Amit Madhan, President & Group Head, Technology, e-Business and Shared Service, IT, Thomas Cook India and SOTC Travel

The Indian travel and hospitality sector has been undergoing rapid digitalisation. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic further pushed the pedal on this trend. The players in this industry are now relying heavily on new-age solutions to deliver a highly personalised experience to customers. As such, technologies such as internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and big data are gaining prom­inence among travel companies and hotels. They are adopting these technologies not only to provide good customer experience, but also to re-engineer their core offerings and scale up operations. In addition, these solutions are enabling enterprises to enhance their customer acquisition rate. As the new normal takes more concrete shape, new technologies and digital solutions are here to stay. Amit Madhan, President & Group Head, Technology, e-Business and Shared Service, IT, Thomas Cook India and SOTC Travel, share his views on the evolving technology trends in the sector and the way forward…

What are the key information and communications technology (ICT) trends dominating the travel and hospitality sector?

The current pandemic has forced all industries to move away from operative fu­n­ctions that involved physical touch. Wh­er­ever possible, sanitised or touchless ope­rations are taking over.

Other than pandemic-related innovations, the travel and tourism enterprises, especially large players such as Thomas Cook India and SOTC, have embraced ICT in a big way to bring in efficiency in their operations and provide superior, contactless/hybrid services to their customers. A few examples of this adoption are as below:

  • Most hotels now have websites for marketing and may also offer e-commerce function for bookings. These systems are linked directly with the internet and other general distribution systems (e.g., Sabre, Amadeus, Galileo and World­span) to receive and publish bookings.
  • Airlines are now offering the service of locating baggage via a link on the travellers’ boarding pass.
  • Enabled by IoT, customers can now co­n­trol a range of activities/experiences in their hotel rooms such as ambient lighting and temperature through a mobile app. Robotic devices are also deployed to provide certain services such as cleaning, luggage handling or greeting guests when they arrive.
  • Chatbots are used to handle customer queries or offer personalised services to suit individual customers’ preferences.
  • Contactless payments at most points of sale are also enabled and this feature is in high demand as customers are reluctant to hand over cash.

How has the onset of Covid-19 impacted the digitalisation of the travel and hospitality sector? What new approaches or changes in strategy did you adopt to sail through the pandemic?

As mentioned, the onset of Covid-19 for­ced almost all sectors to adopt digitalisation, but this has happened faster than ever before. Thomas Cook and SOTC have successfully concluded several enhancements to the web portal such as introducing a new feature of dynamic packaging. Cu­s­tomers can now build packages with flights, hotels, sightseeing and transfers on a real-time basis, instead of purchasing a predefined package. Inventory is sourced and packaged dynamically from various travel partners for the travel components in real time. The platform is integrated with various travel partners to fetch real-time rates of travel components by direct contracts and API integrations to bundle travel components into one and provide a complete package, with options for users to add/delete components on the fly and bundle them into a single package via an end-to-end booking and get confirmation of services in a single transaction. This fe­a­ture gives customers an edge to select services of their choice from an array of components available as compared to the traditional predefined packages.

We also swiftly adopted cloud techno­logies for our customer relationship management (CRM) function, enabling the sta­ff to serve customers remotely. This he­l­ped the organisation deal with geographic uncertainties due to varying lockdown rules across states, as well as ensured that staff was always available to service cu­s­to­mers. Several foreign exchange (remittance) customers were serviced through this process in critical times. In addition, we were able to cater to the rising domestic travel demand once restrictions were eased as customers were happy to connect with us virtually.

We also introduced a new B2C visa workflow to help customers book stand-alone visa (including submitting documen­ts) on our website. We’ve also introdu­ced self-service such as checking real-time visa status, uploading documents required for visa and placing a cancellation request.

How are you leveraging new-age technologies such as AI, IoT, blockchain, cloud and big data? What are some of the challenges faced while deploying these solutions?

For us at Thomas Cook and SOTC, new-age technologies such as AI, cloud and big data have been the norm. All our new initi­atives adopted during the pandemic were driven on the back of these new technologies.

What key digital trends will shape the travel and tourism industry going forward?

It is all about adding value to the experience. Travelling has always been favoured by people of all ages and segments to give themselves a break from the humdrum of life and rejuvenate themselves. But like ev­erything good that deserves being better, travelling too has evolved to its newest and the most satisfying arena of experiential travel. It is fast resonating with travellers of all kinds; passionate globetrotters, family vacationers, adventure seekers and couples looking to reconnect.

Also, going forward, the industry will be dominated by players that are able to offer customers the best booking experience, preferably through an evolved mobile app that efficiently leverages data science, AI, predictive analytics, automated personalisation, AR and VR.