Throughout the travel ecosystem, digital transformation is redefining each stage of the customer journey. Whether companies are updating legacy analog systems, automating manual processes, or integrating interdepartmental silos, they’re addressing cost, speed of innovation, and a desire to become more data-driven to improve the customer experience.
“The 2022 Digital Transformation Report: Investing in the Traveler Experience of the Future” centers on the technological realities travel companies must face as they aim to meet customer expectations in the post-pandemic era. Highlighting findings from a survey of 950 global travel leaders and insights from executive interviews, this article identifies 10 ways travel companies are adapting to customer expectations by adjusting practices, processes, and philosophy at all levels of their organizations.
Scaling Up to Meet Explosive Customer Demand
“After experiencing the pandemic, the industry now understands what it means to scale both up and down very fluidly in very short periods of time,” said Steven M. Elinson, managing director, travel and hospitality, AWS. “They can never imagine going back to what it used to be like. They want to maintain that capability going forward.”
For example, Meliá Hotels International migrated its central reservation system (CRS) from a mainframe it had run on for 20 years. That allowed the company to handle a 92 percent increase in room requests since 2019 while reducing the average CRS response time by 32 percent. These faster response times have improved the customer experience for online booking and helped Meliá rank higher on online travel agencies and travel search engines.
Building in Flexibility to Enable Experimentation
More than 43 percent of travel executives told Skift and AWS that having a more flexible or agile business is the biggest benefit of cloud-based software and technology solutions. Companies that use managed cloud services — or infrastructure and operations run by cloud partners rather than in-house teams — may now feel less of an impact from volatility.
“The cloud removes the need for big investments in equipment, and we don’t have to make infrastructure predictions,” said John Murphy, chief information officer at ATPCO, which has undergone a wholescale migration to the cloud within the past several years. “The biggest change in how we approach things now is that we’re able to do investigations and proof of concepts instantaneously for pennies on the dollar.”
Updating Legacy Systems to Unlock Business Innovation
According to the Skift and AWS survey, executives are more concerned about business disruptions from legacy and outdated technology than anything else. The pre-pandemic lag in technology migration coupled with the unavoidable cutbacks during Covid-19 shutdowns created a perfect storm for the unpredictability in today’s travel experience. If companies build around legacy systems instead of phasing them out, they are innovating around their core, but they aren’t remodeling the core itself.
“Unless you actually provide a new way of thinking for the business to rapidly evolve processes, you’ll continue to just be patching what you do. You need to update your business-critical systems and address culture and structure at the same time,” said Pieter Jordaan, group chief technology officer at TUI.
Using Centralized Data to Reduce Customer Frustrations
Hilton recently worked with AWS to migrate its CRS to the cloud. This allowed the company to tap into data that was previously unavailable, and through this process Hilton unlocked the ability to understand which rooms were connecting or adjoining. Though it sounds relatively mundane, that piece of information was one of its highest causes of poor customer experience and of operational inefficiencies.
“Confirming connected rooms at the time of customer booking answers a major customer frustration and significantly reduces contact to the hotel at our contact center,” said Michael Leidinger, chief information officer, Hilton.
Deploying Artificial Intelligence to Surprise and Delight Travelers
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning might be considered by technical teams as a back-of-house function, but there’s a customer experience aspect to their application. Executives said that practical uses of AI can help them improve the traveler journey by predicting demand, personalizing messaging, and analyzing customer sentiment.
For example, Ryanair built an aptly named “panini predictor” to help each flight stock food appropriately.
“Your holiday starts on the aircraft,” said Aoife Greene, Ryanair’s deputy director, ancillary and head of retail. “People want their gin and tonic. They want their ham and cheese panini. They want to sit back and relax. They don’t want to hear ‘No, that’s not available.’ It’s our job to make sure no one is disappointed.”
Creating a Single View of the Customer to Provide Personalized Options
Travelers recognize that they’re giving vast amounts of personal data to travel companies, and they expect brands to be good stewards of that information and provide value in return. The key to making this happen is customer data. The proliferation of digital touchpoints means that customers are sending clear signals about how to serve them better, and they’re asking companies to listen.
“Having a robust understanding of our guests and what drives them to stay with our franchisees is essential to our business,” said Lisa Checchio, chief marketing officer at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. “Through a complete 360-degree guest view, we can unlock insights that allow us to be timelier, more efficient, and more effective in our efforts to engage the everyday traveler.”
Connecting Travel Journeys With Seamless Self-Service
Travelers have said loud and clear that they want self-service options throughout their journey. The shift to contactless check-in, automated messaging, and self-service kiosks that began as the only means to stay open during the pandemic became a much wider breadth of choices for customers during their experiences.
According to the Skift and AWS survey, 43.3 percent said offering always-on, automated communications options, such as onsite kiosks, online chatbots, and around-the-clock contact centers was a key factor in offering better customer service to guests. Furthermore, travelers want flexibility to access customized booking options and self-service their own needs, which has now become a critical offering for travel and hospitality companies. Respondents said that flexible payment and reservation options, as well as contactless check-in and self-service kiosks, were also important digital initiatives that would drive the success of their efforts.
Automating Contact Channels to Make Agents More Available
By automating routine traveler requests, offering conversational AI chatbots, and making sure travelers know where to go when they have simple requests that can be easily answered without an agent, travel brands can significantly improve customer service and employee efficiency. That, in fact, gives them more leverage to provide personal touch and individualized service.
“Certain things should be automated, but certain other things should be sent directly to the agent for handling because it’s a more difficult use case and it’s going to be frustrating for the customer,” said Meg Swiatkowski, director of marketing, NLX.
Investing in Happier Employees to Improve the Guest Experience
Improving employee experiences has a direct impact on the customer. More than half of travel executives (52.7 percent) said that the most impactful digital strategy to help attract and retain employees would be investment in modernized employee software.
For example, “conversational AI is a win for the customer, the employees, and the company,” said NLX’s Swiatkowski. “The customer enjoys efficient and effective self-service for simple inquiries without ever being on hold. Because those simple inquiries are automated, agents handle more difficult customer inquiries that empower them to put on their problem-solver hats, and it makes their jobs more interesting and enjoyable.”
Partnering With Customers on Sustainability Efforts
The more that travel brands can invite their customers to participate alongside them and offer tangible benefits for doing so, the more successful their initiatives will be. This, in itself, is a transformative way of thinking.
“We need to know what’s going in the hotel in terms of energy, water… whatever it takes to have a global perspective and knowledge of what’s going on. At the same time, we want to communicate to the customer how this is evolving,” said Christian Palomino, vice president of global IT, Meliá Hotels International.
For more data and deeper insights on these subjects and more, please download “The 2022 Digital Transformation Report: Investing in the Traveler Experience of the Future.”