Technological evolution is changing the way travel and hospitality players identify and acquire new customers. New-age technologies such as internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud are being adopted to deliver a personalised experience to customers. The majority of these players are using analytics to create a strong and loyal customer base for their brands. Key leaders from the travel and hospitality industry share their views on the evolving technology trends in the sector…
What are the key ICT trends shaping the travel and hospitality industry?
The travel industry is being massively disrupted by technology as it connects consumers and providers more and more directly. Improvements in communication technology over the past decade have increased ways in which travel agencies can communicate with each other as well as with customers. With Indians increasingly using smartphones, travel companies need to leverage this opportunity through technology. Though this comes with its own challenges, the speed and scope for growth in the sector is unparalleled. Technology is being leveraged to create a large repository of information. Travel portals have made browsing, bookings, etc. highly personalised. Technology advancements have made businesses more capable of managing and maintaining their content on the website and keeping a record of clients’ interests and bookings. A one-stop shop model enables a host of activities, such as ticket booking, hotel booking, car rentals, and sightseeing, insurance, and even travel-related shopping, on a single platform. Online travel agents (OTAs) are also using a unified technology platform to efficiently roll out new products. Yatra.com has been aggressively using data analytics and AI in marketing to enhance customer services. The data points of different users are mapped to understand their preferences. At Yatra.com, we are deploying a combination of in-house and third-party technologies to offer more personalised experiences to customers. Through the data gathered, Yatra.com is able to provide recommendations of hotels/flights, etc. to users depending on their budget.
The industry is witnessing an evolution with the adoption of newer technologies such as blockchain, business intelligence, big data, bots, robotics process automation. Technology is helping hoteliers in enhancing their operational efficiencies and the customer experience. It is helping hotels in reducing the cost of operations and maintaining profitability in the competitive market. Earlier, hotels were investing in door frame metal detectors, X ray machines, CCTV cameras, etc. Now with the rise of e-commerce and cyberattacks, most of the companies have started investing in state-of-the-art firewalls, network security and backup systems to secure their systems and business.
Hotel chains are gearing up to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to ensure that data is secured and used appropriately after obtaining consent from the guest. Guests need to be informed beforehand if their data is shared with hotels’ business partners\third parties or if the guest is enrolled in the loyalty programme automatically. Guests should be removed from the promotions list if they wish to opt out. If a hotel violates these norms, it has to pay a hefty penalty in accordance with the GDPR guidelines.
Online reputation has also become very important. Today, every hotel company is investing significantly in customer engagement platforms from branding perspective and to maintain and protect its reputation on various online social media platforms.
ICT is helping us reach out to our customers and provide them the desired services or information. We reach out to them on the channel and location of their choice. When travelling, customers seek information regarding their flight status and the activities to be explored in the city they touched down at to plan their trip accordingly. Customers want to be notified about new services on their desired channel or application, namely, SMS, e-mail, and WhatsApp, rather than checking for service details themselves. There are consumers who are interested in receiving notifications over voice communication.
What are the technology solutions that your company is deploying?
Modern ICT solutions will play a key role in determining the future direction and pace of the tourism industry. The OTA industry has also stepped up through innovation to provide better customer experience. At Yatra.com, we offer bookings for hotels, air travel, trains, cabs and packages, etc., and try to provide travellers with a hassle-free booking experience. This is enabled through technological intervention aimed at enhancing consumer interaction and increasing the query resolution speed. The integration of chatbots, UPI and Truecaller, etc. is in line with our endeavour to improve the user experience. We have launched features such as the Facebook chatbot for booking tickets, a self-serve platform to address customer queries and a marketplace chat platform to enable travellers to chat with the sellers in real time. Further, Xplore, a user-friendly feature that simplifies user experience while planning their holidays, and Voice Search in Android and iOS applications that allows domestic and international customers to book their flights, have helped Yatra.com become a one-stop shop for all customer needs.
We do not overuse technology because we know that the requirements of every generation are different. We need to deploy a mix of technologies to meet the requirements of a diverse age group of customers. The basic things that we use are digital signage. We have installed a small digital display unit at the reception, which keeps changing the content automatically. It displays foreign exchange rates and different promotions. Old LED standees at our hotel lobby areas are being replaced with sleek digital information display standees. The focus is more on digital marketing and social media.
Further, we engage with our potential and actual guests on various online social media platforms. Guests like our Facebook page and participate in quizzes, etc. This helps us in branding and promotions, and later converting these into business leads. Our website is dynamic, responsive and supports all mobile platforms – Windows, Android, and Apple-IMac. We also do online promotions to generate business through our brand websites rather than just through expensive OTAs that charge hefty commissions. Emphasis is laid on digital marketing, search engine optimisation, search engine mechanism, and inorganic search, etc.
Currently, we are using SMS, email, WhatsApp and voice services. SMS and e-mail are the traditional methods to reach customers. We are also catering to an audience that prefers WhatsApp (this is a new growth area for us) over traditional services. By using these communication channels to reach customers, we are able to reduce the support required. We are able to engage better with our customers through WhatsApp, which enables us to provide a lot of other related services.
How are technologies such as AI, IoT, cloud and blockchain transforming the travel and hospitality industry? What is your future roadmap for their deployment?
Technological advancements in the travel and tourism industry have helped every company cater to travellers’ need for ease and convenience in booking and enquiry across all platforms, be it the website or social media. Big data, cloud technology, AI, IoT and blockchain have had a positive impact on the industry, providing customers with useful insights. They have helped enhance the company’s potential and introduce a series of changes in the tourism market. Today, customers are pampered with choices in terms of travel platforms, where each brand is intuitive enough to map the trends and needs, and offer suitable solutions to remain at the top of the game. At the macro level, ICT will shape the future of tourism by improving the production, distribution and sale of complex tourism products. It will also enable effective and efficient management within the company.
Some companies in Singapore, Japan and London are experimenting with blockchain to erase middlemen in the transaction process and automate functions. However, we are yet to see any property management system (PMS) based on blockchain. It is used to manage guest locks by Airbnb and other new technology-enabled disruptive hotel firms. In the coming years, if a blockchain-based solution is introduced that can help save money on commissions by removing middlemen and can automate all contracts, I will be more than happy to implement it.
Many hotels have started using IoT for corridor lights, which are switched on only when someone is in motion. Further, IoT is being used to identify guests who are visiting for the second time, and get information about them. This can be made operational not only through the internet and cloud, but also through SIM cards and with many other available technologies. It is also useful in preventive maintenance. IoT can play an important role in environmental sustainability and in saving energy costs.
We are focusing on YouTube and e-commerce. We are also investing in a new central reservation system connected with PMS for controlling room rates and availability globally, in real time. Various mobiles apps are being used for providing seamless guest experience and making employees productive.
This is by far an interesting area for our industry. We are already witnessing a proliferation of cutting-edge technologies such as machine learning, AI, cloud, IoT and big data in the industry. These help us in understanding our customers better and crafting hyper-personalised services. When people travel, they have specific preferences or priorities, and Cleartrip caters to such travel preferences in a meaningful way. With machine learning and AI, we are able to better understand customer behaviour over a period of time, and create unique content and solutions. Technology innovations should help in reducing the time taken for meeting various business requirements. The better we understand the consumers, the better we will be able to offer unique services and content. This will be a win-win situation as customers are happy and it gives us a chance to engage with them more deeply. It increases the chances of customers choosing our platform for future bookings.
IoT and voice are also interesting components. In addition, we are experimenting with machine learning solutions. We are finding ways to assess travellers’ profiles. Simply put, how committed they are while booking, and if we can offer them a discount or incentive to convert their intent into a transaction with us. As of now, this experiment has increased our conversion rate.
IoT helps us in communicating with our customers like informing them when their luggage is available on the conveyor belt. Voice is the leading technology and Cleartrip is in the early phase of its deployment, and is leveraging various voice platforms currently. Voice technology will bring in a new set of customers to our platform who otherwise are not very tech savvy and find it challenging to navigate desktops and mobile platforms. We need to assess the service first in English and eventually in other vernacular languages. There are other solutions in the pipeline. We are striving to remain relevant with our customers because they are central to our business.
What are the key challenges faced in deploying these technologies?
Technological disruption will shape the future of the Indian market and every sector will be touched by digital transformation. In order to adopt new technologies and utilise them to their maximum potential, it is important to train the staff accordingly considering the risks involved due to heavy investments. Also, customer preference is constantly evolving and it is very important to analyse customer behaviour. Tools like big data and AI make it easier to communicate and understand this abundant data. Thus, it is important to reduce costs and improve data analytics to enable real-time decision-making.
The key challenge that the hotel industry faces is that all technologies are created for bigger business verticals such as BFSI, IT/ITes, healthcare, oil and energy, and government. Very few partners understand the hotel business and customise solutions as per the industry requirements. Technology solutions developed for other industries are dumped into the hotel industry. Due to this dumping, the cost of business increases and the profit margins go down.
We tried experimenting with bots for our website. However, the accuracy of bots was less than 60 per cent. These solutions need to be mature enough to work in line with the hospitality industry. Even machine learning and voice-based controlled systems (Alexa and Google i-home) are not widely used to automate guest rooms.
Technology becomes obsolete very fast. Investing in technology repeatedly is a challenge. IT service providers should study the travel and hospitality industry, consider its pain points, discuss its requirements with industry veterans and then develop solutions instead of dumping them from other verticals on to the hospitality industry.
There is no major challenge as such. It is the usual support needed to back the existing technologies such as maintenance and upgrade. We have a strong and experienced team to support and maintain these technologies. Most of the solutions, whether in-house or outsourced, are deployed on the cloud. This means that the upgrade and maintenance are done automatically without much interference from a specific person. Cloud comes with an inbuilt ability to scale quickly.
What are the key technology trends that are expected to shape the future of the travel and hospitality industry?
AI-driven solutions, including machine learning, are the key technology trends driving maximum investment. Another trend would be voice services, and I feel they will be the most promising solutions. Payment solutions will also be an exciting trend that will shape the future of the travel and hospitality industry. s