By Michael Dykes, Vice President Market Management (APAC) at Expedia Group
For those who have attended ITB Asia 2022, I am sure you would share with me the same feeling: it is great to see everyone in person!
And that also highlights what a tough couple of years we have all had.
Even when we could travel again, we had a mishmash of constantly shifting rules around vaccination certificates, face masks, quarantines. Everything about the travel experience was different and alienating.
We’ve seen inflation, which has been more moderate in Asia compared to other regions but has certainly caused problems for many travel businesses facing escalating costs across energy, transport, labor, and food.
We have seen severe flight capacity limits. And now we’re seeing the labor shortages that have been prevalent in other parts of the world becoming more prominent over the course of the year.
But our industry is not just about doom and gloom. There is much to feel energized and inspired about—such as the great news coming from our region with the reopening of Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Despite everything—we survived! The people in this industry stuck with it because we have passion for travel and for our travelers. Passion is a force multiplier that will drive us towards building a healthier, more sustainable, and profitable travel ecosystem.
And we are seeing an influx of new talent into this industry as people see a travel industry poised for healthy recovery. For those of you just joining us, welcome! And we’re looking forward to the fresh ideas that you will bring.
Besides our talent, I also believe that the travel industry is in much better shape in other ways as well.
Why? Because massive disruptions like COVID-19, while adversely affecting this industry and many others, have also been a driver for innovation and change. The industry was forced to adapt and adapt fast. The pandemic has significantly accelerated innovation and technology in the travel industry. As an Australian industry colleague said it best in that – “we’ve quite literally skipped a generation when it comes to our industry’s digital upskill.”
At the peak of COVID-19, the pace of change was truly unprecedented. Borders closing and re-opening. Rules are changing all the time. Demand rising and falling, stopping, and starting, for different destinations, different accommodation types, from different supply markets.
Travel businesses have had to learn how to be nimbler, more agile to cope with this volatility and still capture demand.
The industry has built back better and is now more resilient to the unpredictability of post-pandemic travel. Think about it—not just the pandemic, but we’ve always had to deal with natural disaster, geo-politics, airline and train strikes. We are likely more agile in how we can cope with those situations.
So great talent and increased agility. That’s a pretty good place to be as an industry.
And besides those two strengths, we see two long term trends that will impact us for years to come.
Firstly, the expectations of travelers.
And secondly, the democratization of technology in travel.
The Changing Expectations of Travellers
I could tell you about lots of different shifts in traveler behavior—how they care more about sustainability, how they expect free cancellations, how they are more commonly seeking a once in a lifetime trip… But the single most important thing you need to remember about what the traveler wants is this:
A flawless end-to-end experience which spans both the digital and physical realms.
Consumers have become used to shopping on Amazon or Lazada; getting taxis on Uber, or Grab; watching their favorite shows on Netflix. And they want this flawless experience in every element of their lives. Shopping, banking, working, talking to their friends…. They want to perform any given task at the touch of a button.
They want a personalized, connected, convenient journey from the moment they decide they want to take a trip to the moment they get back through their front door.
And if they don’t get this experience, they will let you know about it.
According to our own research, one in three travelers (33%) have opted not to use a travel brand because of a negative post they saw on social media.
And nearly half (47%) have left a negative review for a travel provider. The top reason is experience, and specifically, not getting the exact experience they were promised.
So, what are the ingredients of this flawless digital experience?
- It’s intuitive
- It provides trustworthy information
- It’s personalized
- And if there is an issue, they want it resolved in as frictionless a way as possible.
The Marriage of Physical and Digital
All of that said, what are your lasting memories of your best holidays? It’s not likely to be whether you saved 20$ on a flight or how user-friendly the travel app is on your smartphone. Our memories are more likely to be about the places we saw, the things we experienced, and the people we met.
The traveler’s overall experience is much much more than the digital element. And travel companies can drive that positive memorable experience by what their staff do at the hotel or the airline and the service level they provide. It could be a wellness offer made with accessibility in mind; recommendations for stunning local running routes, or close-by amazing dining spots that only a local would know.
But the two elements—the digital and the physical—must be in tune, and the digital side, if used effectively, can go a long way to helping hoteliers, hosts and transport companies provide the human touch.
People want to book online, get information online, check in online—but you can’t replicate a warm smile at the front desk, or a spotlessly clean room, or staff who will bend over backwards to help you enjoy your stay—on your smartphone. These two things—the convenience of digital and the physical guest experience have to work hand in hand.
More and more we will see how the digital and the physical will influence one another to create a better traveler experience.
One example of this is guest messaging. Usage of our guest messaging platform has increased more than three-fold since the start of the pandemic. Initially the increase was caused by hotels being forced to seek alternative ways to communicate with guests in the heat of the pandemic. Since then hotels have realized that a well-designed customizable but automated messaging could help them free up staff time, but still provide travelers with the comfort of a personal message. Used effectively in the right hotels, this could increase guest satisfaction. And we’ve seen hotels using it get 10% more favourable reviews.
And speaking of reviews—we all have a lot of data in the form of reviews on how happy travellers were with the experience, and we can use that data to help properties understand where they can do better. For instance, the suppliers on our marketplace that deliver great traveler’s experiences are being rewarded with greater visibility, and more opportunities to create connections with guests.
This will not only deliver better results for travelers, higher rates of re-booking, greater brand loyalty, and better reviews which may lead to additional bookings.
 EXPLORE’22 data insights, Hotels breakout session
The Democratization of Technology in Travel
Many years ago, digital disrupters in travel including the OTAs helped to kick off the “democratization of travel”: reducing the information gap between travelers and the industry which limited choice. By putting it all online in a transparent way, we helped to open up travel for everyone—kicking off a boom in travel that continues to this day.
Now the industry is undergoing another huge shift, the second major change I talked about that is here to stay. And that is the democratization of TECHNOLOGY in travel.
What does this mean?
Well, technology is helping to level the playing field. API and cloud-based services provide a software interface that can offer a function or feature from one company and connect to the software of another company.
It means that it is no longer the preserve of travel companies with long-established reputations in the industry and well-developed online and digital operations to sell travel.
There are an ever-increasing number of third-party companies, platforms and websites that want to sell accommodation and other travel services—and WE power thousands of partners across several segments, including in Asia.
If you are a hotelier and you want a payments platform, a digital conversation platform, you can do it.
Or if you are a DMO or a government tourist agency, and you want to offer online travel, you can do it.
Or, if you are an airline and want to offer cars to your travelers, you can do it too.
This gives travellers much greater choice over where they book their travel.
Some travel companies may see this as a threat. But I see it as an opportunity we are very much focused on.
The technology is here for travel companies to leverage, now. And it’s not just the ability to sell travel inventory or flights or car rentals on their website.
They can also use robust data-driven insights to understand new and rising pockets of demand. To understand their own trends; to compare their data against competitor set performance; and to adjust their offers to match traveller needs.
When the Traveller Wins, We All Win
So, guests expect a flawless digital experience from end to end marrying the physical and the digital.
And they have an ever-growing choice over how and where they buy travel services.
And because of these two shifts, the travel industry may have changed in the long term.
Technology has disrupted travel several times over the years, but unlike in the past, it’s not just driving a race to the bottom on price—which works for travelers but not for providers. It’s not commoditizing travel.
The technology disruption that is currently taking place creates a healthier travel ecosystem.
It provides greater consumer choice.
It provides travelers with a better experience, more convenience, less stress.
It gives businesses the tools to up their digital game, enables them to understand their market better, create demand, capture it, and give their guests a better experience.
And it rewards travel providers, as we do, who provide better experiences, because travelers who have these experiences spend more, review more and travel more.
So, to leave you with one thought about how you can leverage digital disruption to help your own business. Think about how you can use new technology to give your travelers an outstanding experience.
Because we believe that the businesses that are traveler-centric in their approach to technology will be the ones to thrive long into the future.
When the traveler wins, we all win.