A panel of technology experts met in London to discuss an exclusive analysis of tech spending in 2017. Ben Ireland reports
Voice activated services ‘will not replace agents’
Voice-activated technology is “coming” to travel and could be used to help cross‑sell across product portfolios, delegates were told.
But Travolution’s expert panel agreed the likes of Google Home and Amazon Alexa were not advanced enough to replace travel agents.
Inflexion’s Gareth Healy said: “It will be a while until we get tailored results. It has to be introduced in a frictionless way. Being the first to introduce voice will be difficult – it will have to be introduced gradually. But it’s coming.”
The Travel Corporation’s Jon Pickles said it was an area operators must “keep an eye on” and could help companies such as his, which has 30 businesses offering travel experiences.
“We are looking at how we can encourage people to look across our product portfolio,” he said.
“With APIs, we are able to become our own consolidator.”
But he warned: “I don’t think we are at the stage where people sit there asking questions [of a voice-activated device]. Certainly not in the street on phones – maybe at home. So we’re a little way off.”
For now, he said, chatbots such as those used through Facebook Messenger are more in tune with how customers want to communicate with companies, but they have their limitations.
One such limitation Pickles highlighted was that product has to be loaded on to systems 18 months in advance, so chatbots are not always up to speed with the latest offerings.
Agents account for 90% of some TTC brands’ sales, so bots and voice technology could be used to send customers to a human salesperson, he said.
“Marketing is more important to drive personalisation,” said Pickles. “We get the personalisation by selling through intermediaries.
“Voice, absolutely, but we’re not ready for it yet.”
‘Travel innovation held back by lack of collaboration’
A lack of collaboration between travel firms hampers innovation in the sector, Travolution’s expert panel concluded.
Jon Pickles, of The Travel Corporation, said lessons could be learned from other industries, citing the example of transport app Citymapper, which offers details of bus, train and taxi firms on one platform.
He said: “I never travelled by bus in London until I used Citymapper. We are all time-poor, and we need quick ways of doing things. There is little collaboration like that in travel. Firms want to sell their own product first.”
Pickles praised innovation labs, such as BA parent IAG’s Hangar 51 accelerator programme, that link start-ups to large companies, as a driver of innovation.
“Innovation labs are a good idea,” he said. “But they cost a lot of money. We looked at it but we wouldn’t see an immediate return on investment, and have so many other things to focus on.”
But IBM’s Thierry Gnych said travel firms were collaborating without necessarily intending to in the wider “ecosystem”.
He said: “When we [consumers] plan a trip, we look at TripAdvisor, and when we book, we look at Google or Booking.com. We switch between travel service providers to get the support we need.
“All these companies influence a customer’s decision.”
Gnych also said collaborative workshops with developers, typically lasting four to eight weeks, were important to make sure tech products were designed to meet a company’s specific needs.
He said it was important to “define the human centre of the outcome”, adding: “Once you’ve defined that, you can implement it.”
Travel Counsellors’ Steve Byrne said: “Within the industry, we can be a little insular. Therefore, we don’t externalise our problems or learn from others in the same game in different sectors.
“Individually and collectively, we can do more. We are a reasonably happy and outgoing lot and I think we’d be welcomed by any sector that wants to share its problems and opportunities with us.”
‘Suppliers will drive the take-up of blockchain’
The market will dictate blockchain’s take-up in the travel industry but it will be driven by suppliers, not consumers, according to tech experts.
Thierry Gnych said his company, IBM, was one of the early adopters of the distributed ledger technology, adding: “It’s not for me to be optimistic or not; I would let the market dictate it.
“As usual, it starts slowly. But the acceleration is happening.”
He said blockchain could enable a “digital reinvention across an ecosystem of companies”, reducing costs and speeding up payments and access to information.
The Travel Corporation’s Jon Pickles said Tui’s trial of blockchain within the company was “a good way of testing the water”.
Inflexion’s Gareth Healy added: “The innovation of blockchain payments will happen on the supplier side. Travel is a low-margin industry, so anything a supplier can squeeze out of that and anything that reduces friction will be adopted, especially when you are paying the same firms regularly. That’s not the same on the consumer side.”
Travel Counsellors’ Steve Byrne said its adoption would depend on the ease with which firms can “pivot” business models to use it.
Technology-based companies struggle to recruit
Companies driven by technology are limited by a lack of skills unless they move to a big city, according to some leading travel firms.
Steve Byrne, chief executive of Travel Counsellors, which moved from Bolton to Manchester in 2015, said it was important to create a culture of innovation at tech-focused businesses.
“There is a generational shift now about expectations of a working environment,” he said.
“There is no homogenous group of millennials – everyone is different – but the rules of work have completely changed. We need to think about how we make sure the happiness of the people who work for us and the people who pay our wages – the customers – are met. The two go hand in hand.”
Gareth Healy, of private-equity firm Inflexion, which invested in Manchester suburbs-based On the Beach, added: “[Recruitment] is a real challenge and has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. There’s so much good technology out there, but it’s an arms race.”
Jon Pickles, of The Travel Corporation, which recently renovated its offices in Grosvenor Place, London, said: “People want to enjoy their environment”. But he added that the cost of top talent in London had led the firm to outsource technology to Madrid.
Byrne said buy-in from management and staff is more important, adding: “It’s not just the physical environment, it’s the culture. You can have a fantastic office but have an appalling culture.”
Gallery: Innovation Report launch debate