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Conquering the connected travel conundrum

Travel in Coronavirus times
The Coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact on business across the globe, but the travel industry has been particularly affected.

Irrespective of industry, companies throughout the world, have had to accelerate their digital transformation plans and embrace online communication and collaboration like never before.  The majority of business travel has been suspended until 2021 and major conferences and industry events have been cancelled or not virtualised.

Those who travel for leisure, are favoring cheaper options, such as road trips over international air tickets, and this is having a huge impacting on sales.

According to EMarketer’s new forecast, US digital travel sales will fall by 44.7% to $115.27 billion in 2020. Our figures include leisure and unmanaged business travel sales from digital bookings of accommodations, airlines, car rentals, cruises, hotels and transportation. *1

As countries start to re-open their international borders, flights are subject to strict safety protocols that can cause delays, cancellations and rescheduling of flights. The sudden spike in cancellations and limited interest in future travel is putting online travel agencies (OTAs) under stress.

OTAs are also facing significant financial implications. As a result of this sudden loss in revenue, they must look to reduce costs wherever possible, and while certain costs based on call volumes will naturally decrease, there’s still room for reductions in fixed costs.

With each layer of complexity, the user experience becomes more impacted. Budgets needed to do effective tech-based marketing in the travel industry can run into billions of dollars a year and yet customer loyalty can switch in a heartbeat.

Forrester found that 1 in 5 consumers is apprehensive about travel, even after the pandemic subsides. In turn, operating procedures across the travel industry will create additional customer interactions and touchpoints, potentially creating more effort for and discomfort to passengers.*2

The personal touch is more important than ever
According to a recent GlobalData survey, 89% of global travellers are now ‘always, ‘often’ or ‘somewhat’ influenced by how well a product or service is tailored to their needs and personality.*3

So, online travel agencies need to understand their customers better and then use that knowledge to create an enhanced and personalised travel experience that translates into increased customer loyalty.

Even before the pandemic struck, OTAs were faced with the challenge of rebuilding travellers’ confidence. Now because of Coronavirus, there’s been a surge in customer calls. People want help with cancelling or amending bookings via an OTA as an intermediary and don’t want to deal directly with the hotels and airlines. These operating calls come with associated overheads, and despite the high-level of cancellations, the majority of OTAs are absorbing these into their customer service initiatives.

In order to handle the sheer number of travel requests, a number of OTAs have implemented self-service tools such as chatbots to help alleviate the demand on their call centres.  At the end of the day, what really matters to customers is having a simple experience with AI-provided relevant suggestions.

But, as the trip experience aims to become better connected, there’ll need to be a balance between self- service and personalised assistance. The automated customer service responses are usually low / zero value requests – these get more complex the more different components a person has booked as more back-end systems need to be integrated. So, what if this chaos could give you the opportunity to have more touch points with your customers?

If you want to offer a superior experience, you need to have the ability to quickly change technology if your customers change their device, needs, expectations or channel behaviour. But most of all you need to know what your customer is trying to achieve.

The future of travel
The travel industry is full of companies that specialise in creating end-to-end bespoke itineraries. But this involves a lot of manual intervention which is difficult to scale.

In the last couple of years, there’s been a buzz around the concept of the connected trip, such as personal e-concierge. This involves having a unified platform which manages everything from travel arrangements, bookings and itineraries to accommodation, check-ins, entertainment and activities, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide personalised travel solutions.

To make this a reality would involve major upheaval across the entire travel market. To build a smooth experience, companies (airlines, hotels, ground transportation, etc) would need to work together. While there are already a number of large businesses with multiple brands providing related services, the connected trip needs better collaboration if the ultimate traveller-centric experience is to be achieved.

There are so many moving parts to a travel experience. The dream is to unite them all and make sure that the existing flaws with and annoyances about online booking are fixed – for good. So that if there’s a disruption, there’s the agility and proactivity to mitigate across all the elements of the trip and the platforms involved. For example, if your flight gets delayed, a chain of events commences which means your hotel is notified, your taxi from the airport to the hotel is rescheduled, and your dinner reservation is moved to the appropriate time.

For a company to be able to offer that to their customers, a seamless, easy-to-use system that delivers a great travel experience will build customer loyalty and ultimately, market share.

Key steps to making the ultimate connected travel experience a reality
The foundation of the travel industry has always been connectivity, i.e. connecting with different people, different modes of transport, countries and experiences.

Then there’s the technical connectivity making sure that the many parts of an individual trip connect, seamlessly – which has taken on a whole new dimension with the arrival of digitalisation and the cloud.

So, what are the key components to cracking the connected trip conundrum?

Making it personal
To thrive in the travel industry, you need to make in-roads into achieving a truly person-centric experience. Market share will go to those travel operators that provide the personalisation or hyper personalisation that customers are increasingly looking for.

This covers everything from connecting with customers through whatever devices they want, to finding the products and services they’re looking for at that exact moment in time. And being able to do this whilst being responsive to where they are in the travel process and the reason for their trip.

Customers want to interact seamlessly across multiple channels to achieve their travel goals and get a great experience. This can be achieved by:

offering AI-driven self-service technologies, but retaining the ability to bring in human agents as needed – these enable proactive contact and help improve customer advocacy while keeping costs down
maintaining a balance between machine and human – scalable, cloud-based applications equipped to handle and improve quick and easy customer experiences, paired with human advisors that can provide a personal touch for more complex engagements. Cloud-based services can also help with intelligent call routing so that customers can reach the right agent to help them first time
using CRM systems to log engagements across all channels and building a customer experience that pulls input from multiple back-end systems – these provide customers with a consistent experience across the board, as well as historical data that organisations can use to proactively address issues.
But it’s not just about selling bundled products at a discount; it’s about fostering and strengthening customer relationships and loyalty. This requires a deep understanding of the target audience and that’s where Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help create much more dynamic and personal engagement, which gets more and more relevant each time it’s used. And in an always-on world that can change at the click of a button, that dynamism is so important – but also very challenging to achieve. When it comes to experience and personalisation, consumer expectations seem to be ever-increasing, so the goal is always shifting. You need technologies that can keep up and give you the best chance of staying ahead.

Creating a collaborative partner ecosystem
There are so many different components to a seamless travel experience. To be successful, you need an efficient connected trip platform partner that offers effective collaboration and integration among the many different partners that make up the travel ecosystem. A partner that can create a cost-efficient and productive environment and help improve the decision-making process with market-leading unified communications solutions, such as:

simplified voice systems – integrating voice and data in an efficient, flexible infrastructure that supports your business operations and processes
UC solutions – enabling flexible commercial models that let you leverage your existing estate and legacy systems, while also enabling migration to newer technology where needed.
The travel market is on the cusp of a huge transformation and the various companies involved need to be ready to collaborate like never before. This is where technology partners can make a crucial difference – being the glue and unifying force behind this ambitious evolution.

Integrating your mobile technology with multi-customer contact engagement

The boom in demand for online applications to enable bookings, updates, guidance, etc, is driving the adoption of the mobile technology in the travel sector.

About 75% of leisure and 80% of business travelers have booked and paid for travel on mobile at some stage (Jan’20).*4

Simple tools like smart messaging are now gaining more importance as trips become more connected.

Through SMS, you can have a whole notification system that looks at triggers to successfully manage the fulfilment journey end-to-end.

With the use of hooks, SMS can also be embedded into different communication channels, such as WhatsApp or business systems to seamlessly provide updates in a personalised way. For example, in the UK, one in 5 flights are delayed. You can help your passengers by letting them know instantly when their flight is delayed, and then follow up with options to book onto another flight, book into a local hotel at a discount or offer them compensation. You can then turn a negative experience into a positive one.

We’re also expect to see a rise in the importance of unifying digital channels and voice enablement in multi-channel contact centre strategy. This is because they’ll provide the ability to add real-time voice communication channels to web browsers and mobile phone applications via a downloadable Software Development Kit (SDK). This will give customers a set of tools that allows quick and easy creation of phone and website applications that can be deployed to allow end customers to reach call centre and helpdesk support functions from literally anywhere in the world (subject to in-country regulations).

Such technology is particularly useful when uunpredictable consumer demand or access to locations or agents impact businesses and you need to switch contacts from one location to another – both locally and internationally. It means that when you have peaks in demand, you can suggest proactive call backs to your customers, or use automation to redirect certain calls to chat or voice bots. Having a flexible strategy means you can be more proactive and plan better – for example, looking to pre-empt peaks by contacting customers in advance.

Protecting your infrastructure against cyberattacks
Emerging technologies, like IoT, augmented reality, virtual reality and AI, are of great interest to the travel tech sector, but because of their innovative nature, they can be more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Many organisations focus on monitoring only their basic security devices even though the threat landscape and technology are continually changing. And as more and more platforms get integrated, the surge in data from multiple devices, sites and regions will need to be dealt with and analysed.

Security systems that use visual analytics and anomaly detection can prove critical in understanding the real-time security threats across your networks and mitigating them before they become a problem.

Security is multi-dimensional and needs a mix of feeds from across sectors, regions, vendors and security bodies, together with intelligent analysis and insight to deliver a truly secure and robust cyber defence.

A safe pair of hands for an ambitious travel transformation
Creating a truly seamless connected travel experience is a complex endeavour – both logistically and technically. And smart data – not just big data is a crucial component – to achieving a great customer experience. To create the platforms and software would need significant development power and generous R&D budget.

At BT, we have the technology expertise and portfolio capability – from networks to unified comms and collaboration, and from contact centre to security. We’ve got decades of experience of delivering innovative solutions to large multinational corporations across the globe. We’ve done countless integration and digital transformation projects, and we appreciate and expertly help our customers navigate the myriad of complex governance, legal and compliance requirements – both locally and internationally.

We also have an enviable track record of success in the travel sector, due to our ability to combine cloud-based contact centre solutions, payment solutions and voice services – seamlessly, securely and globally.

Nine out of ten of the top global airlines use our inbound contact solution to communicate with their customers, and over 40 well-known brands in the travel ecosystem are amongst our customers.

Please get in touch if you’d like to explore how we can help you on your transformation journey towards offering a truly traveller-centric, seamless trip experience.

*1  Jasmin Enberg – “Travel in Times of COVID-19: How the Coronavirus Will Impact Bookings, Sales, and Advertising” – 25 June 2020.
*2  Tom Mouhsian – “The Path to Recovery for the Travel and Hospitality Industry – 12 August 2020 .
*3 GlobalData Travel and Tourism – “OTAs will need to improve communication in a post-Covid-19 world” – 18 March 2020.
*4 Julie O’Sullivan – “Travel Trends 2020: Mastering mobile is your mission” – 27 January 2020.