Why getting back to basics in online travel could be the biggest game-changer of all

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Forget fancy data visualisation and semantic search, should user experience be the focus of the future? Pamela Whitby reports

With less than a few weeks to go before Europe’s movers and shakers in data & analytics descend on Amsterdam for Smart Travel Analytics, Europe, here are five themes that are keeping online travel executives awake at night.

5.     Big data: quality isn’t a given

There is a lot of hype around big data, but data quality isn’t a given. “We think we capture data and we should be able to analyse it real time,” says Claudia Unger, Director, Research & Intelligence at BCD Travel, “but in reality it’s a big effort to clean data and make it workable for analysis. And that’s before even considering taking multiple data sources into the equation.”

Carlos Sanchez, Senior Manager Big Data Analytics at Carlson Wagonlit Travel agrees: “Merging data from multiples sources can be tricky.” 

This leads to another challenge: the ability to convey insights from data in a way that is clear relevant and actionable so the best possible business decisions can be made.

For Unger, data standards across the industry would help enormously but that, of course, would be ‘utopia’. Failing that, she would like to raise awareness of the need for everyone working in travel to check the data they use before basing decisions on inaccurate or semi-true information.

4.     Personalisation: how to be convincing but not deceptive

Good personalisation comes with huge investments in data capability and science, but trust is a huge issue. The biggest challenge, says Marcello Mastioni, Homeaway’s VP and MD for Europe Middle East Asia, is finding the right balance between delivering the product that people want and need, based on their personal preferences, while being convincing but not deceptive.

This is a challenge that KLM recently came up against in its Lost & Found campaign which featured a Beagle bounding through the airport to return lost items to delighted guests. With 15 million views on YouTube, the campaign certainly engaged the public but the response wasn’t always positive with some commentators branding it a sham and deceptive when they discovered that Sherlock, the dog, was just a mascot in an advertisement.

3.     New frontiers: meeting the customer at every level, on every device, is an altogether different challenge

The move towards personalisation is being driven by rapidly shifting consumer behaviour. In the 1990s, the internet was the online equivalent of an classified section in a newspaper or magazine or a paper-based directory, where consumers could sift through a list of hotel options from their desktop computer. Then came the stage of search, exploration and discovery with the likes of Google and Expedia allowing users to filter and refine what they were looking for. But that was far from perfect and today the days of comparing 200 options are over. Consumers want market places and services to deliver relevant results and valid recommendations, and at the right time.

It’s really about meeting customer expectation at a completely new level and even meeting those expectations before they are expressed.

“This presents a very different challenge,” says Mastioni, adding that: “It’s really about meeting customer expectation at a completely new level and even meeting those expectations before they are expressed.”

And, of course, all this in an omnichannel world.

2.    Search: a big opportunity

In the consumers’ eyes, Google is synonymous with search. According to Comscore’s September 2014 report, Google controls 67.3% of the market. For this reason, not only do all brands have to invest heavily in Google, they are highly dependent on this global giant. But are they doing a good job? Mastonioni believes that search is an area that can be massively improved on. “Search is still very much based on typing in stuff and retrieving results. It’s not an intelligent process, in fact it’s still quite mechanical. Even Google itself admits they are only at the beginning,” he says.

This represents a huge opportunity and recommendations, collaborative filtering and predictive search are just some of the innovations that are still waiting in the wings.

1.  Conversions are king: is it time to get back to basics?

Balance is always a good thing, so brands cannot ignore some of the exciting and innovative things happening in the world of big data. But the big question for business leaders is this: should brands first be focusing on the basics before jumping into the exciting stuff?

Mastioni cites booking.com as a travel company that has optimised the basic with great success. “Booking.com does nothing that doesn’t lead to better conversions and their conversion rate is 2x the rest of the pack,” he says.

While this may be true enough, Chinmai Sharma, VP Revenue Management and Distribution at Louvre Hotels raises the point that hotels, for one, don’t have the big budgets of the OTAs. So the most important thing is to manage each channel and understand where you can compete – namely in the hotel where the guest is a captive audience. Another hotelier, Agnès Roquefort, SVP Global Revenue Management at Accor says they are “putting serious effort into making direct websites more attractive, growing loyal members and training staff to understand when the direct web is key and when indirect channels can be useful”.  

In the end it’s all about securing conversions (and yes training plays a crucial role here) because if you can’t sell your product you won’t be able to compete. One thing OTAs like Booking.com and Expedia do is run regular A/B tests to establish what works best for users at the most basic level, with the simple aim of converting more users. 

Perhaps the notion of getting the basics right is more fundamental than many people think.

According to Mastioni, the big question that all travel firms will have to ask themselves in the coming months is this: “Do you want to venture into fancy data visualisation techniques or fancy semantic search or fancy media related opportunities? Or do you just want to get the basic experience right?”

After all, when you go to booking.com, you don’t see fancy interactive charts, nor do you have a digital assistant popping up trying to help – it’s all about optimising the basic user experience.

So perhaps the notion of getting the basics right is more fundamental than many people think.

To hear more from the speakers quoted in this article, and other senior executives from the world of data and analytics, join us in Amsterdam for Smart Travel Analytics, Europe (Nov 23-24)

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