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From bots to branded partnerships and blockchain technology, the travel industry is more in flux than ever. Is your business prepared?

In Amsterdam later this month, the travel industry’s strategic thinkers, decision-makers and innovators will descend on the Dutch city for the co-located Digital Strategies for Europe 2017 and the Smart Travel Data Summit. In the run up to the event, we’ve been interviewing speakers and researching themes to find out what really matters. Here is a taster of what to expect on November 29-30.

Business strategy trumps buzzwords

From ‘bleisure’, ‘customer centricity’ and the ‘connected traveller to ‘gamification’ and ‘big data’, the travel industry loves a headline grabbing buzzword or phrase. Needless to say this may catch a reader’s attention, which is good for marketers and PR teams, but for the people at the coalface it's important to keep it in perspective. People like Trainline’s head of data science, Fergus Weldon, who refers to the commodity he is working with like this: “No matter the size, it’s just data!”

People also like Neil Roberts, Eurostar’s head of digital, who says, “it’s about making a difference, not headlines”. So when he reads, for example, a headline that ‘apps are on their way out’, he takes a step back to consider whether this is true for Eurostar’s business. With 100,000 active users of the app, the answer is a clear no. For this reason Eurostar is continuing to invest in apps but with a service design approach.

Bots vs brainpower and backend infrastructure

That’s not to say that Eurostar is ignoring the ‘buzz’ around chatbots, machine learning and more but, says Roberts, it’s really about working out the right time to market. It is also about taking a two-pronged approach to the business so that you don’t lose focus on the important backend infrastructure, which is what “allows us to be responsive to our customers”. 

Having said that, whether bots and the rise of big data will mean humans get the boot is another headline grabbing hot topic. On this score, Weldon argues that although data should be central to every decision made or action taken his view is that in data science there will always be a human element.

Pitting machines against man is the theme of the Day 2 digital strategies keynote, where the audience will hear insights from Jonathan Moore, Chief Product Officer, Trainline, Martin Ratolístka, Chief Data & Automation Officer at Kiwi.com and Joerg Esser, a theoretical physicist, former group director at Thomas Cook and now independent consultant. Among the topics up for debate are whether individuals will be outperformed by technology, the future of human talent and what skills will be needed in this new world order.

Breaking down silos

At Eurostar getting it right “is an evolution rather than a big silver bullet or the holy grail”. This approach, says Roberts, is resulting in more cross collaboration between departments.

Greater collaboration, and the need for networking – where the strength of humans lie - is something that Esser is also fascinated by. As a theoretical physicist he has been looking to understand how science can be applied to business and finds that in the ant world nobody gives orders, and job descriptions are fluid. In his view, “it absolutely makes sense to pool skills from different departments - marketing, finance, distribution, and so on”.

Bucking trends 

Also speaking in Amsterdam is David Armstrong, CEO of Holiday Pirates, a sort-of social media driven metasearch for travel deals. Holiday Pirates is one firm that is bucking trends by adopting a traditional media model, “where journalists write copy that is totally independent of any commercial ads or promotions in the magazine or newspaper”.

A strategy of no hard sell, with a focus on great content, targeted to their customer segment, is one that seems to be working. Today, Holiday Pirates does not spend a single penny on Google ads - traffic from Google is purely organic. However, they do spend marketing money on Facebook and other social platforms though, to date, paid traffic only accounts for 7%.

Battle of the brands

If you are a smaller travel brand - perhaps a tours and activities start-up, a small independent hotel chain or niche online travel agent - you will know how tough it is to stand out. In the travel industry, a few big names dominate – there are the original disruptors like booking.com and Expedia, and new disruptors like Airbnb and Uber, not to mention the biggest disruptor of all, Google, whom many believe is abusing its power in search.

It is for exactly this reason that Ceetiz, a French online travel agent for tours and activities, is working to reduce its dependence on Google, which earlier this year was slapped with a €2.4bn fine by the European Commission. EyeforTravel digital strategies speaker Ceetiz COO Damien Bellon has found that as the market becomes more mature, maintaining the right balance between Google delivering value and Google becoming a competitor is a tricky. Among the ways that Ceetiz is aiming to differentiate is by focusing on the core business, delivering curated content, and building partnerships such as the co-branded B2B2C one it has with AirFrance.

Blockchain bonanza

If we are speaking about disruption in travel, reducing dependence on middlemen and fuelling true innovation, then the implications of blockchain technology cannot be ignored. Over the past month, EyeforTravel editor Pamela Whitby has been engaged in a fascinating exchange with outspoken Max Izmaylov, the founder of Winding Tree, the first public blockchain for the travel industry, and which Lufthansa recently threw its weight behind.

Izmaylov says the goal of Winding Tree is to enable innovation in the travel industry, which today is hindered by a “winner takes most system”. It plans to open up data, and create a marketplace that is not censored and that is cheap to work with. In this ideal world, it will be possible to advertise a service/business/property/anything on a completely decentralised platform and sell it peer-to-peer without an intermediary extorting a fee.

In Amsterdam, Whitby will join a panel titled Blockchain: the next huge disruptor? for a bit of sparring with moderator Paul Richer and Joerg Esser, who has been working on a webinar for Lufthansa’s sales team, to help them better understand the implications of the technology.

Can’t make Amsterdam? Join us at one of our upcoming events next year in Miami, San Francisco or London

Smart Travel Data Summit 2017

November 2017, Amsterdam

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