By Harald Eisenaecher, senior vice-president EMEA of Sabre Travel Network
It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement in and around London as the city prepares for one of the most historic events in recent British history.
With each passing day the Olympic torch inches closer to London, passing through many UK towns and cities along the way.
Some 8,000 athletes from more than 200 countries will participate in both the Olympics and Paralympics, watched live by more than 11 million spectators.
Organisers have predicted that upwards of five million of these will be visitors to London. This is a great time for the travel industry and destination London. Or is it?
A flurry of bad press in the past week has produced a dark cloud that now hangs ominously over the Games, throwing into question London’s ability to play host.
Security concerns, traffic woes, and news that immigration staff are to strike on the eve of the opening ceremony over pay and conditions.
Logistical challenges are to be expected with an event this size, but the number and gravity of issues that cropped up one week out is hurting London’s reputation and the travel experience for millions.
But perhaps the most worrying issue is a potential meltdown in telecommunications.
The warning from experts is that the huge volume of calls, texts and internet browsing in a concentrated area could lead to the collapse of local mobile networks: a serious issue for the travel management community.
Since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, smartphones and tablets have become integral to the way we live and travel.
The number of smartphones sold globally in the fourth quarter of 2011 was larger than combined sales for the whole of 2008.
In that timeframe, the number of Facebook users burgeoned from 60 million to almost a billion.
This means that of the more than five million expected visitors to London, a large portion will take to their phones to help manage their trip. As an agent or travel manager, this presents two opportunities:
Firstly, harness the power of today’s smartphones to service your travellers.
Companies have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in hardware and applications to simplify and enrich the travel experience on-the-go.
Virgin Atlantic, for example, has launched a London city guide app offering information on events, restaurants, hotels and activities.
Visa is using the Games to showcase near-field communications (NFC) payments for customers.
Proximity marketing – targeting consumers who use NFC tagged smartphones – and QR codes are expected to be highly visible over the next month.
Sabre announced a new-look TripCase mobile app to help travellers navigate and manage their travel itinerary including unexpected changes or obstacles that come up in transit.
These are just a handful of innovations designed to make travel easier, and as an agent, you can help your customers make the most of new technology, even if it’s just recommending useful apps.
Secondly, have a well-thought out contingency plan if the network fails. Don’t lose sight of your customers.
Communicate with them before their trip, and ensure they know how to reach you if things go wrong.
Travellers often need your help the most when things go wrong. The ability to manage such situations can make all the difference to customer loyalty.
When the Olympics start, I’ll be cheering my country on. But I’ll also have a keen eye on our customers and their needs.
Of course, my hope is that we all cross that finish line unscathed. Enjoy the Games!