Pamela Whitby rounds up the main themes to emerge from yesterday’s opening afternoon panel at EyeforTravel Europe

Blockchain technology is not a top priority for Booking.com’s principal data scientist, Onno Zoeter. In response to a question posed during the opening panel at EyeforTravel Europe yesterday, about blockchain’s potential to disrupt the business models of the OTAs, Zoeter said: “It is so difficult to keep pace with [what is happening in] machine learning that I deliberately tell myself: ‘Don’t go into a rabbit hole’”.

Also speaking was Hadi Moussa, Airbnb’s head of EMEA business development. His view on the success of blockchain is that it will “really depend on whether a distributed system can create more trust than a central authority”. In the early days of Airbnb, building trust, he said, had been “very, very challenging” and this is something that advocates of blockchain would need to address.

The success of blockchain will “really depend on whether a distributed system can create more trust than a central authority”

Hadi Moussa, Airbnb, Head of EMEA Business Development  

But Rod Cuthbert, chairman of Rome2Rio, and the former founder of Viator, had an even bigger problem with blockchain; that nobody seems to be able to explain what the technology could do for travel in simple terms. At another recent conference, Cuthbert sat in on a 25-minute blockchain talk:

“My view was consistent with 99% of other people - that we were more confused at the end of the presentation than where were before it started.”

No pressure then for today’s keynoters who are tasked with ‘demystifying blockchain’. 

Disloyalty, data and discovery

Blockchain may be confusing but in last night’s opening poll, 46% of attendees said the biggest challenge facing the travel industry was the disloyal customer, followed by an ‘always merging market’.

Interestingly, Google’s power was ranked as the third biggest threat to the industry, which surprised Cuthbert. “With Google’s hotel product, they are now allowing hotels to advertise directly, and if a consumer chooses a particular property they can pay using Google Pay. So now they are [also] getting payment data, and they are at the top of funnel,” he said.

Is there anything that can be done about big bad Google? Cuthbert is hopeful that the European Commission, which has been focused on Google’s unfair play in comparison shopping, will soon turn it’s attention to other affected industry verticals like travel. 

However, not everybody sees Google as a threat. As a small company selling to the world, Eurail CEO Brenda van Leeuwen argued for the “need to play smart”. And if that means partnering with Google, and others like Skyscanner and Expedia, to put rail on the map so be it.

I’m constantly amused by technologists in the travel industry who want to shorten the search and discovery time for consumers

Rod Cuthbert, Chairman, Rome2Rio

If Google annoys Cuthbert, at least the industry’s technologists give him something to laugh about. “I’m constantly amused by technologists in the travel industry who want to shorten the search and discovery time for consumers”.

While a business traveller may want to complete their travel planning and booking as quickly as possible, for leisure travellers the search and discovery stage remains a crucial part of the process. “They want it to take days, they want to look at dozens of sites,” Cuthbert said. 

And they also want to look at sites that deliver a terrific user experience, and for this you need data. For a company Eurail, which has just two data scientists (Booking.com has 200!), the importance of interpreting data and applying the findings cannot be underestimated. “We always thought Chinese people would love to see Chinese people in imagery but, in fact, they want to see Europeans,” said Van Leeuwen, who explained that this insight came from analysing data.

Another point of discussion in yesterday’s opening panel was the future of voice. Moderator Paul Richard, a senior partner at Genesys Digital said the most obvious early applications are likely to be concierge-type services in, for example, hotels. However, Airbnb’s Moussa argued that it would depend on where the traveller is in the journey. “In the inspiration phase, you probably want to look at pictures, you want to be inspired,” he said. On the other hand, when booking a flight “you might care less, and you might want to optimise for time.” Here a voice assistant could add value.

So, yes, voice is coming but, concluded Zoeter: “We’ll need to get used to the fact that [people] will spend money through voice, to book taxis and pizzas, before they do it with travel.”

EyeforTravel Europe 2018

June 2018, London

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