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Monday, 26 November, 2018, 16 : 52 PM [IST]

Technology Customising the Travel Interface

Prasenjit Chakraborty & Disha Shah Ghosh

Online travel booking companies in their endeavour to provide more convenience to their customers are investing heavily in technology. In the days to come, AI-driven and voice solution technologies are going to play a crucial role in this direction. In fact, voice technology will be instrumental to tap customers who are not still not very tech-savvy to make travel bookings. This is a clear indication that technology has emerged as an enabler and a driving force to improve conversions.

Nothing remains constant in any business, so is the travel & tourism. In the past few years, online travel bookings have made significant progress and virtually changed the dynamics of the industry. What is the reason behind this? One of the most important reasons is, online booking players have successfully induced ‘convenience’ to its customers. And for this very reason the segment has made rapid strides in a short span of time. Now the question is to what extent the players have been able to provide ‘convenience’ to its customers. Here come the innovation and adoption of sophisticated technology. There is no doubt that customers’ loyalty to a large extent depends on the degree of convenience offered by a particular company. More convenience means more customer loyalty. Today, smartphones are also very popular, the reason being it is easy to carry and a customer can operate it anytime and anywhere.

Online travel is a fast evolving sector – adopting new technologies to make travel planning, research and booking more intuitive and convenient. With increasing internet penetration and the availability of affordable smartphones, low-cost data and more mobile-specific or local language content, customers are much more informed about the benefits of buying travel online. With the improvement of infrastructure, online shopping will take off in India from cities beyond metros and big towns with online travel and hotel booking forming a significant chunk of all online transactions.

“In the online travel market, there has been a significant increase in the booking for customised travel packages and curated holidays. Technology is helping us replace mass choice with personalised experiences. While the ability to compare and having more options is good but offering more suitable and relevant options is even better,” opines Anshuman Bapna, Chief Product Office, Goibibo. It has been seen that more and more travellers across India are experimenting with their travel choices - be it exploring new destinations or cultures. “Over the past few years, we have witnessed a surge in the number of vacationers booking specific theme based resorts, packages and hotels on our platform,” says Bapna.

The proliferation of smartphones has further provided an impetus and also enhanced customers experience that too when they are already on a vacation. New age travel companies are leaving no stone unturned to leverage technology to create a seamless experience for their customers. Take the example of Cleartrip Expressway which is a one-click booking facility, solve easy travel booking for on-the-go travellers and helps save time. “The ability to make bookings while travelling is the most integral change that smartphone penetration has brought about,” points out Ashish Dhruva, Vice President - Marketing, Cleartrip. The company also added a new search feature for mobile called Cleartrip Instant Search which saves precious seconds and minutes spent waiting for search pages to load. With basic features such as push notifications, travellers can be informed about the unique experiences and activities available around them. “Technology, coupled with intent are propelling the journey of taking customer experience to the next level,” observes Dhruva.

Grow through Innovation
When competition intensifies it becomes imperative to adopt a new strategy which helps retain customers. Every successful company does it differently. It has been observed that most online travel companies by and large are banking on discount sales. But with the constantly evolving travellers ‘only discount’ cannot be an effective strategy any more. In any industry, when customers want more from what they are getting now, is a clear indication that customers are evolving and that particular industry is also maturing. This is exactly what happened with online segment of the travel industry. Bapna rightly points out, “Discounts are an important aspect for trial and inducement in online travel as in other aspects of e-commerce. They could be inviting hooks but can never be a long-term strategy to build a sustainable business. Though the Indian consumers have been enjoying the discount, coupons, cash backs given by various companies, they will eventually seek best product and consumer experience & that’s what companies should gear towards.” It should be the endeavour of every company to provide their customers an experience, trouble-free booking. “As one of the leading brands in Indian travel sector, we don’t just want to offer our customers discounts, but an experience that makes travelling as well as booking travel hassle-free and convenient, creating differential value that will help bring the customer back again and again,” says Bapna.

In this direction, Goibibo is zeroing in on creative ways to ensure customer retention, as loyalty programmes have proven to be an important lever for the company. To drive higher customer loyalty, Goibibo introduced two invite-only programmes, a subscription-based service called MMT Black and a spend-based offering called MMT Double Black targeting high-frequency travellers. “With MakeMyTrip’s sophisticated programmes and customer readiness, we want to change the user behaviour and build a strong loyalty base to create a sustainable business,” says Bapna. Going forward, the company plans on making both loyalty programmes smarter, more personalised, and even more rewarding, thereby increasing stickiness and ensuring higher usage.

Echoing a similar sentiment, Dhruva says they have realised that just offering discounts cannot be a primary mode either for customer acquisition or for retaining customers. “As a tech-pivoted organisation that aims to make travel simple and stay meaningful, we continue to hone our offerings and provide customised customer experience on our website and mobile app,” he says. Cleartrip has introduced a host of innovative features and expanded its portfolio from time to time to enhance the value proposition for their customers.

Investing in Technology
It is rather a necessity to invest in technology and stay relevant in the business. According to a research, consumers in India spend 46 days on an average to plan their trip and spend 49 minutes online on their travel research and visit as many as 17 touch points during booking. Hence, it becomes imperative to offer convenient and quick solutions to customers. No doubt, companies are now trying utmost to address the issues. A closer look says that the segment is already witnessing the proliferation of cutting-edge technologies like machine learning, AI, Cloud, IoT, Big Data, etc. These help the industry in understanding their customers better and crafting hyper-personalised services.

“At Goibibo and MakeMyTrip, we now have one of the cleverest customer facing Artificial Intelligence-powered chatbot that is offering quicker and streamlined interactions. These chatbots act as conversational interface to support the work that was typically done through call centres previously. The use of AI is helping to take care of post booking needs and extract information from various data sets to become accurate in predicting what a traveller’s preferences are and make most relevant offerings to them,” says Bapna. According to him, the next big frontier for online travel space is conversational commerce which combines conversational design and NLU (Natural Language Understanding). These bots are designed in a manner to help customers with wider travel booking considerations such as searching for flights as well as in-trip assistance to optimize through every stage of the consumer’s journey. “We are even using the conversational route through partnerships with WhatsApp and Facebook messenger to ensure we are available on chat apps where our customers are,” Bapna claims.

Similarly, Cleartrip is also investing in technology to understand and service their customers better. “New age technology is by far an interesting area for our industry. With machine learning and AI we are able to understand customer behaviour over a period. This enables creating unique content and solutions. Technology innovations should be an enabler or an impetus in helping us reduce our time while getting things done,” says Dhruva. Better understanding of customers will help them (companies) to offer unique services and content. Hence, this is a win-win situation. “When the customer is happy it gives us chance to engage deeper with them,” points out Dhruva.

Future Competition
According to Dhruva, the future trend would be the kind of investment made in AI-driven solutions. Voice solution is also going to play an important role in the days to come. This will help to tap people who are not tech-savvy. “Voice is the leading technology and Cleartrip is in its early days. We are present in some of the voice platforms today. Voice technology will bring in new set of customers to our platform who otherwise are not very tech savvy and find it challenging to transit on a traditional device like desktop or mobile platforms. We need to see the capability of voice first in English and eventually in other vernacular languages to mature. We are getting there,” says Dhruva.

MakeMyTrip in their endeavour to tap more people has built Goibibo Xpress - a conversation based app. With this app, they are targeting the next 100 million internet users who are fairly new to the web and primarily use budget smartphones. “As Indians are getting more and more comfortable with chat apps like WhatsApp – we want to serve them through a conversational online travel booking interface. Being a travel-tech company, we want to cater to every single kind of traveller and our product and technology helps us do it in an easy and hassle-free way,” explains Bapna. The new App is designed keeping in mind that voice search is becoming a popular search mode on mobile, especially for those who find typing or manual data entry daunting. “The App is light with less than 1.5MB storage space, it has limited screen views and a simple chatbot that offers multilingual options to customers,” reveals Bapna.

However, the investment in technology has emerged as a separate and a crucial cost factor for product and service providers, and this clearly is an inevitable proposition, because the process has to be ongoing. At the time of the release of BCG-Google report 2017, Abheek Singhi, Senior Partner and Asia Pacific Head of Consumer Practice, BCG, had said, “Travel is a high investment – both monetary and emotional – category. Technology has led to the democratisation of travel through better information and price discovery – and shall lead to 11%-11.5% growth in years ahead. The question is “how to address the 17 different touchpoints of three minutes each over 49 days! The imperative thing for players is to use technology and advanced analytics capability to understand individual micro journeys and offer personalised and curated travel solutions.”

The important development is players are not just investing in technology only for competition. It is something more. “We don’t see technology from only competition point of view but main agenda is to look at it as an opportunity to provide an unparalleled customer experience. Our view is that technology is an enabler and a must have because it acts as globe axis,” points out Ruchit Jangid, Vice President - E-Business, E-commerce, SOTC Travel.

Even state tourism boards are also investing in technology and reaping the benefits. “Innovations over the past decade have led to a significant increase in the use of technology to enhance the consumer’s travel experience. Goa Tourism has been contributing significantly

to this digital transformation. For instance, the Department of Tourism, Government of Goa has brought the entire tourism trade under e-registration thereby streamlining the registration and license renewal processes,” says Nilesh Cabral, Minister for Power, Government of Goa and Chairman of Goa Tourism Development Corporation. Today, local tourism stakeholders are able to monitor the progress of their applications online and receive updates through SMS. “The GTDC residencies especially the Panjim Residency has been enhanced with new facilities for tech-savvy travellers. These include e-booking and e-payment facilities for tourists,” said Cabral. Evolving trends have brought many changes to the travel landscape in the past few years. “Travellers are now inclined to invest on experiential travel rather than vacationing on the usual, much- frequented tourists spots. They look forward to spending more time, money and effort exploring local cuisines, lifestyles and culture,” observes Shalabh Verma, Director, Sales & Marketing, Grand Hyatt, Mumbai.

There is not even iota of doubt that technology will continue to play a pivotal role to enhance customer interface and experience. It will keep aiding the overall ecosystem for bringing ease of information, transaction, and accessibility and will unearth new ways of how people travel and how companies do business.
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