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Shubhra Speaks: Is the neighbourhood travel agent a thing of the past?

I was planning a trip for the summer holidays when it occurred to me that technology has really reduced the distance between the traveller and his destination. Not merely by taking away the neighbourhood travel agent or queues for railway tickets or even the uncertainty on accommodation, quality of stay, food and experiences. Indeed, technology has created a new-age traveller: the connected traveller.

The future of the travel industry is in its customers’ hands — at their fingertips, to be exact. And yet the story doesn’t stop here: it’s merely the beginning. The impact of the connected traveller is in exposing how disconnected many travel providers are: and this in turn is forcing leisure and hospitality brands to evolve so as to create connected solutions for the connected traveller. And in the process we are looking at a whole new economy in leisure and hospitality.

The Connected Traveller
The always-on consumer has a deeper involvement in the process of planning, booking and even the creation of a detailed itinerary. With a few apps, some swipes and clicks, and one-on-one conversations with big brands through social media, an entire travel experience is being planned and confirmed by the customer on his own. No room for the friendly neighbourhood travel agent.

Hospitality brands have had to keep up with the ‘always-on’ traveller. Information, like people’s opinions about a property or an airline, depended heavily on hearsay and consequently travellers needed to brace for a big surprise on landing up at the airport or in their chosen hotel’s reception only to find that reality – be it the leg room or the size of the room – was quite removed from what they had expected (or led to expect!). Not any more.

Technology has put the power in the hands of the customer. Price comparisons sites like KAYAK and perishable inventory sales through Travelzoo have increased the worth of our dollars and given us the confidence to make informed decisions by themselves. Rather than waiting for the agent to get back to them, vacationers now control the experience they’re planning and close the deal. Instead of merely booking her travel, the consumer today is continually engaged in crafting an experience specific to her needs, wants and dreams at all hours of the day and even till the very moment she boards her flight, and at times even thereafter.

Connected solutions for connected travellers
Connected travellers leverage technology and expect personalised engagement at each stage of this journey. Today, information on reviews, facilities, competitive offers and even specific room and seat tips are available at the click of a button. Not to forget the likes of TripAdvisor and SeatGuru that empower consumers to shop for the specific experience they desire.

Not only has technology empowered the new-age traveller; I’d argue it has created a whole new economy. How many of us would have imagined the rise of airbnb, or even of expedia? But it isn’t limited only to disruptive business models. Let’s look simply at Wi-Fi and how integral it has become to our travel nowadays: a report says 88 per cent travellers will take a mobile device with 3G/4G/Wi-Fi on a vacation and 68 per cent will use those to connect with friends and family with whom over a third will share vacation-related online content.

Not to forget that every other traveller will add travel apps onto their mobiles before going on a vacation.

Marriott Hotels & Resorts partnered with GoPro to take advantage of the personal escapades of its hotel guests. Guests in 18 of its Caribbean and Latin American resorts can now check out video cameras to capture memories throughout their vacations. Vacationers are then encouraged to upload their footage to Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #TravelBrilliantly, giving Marriott free and shareable advertising to attract potential customers all over the globe. The partnership with GoPro not only gives Marriott the ability to easily collect footage, but it also brands the hotel chain as part of the adventure niche.

Connected travel – a new leisure and hospitality economy
Leisure and hospitality brands need to deliver great digital experiences to satisfy traveller needs throughout their journey. Very few of them offer a wide range of services across a wide range of channels to cater for travelers across their entire journey. Travel brands must work harder at creating cross-touchpoint experiences.

Capturing and sharing content created by vacationers creates a dynamic real-time experience for online travel seekers and enthusiasts. Building on travellers’ shared experiences is the most influential form of advertising currently available to marketers. When travellers have a great experience, they talk about it. More than ever, travel marketers can benefit from strategies that are informed by word of mouth. By putting tools in consumers’ hands, travellers — sharing their adventures with other enthusiasts — are organically promoting the travel products, services, brands, and even those who delivered the experience they so enjoyed.

Equally, when travellers are disappointed or need something, they also want to talk about it. With the social media tools now available, digital marketers can react to subpar customer service issues and solve problems in real time. Both Qantas and KLM use Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms to actively engage with customers. At Qantas, if a customer posts a photo to Instagram from one of its airport lounges, the customer care team is alerted immediately. Staff members then have a chance to resolve any issues. KLM uses feedback from social media channels to enhance customer service. Suggestions from its online consumers have prompted the company to create destination guides based on crew members’ favourite locations, and it now allows non-passengers to purchase gifts and services for those traveling on a flight.

Digital and technology have already transformed the travel industry, and the future of the market is only an imagination away. Leisure and hospitality brands will benefit from changing how they see themselves: hotels aren’t really hotels; they are in the lifestyle business. Travel lifestyle.

Shubhradeep Guha

Shubhradeep Guha is VP, Global Lead – Digital Marketing and Experiences at SapientNitro.