Seamless travel: can technology really turn the dream into reality?

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Technology is changing the way we travel. Major brands are trying out new services that work to ease the travel journey. But with some calling Apple’s Passbook a ‘disappointment, Ritesh Gupta investigates whether it is possible to ensure that these providers do not further ‘disconnect’ the travel experience.

The traveller remains one of the most lucrative targets for the e-commerce business, owing to a higher than average affluence and an intrinsic need to spend. It is no surprise then that Apple has targeted this demographic with their Passbook product – essentially an in-device wallet that will allow dynamic mobile boarding passes to also sync with payment platforms. Other major brands are also trying out new services that work to ease the travel journey.

However, while iconic brands may have come up with some striking features, they haven’t yet cracked the concept of seamless travel experience.

In search of a seamless experience

According to Jared Simon, chief operating officer and co-founder of HotelTonight, the seamless travel experience has been an industry goal for years, with countless companies attempting to tackle various components of the travel lifecycle.

Yet in spite of this, today travelling remains a very disjointed experience. “Travellers still have to use multiple service providers at multiple junctions throughout an entire journey,” says Brett Proud, chief executive officer of GuestLogix.

For Simon it is unfortunate that the big online travel agents who control much of the experience have little motivation to invest resources in anything that doesn’t immediately increase site conversion. As a result, it’s left to innovative start-ups to stitch together a seamless experience. “Luckily, however, with the always-on nature of mobile devices, the dream is now within reach, and novel approaches are appearing,” he says.

Rob Define, senior director, international product strategy at ebookers has a different take on things: “Seamless travel is a utopia that will be difficult to realise as travel is by definition made up of different services managed by various providers (transportation, accommodation, destination experiences, etc).” 

However, as a multi-product online travel agency, ebookers believes it is well positioned to, at least, close in on the seamless travel experience. “With 24/7 customer service that can manage any part of a customer’s trip booked with ebookers, this allows the customer to have a single point of contact when there is a need to speak to a customer service agent,” says Define. Moreover, ebookers has services across devices and this is a another step to reaching a seamless travel experience. “Whether our customer is at home or on the move (with a laptop, phone or tablet) with ebookers, the customer can get access to flight status, can find a map to their hotel, can amend their hotel bookings or even make a new booking.”

ebookers is continually building out services like these to improve the customer experience and ultimately make it more seamless. “But sometimes travel isn’t meant to be seamless and a break in that seam, a spur of the moment diversion, is what can make travel so exciting,” he says.

Staying focused 

Technology, as always, should be an enabler and not an inhibitor “Of course, we need to make sure that everything we develop improves the travel experience for our customers, rather than creating confusion or disconnect,” says Define.

ebookers.com’s strategy starts by addressing the needs of the customer, rather than technology alone. That said, technology is a great enabler, if used properly. And according to Define ebookers technical developments on multi-devices (laptop, phone, tablet) have been instrumental in improving the customer experience.

Meanwhile Simon feels it’s a bit of a balancing act. For any company that is serious about improving its customers’ travel experience, focus is very important. For instance, according to Simon, to ensure the team is providing the very best experience for its bookers and hotel partners, HotelTonight is very disciplined about focusing exclusively on the same-day booking use case.

One might argue that this ‘disconnects’ the travel process since it’s not possible to book for next week on HotelTonight. However, Simon says HotelTonight is a strong believer that the all-things-to-all people approach taken by the big OTAs results in a lowest common denominator experience for everyone. “In contrast, we prefer to focus on improving the experience, even if it comes at the risk of creating a ‘disconnect’,” he says. 

Big brands on the march

While reflecting on travellers having to use multiple service providers at multiple junctions throughout the entire journey, Norm Johnston, chief digital officer, Mindshare Worldwide, says it’s unfortunate that a lot is out of the traveller’s control and is dependent on local carriers.

On considering the manner in which the ‘big brands’ approach the issues, he says Apple’s primary focus has been on the operating system and user experience, and for the most part they get that right. Google has been the most active in investing in a seamless wireless Internet access service. Google is rolling out Google Fiber, their free WiFi service in various cities around the US, with an aim to bringing free WiFi and the Internet to everyone. This is  presumably to boost searches and video views on mobile devices, and, of course, advertising revenue.

Johnston says ideas such as turning smartphones into an airline ticket, hotel room-key, remote for entertainment console on a flight or in hotel room and so on are excellent ideas. The benefit to a consumer is that you don’t need to bring your hotel or airline loyalty card, or remember promotional codes. Passbook does all of that for you, and near field communication enables reminders to be sent, particularly when you are  in reasonable proximity to a hotel, for example.

“The challenge is that Passbook hasn’t really caught on the way that Apple anticipated,”  says Johnston. “There has been limited adoption by many companies, and therefore it’s become somewhat of a forgotten app in the Apple ecosystem. To make it work they will need to put a much bigger effort behind promoting it both with brands as well as consumers.”

In short, it’s been a disappointment.

Sustainable success?

Successful technology developments will be sustained as long as they truly serve a substantially wide array of traveller needs, through a single domain. In this way they can create a new standard for the way people travel. However, it will need to be cross-platform to ensure a lasting shift in the way travellers interact with their service providers.

In Proud’s view, as popular as Apple is, having ‘Apple Travellers’ operating one way helps only a subset of travellers and airlines will require a greater level of consistency to serve their passengers. 

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