Ask people to name five items that they can’t live without for a week, and the smartphone will probably feature in most lists ahead of other necessities like food and water — even air! This is indicative of the pervasiveness of technology in our lives in the digital age. Almost every aspect of our day-to-day functioning is influenced by technology, if not outright dictated by it. We’re communicating with our friends and families on mobile-based messenger services, buying everything from shoes to movie tickets to grocery online, booking medical appointments, and making travel arrangements on the go.
And all this is barely the tip of the iceberg. Several things often taken for granted today are being powered by technology underneath the surface. Television, mobile communication, public utilities, administration and governance, financial services – the list is endless. The prediction made by popular science-fiction of the machines running the world lies not in some distant century; it is here, in the now, all around us. And perhaps nowhere is the impact of this technological transformation as prominent as in the travel and tourism ecosystem.
‘Point and Click’ no more: How technology has redefined online travel
If you thought the rise of online travel portals was the epitome of the travel industry’s technological renaissance, you could not have been more off the mark. Despite being the most visible aspect of the disruption that has since revolutionised the way the sector operates, it was barely the beginning. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have triggered a large-scale tech evolution which continues till date.
Take machine learning algorithms now employed by most leading online travel agencies (OTAs), for instance. These algorithms have been helping OTAs in understanding consumer travel preferences by mapping individual customer behaviour. This essentially breaks the target demographic down to a market of one and enables the travel service provider to cater to the specific needs of every consumer. For example, understanding whether the customer booking a hotel is a backpacker or a business traveller makes it much easier to provide them with extremely personalised options catering to their requirements and budgets, making the discovery and booking process much simpler and convenient.
Machine learning is also extremely helpful in gathering consumer information on a macro level. It can parse through previous booking histories of individual users, as well as people who have similar purchase patterns, to recommend relevant options to prospective travellers. For example, during the summer holidays, it can notice booking trends amongst consumers with children and suggest similar travel options to other users within the same demographic. This helps in clustering products and people together for more refined discovery and recommendation. Moreover, innovative products like Cleartrip Local can even recommend engaging local activities based on the destination and the hotel booked to further augment the overall holidaying experience for travellers.
Another key feature that technology has been facilitating in the travel domain is price prediction. The massive amounts of current and historical travel data available today makes it possible for OTAs to determine probable pricing trends with a fair degree of accuracy through AI and other predictive analytics tools. This information, when presented to consumers, can not only help them in making more informed decisions, but also in unlocking significant savings in travel costs. This data-driven approach becomes especially pivotal in case of airline reservations, where flight fares are known to increase significantly at a moment’s notice.
Simpler, more convenient: Roundtrip/multi-city bookings and artificial intelligence
Consumers had to previously conduct quite a detailed and exhaustive research about various permutations and combinations, especially when travelling to different cities on a single trip. The end result was either an extremely complex itinerary that left no margin of error or several different bookings covering the various destinations — if, that is, the fare had not increased in the time it took for all of this research. This hassle is now being addressed by AI-led technologies, which can provide a complete multi-city itinerary with just the destinations and the exact dates as inputs.
Booking return trips has also become pretty hassle-free. Leading OTAs now let you choose the onward and return flights to suit your schedule and budget side-by-side, whilst also indicating how different flight combinations affect the fare; consumers can even change travel dates without needing to go through the entire process of searching for a new flight. Recommendations also notify travellers of lower flight fares that can be availed by shifting the travel dates by a day or two. Additionally, holidaymakers are apprised of how they can get better deals on hotels by extending or reducing the duration of the stay during the booking process.
Enhancing the overall consumer experience through information, innovation, and intelligence
All these technological innovations that have been changing the dynamics of the global travel industry have one thing in common — they all have the problems customers face at the heart of their solutions. The business of travel and hospitality, after all, is about the customer. With this in mind, it is no surprise that leading OTAs have also deployed several user-centric features to improve the customer experience on their platforms.
Amongst most prominent of such developments is the increasing industry-wide deployment of chatbots. Many OTAs are using chatbots across business-critical verticals such as sales and customer service. These chatbots can identify customer bookings and their prospective queries with a high-degree of accuracy, present them with suitable recommendations, and help them in successfully resolving their concerns. Whether checking on-flight baggage restrictions or the package prices for a specific date and location, chatbots have been helping customers in discovering information swiftly and efficiently.
Performance, especially in a country like India, where a large section of the population still does not have access to high-speed internet connectivity, has also been identified as a key differentiator by leading OTAs. For example, at Cleartrip, we have optimised our app to load images faster, even on 2G networks, by foregoing the traditional approach of progressive image loading. Our large repository of images is immediately made available as and when required, with the image clarity determined by the speed of the internet network. Additionally, we have high-quality A/B testing processes in place to test developed features and presenting the most refined products to our massive user base.
Technology is also being leveraged to provide information more proactively to travellers. One such feature is Cleartrip tagging, which informs about the amenities and facilities available on a particular flight or hotel. Is the hotel pet-friendly? Is there WiFi on this flight? How much baggage can one passenger carry? When does the last intercity train depart? By collecting and verifying tags for every property and flight, OTAs are aiding users in making purchase decisions most in sync with their travelling requirements.
Hybrid intelligence, which works at the intersection of AI and human intelligence, has a huge potential to enable better decision-making. The hotel that a customer is looking at is available at a really good deal – but how far is it from the airport and major points of interest within the city? How bad is the Monday morning traffic in the city? Which airport is the flight arriving/leaving from? Are there any hidden airport/property charges? This information can make a big difference, especially to a first-time traveller.
Time and money are vital currencies, and OTAs have been working towards helping their customers realise the maximum value for both with accurate and detailed information. However, this is just the beginning.
Trends and preferences: Helping the inventory owners maximise their inventories
Apart from customers, travel technologies have also been helping the supplier side in optimising their operations. Information and intelligence, again, play an essential role here. Breaking down the booking trends for different service providers and understanding where the differentiation for the most popular choices lies can be used as a tool to help in raising the competitiveness of other players.
For example, if Hotel XYZ and Hotel ABC have been getting more bookings in a region and they both have swimming pools, a recommendation can be made to other partner properties to build a swimming pool for more business. Moreover, since OTAs have first-hand access to consumer demand and trends, suppliers can be informed about any possible surge, as well as recommend marketing strategies to attract customers even during off-seasons.
All this is barely scratching the surface of all the disruption that technology has been creating in the travel industry. New innovations are constantly being launched, even as previous technology is further refined. With the end-game nowhere in sight, travel tech is an extremely interesting and exciting space at present. Being associated with it either as a customer or a stakeholder is like – travelling at faster-than-light speeds without feeling the drag that comes with it.
Where will all this go? Who knows; all we can do is buckle up and enjoy the ride, to infinity and beyond!
(The writer is head of products at Cleartrip Local)