many destinations, they had the widest range of products to offer to a small community of regular customers. They got to know their customers’ travel preferences. They would understand the type of holidays their customers would like, the time of year they preferred to travel, how often they went on holiday, the level of luxury their customers could afford, how old their customers’ kids were, whether parents sometimes holidayed alone, their preferred types of destinations. Agents would know their best customers best, so could naturally offer the most personalised service to their highest spenders.
Of course, this still happens today. There are many still successful high street agents offering the highest level of personalised service, not to mention agents working from home, such as those associated with Travel Counsellors, who have built up their individual communities of regular customers.
The issue is that this level of personalisation does not translate well to the modern automated, online world. Amazon is often cited as the best exponent of personalisation on its website. It records your browsing and purchase history so that it can offer the products that you are most likely to purchase, often basing this on what others who bought the same products as you then went onto buy. But even Amazon, with all its technical sophistication, still seems to be quite primitive compared to human beings. Just accessing Amazon myself, why is the site offering me nappies when my kids are grown-up? Why is it trying to sell me Spring dresses? Why is it offering me Call of Duty – Advance Warfare when I have no interest in computer games?
Big data holds out the promise of better personalisation. It is this year’s technological buzzword. In the travel industry, we are lucky to be able to access a whole raft of data about our customers. So analyse your customers’ data, examine their social graphs, feed on their searches, track their movement through your website. Then start your organisation moving towards providing your customers with relevant personalised content. It is now well proven that this will pay off in terms of raised conversion rates – less lookers, more bookers – but can you imagine how well our automated offerings would do if our systems could come close to having the knowledge and instincts of a human travel agent? I wonder if our technology will get there one day?