Travel technology industry leaders agree that consumers are looking for online expertise when planning their trips.
Speakers at the recent Skift Global Forum in New York City also predicted the continued convergence of the new and old in travel. A case in point: The goal of home-sharing service Airbnb to become more of a hospitality company.
Here are five takeaways from the conference.
An overriding theme at the forum was the need to be connected with and respond to customers—wherever and however possible.
Terry Jones, a founder of both Travelocity and Kayak, has now teamed up with IBM to develop a website called WayBlazer. The site uses cognitive computing—which aims to work like a human brain—to put together trips.
For example: If you type in, “I’m going to Austin in November with two buddies,“ WayBlazer will come up with suggested hotels, restaurants, things to do, and the weather at that destination. WayBlazer’s first client is, in fact, the Austin (Tex.) Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Cognitive computing will be a game changer in travel,” said Jones, who began his career as a receptionist in a travel agency 40 years ago.
“By analyzing many data sets, it will provide insights on available services,” he said. “And this computer learns as it goes along so gets better as we use it. We can make getting travel advice just as easy as a conversation.”
Companies want to curate the experience
Curation, another travel agent mainstay, is the wave of the future, according to Sam Shank, CEO of Hotel Tonight, which offers last-minute hotel deals for users of its app.
“People want expert input, and in the future our app will not only tell you what hotel is best for you on that specific occasion, but will plan a trip for you before you even ask, based on your profile,” said Shank.
“Say you’re connected on the app to Facebook and Spotify (a music app); it will plan a trip with your Facebook friends with tickets to a concert by a performer you listen to on Spotify.”
Moving away from the OTA model
Representatives of two of the largest travel technology companies claimed they are not morphing into OTA’s.
Chip Conley, head of hospitality for Airbnb, said the company is more of an intermediary for those looking to share their space than a commoditizing entity looking for bookings.
“Hotels are trying to come onto our website, but we don’t want to be an OTA,” said Conley.
“We will never compete with Marriott or Hilton for the two-day road warriors; we don’t want that business traveler,” he said. “But we will be reaching out to business travelers who seek an experience consistent with what we offer.”
Barbara Messing, chief marketing officer for TripAdvisor, also said her company isn’t planning to enter the world of bookings.
“I don’t think we’re evolving into an online travel agency,” she said. “We simply provide links to hotels and booking services; we don’t do the bookings ourselves.”
Lodging is transforming
The lodging industry may be undergoing some of the most dramatic changes since boutique hotels came along in the early 1980’s.
That’s in response to the exploding “sharing economy” as provided by companies like Airbnb and HomeAway.
One leader of the “home sharing” industry talked about how different kinds of lodging seem to be converging.
Carl Shepherd, co-founder of HomeAway, described his company as capitalizing on second homes by placing them on the rental market.
Shepherd said his customers are different from those of Airbnb.
They are older, more affluent and more frequently include families. He said HomeAway lists more urban locations while Airbnb lists more resorts.
Social, social, social
Karin Timpone, global marketing officer for Marriott, said storytelling has become central to all travel marketing.
Marriott created a site called travelbrilliantly.com and asked consumers to recommend improvements to the guest experience.
The winning entry was a healthy vending machine which Marriott, with ongoing input from social media, created and implemented.
Social media has also taken center stage for destinations.
Will Seccombe, CEO of VisitFlorida, said 95% of visitors to the state are repeat visitors,“So we have shifted our marketing focus to allow them to be our advocates.”
“That’s 98 million people, with that number expected to be 127 million by 2020. “