It’s not every day that you’re given the chance to listen to travel leaders give insights on the current and future state of the industry. I was given this opportunity at Skift Tech Forum 2019 in San Francisco. Skift, a global travel industry intelligence provider and research company, has put on several events globally this year.  The event in SF was focused on technology in the travel sector and drew professionals from all parts of the industry: hospitality, aviation, eCommerce, distribution, customer experience, payments, and more.  The program itself featured moderated conversations with several C-level executives, travel professionals, and technology company founders.

Here are 4 trends I surfaced from the two-day event:

1. Convergence is real

Competition in the industry is only increasing. Smaller niche players are offering unique products and services that fill small holes in the market.  From a M&A perspective, this creates an opportunity for companies to position themselves to be acquired from some of the giants.  You’ve seen this with the likes of Marriott engulfing SPG, Alaska taking over Virgin, and Accor and FRHI.

From a strategy perspective, understanding the guest journey is becoming an integral part of travel brands’ success.  Creating an omni-channel strategy, across every touchpoint, is what will lead to success.  At the event last week, Marriott Global Chief Commercial Officer Stephanie Linnartz said, “We want to be involved in the travel journey beyond the four walls of the hotel. That’s what we’re trying to do.” This is evidenced by their entry into the home-sharing segment, mature UGC strategy, and acquisition of other brands.  Airbnb's 'Experience' component is another good example of convergence between accomodation and travel activities. They also recently announced a luxury segment of homestays, called Airbnb Luxe.

"From a strategy perspective, understanding the guest journey is becoming an integral part of travel brands’ success."

Lastly, when talking about technology, it’s important that brands are thinking about their tech stack without borders. No technology, especially smaller vendors, should create a data silo. Having open integration capabilities enhances the marketability of the tech, as well as the “stickiness” and enterprise-level business value. From a consumer’s point of view, this also creates less friction. Google is doing this very well, as their travel platform is making leaps and bounds, taking the share away from other online travel tools. When you think about it, it makes sense. We use Google for everything else – why not use it to book travel too?

2. Technology is a means to good CX

Good customer experience is a result of a personalized guest services strategy. When your needs are anticipated and your preferences are remembered, the experience feels customized, leading to a sensory response, trust and ultimately loyalty, which is the gold mine for most brands.

Doing this at scale is not only challenging, but also expensive. Having an abundance of staff on hand is costly and the breakdown in communication between staff members could unintentionally produce the opposite effect on the guest’s experience. This is where technology steps in. John Padgett, Chief Experience and Innovation Officer at Carnival Corporation, shared their technology strategy for a subset of their ships. They extensively leverage IoT (Internet of Things) and a homegrown system to learn in-depth details about their guests, including preferences, spatial behavior, and basic demographics. This involves a wearable medallion, which is worn by an astonishing 99.3% of cruise-goers. 

Once the technology has been implemented, it is the responsibility of the staff to operationalize the data for an enhanced customer experience. Jessie Burgess, CIO at G6 Hospitality, says it best, “Taking the mindset of technology being used to enhance human interaction… that’s the business we’re in, in hospitality. It’s still about people, it’s still about welcoming, it’s still about connecting with people.” Consumers remember face-to-face interactions and friendly people, so using technology to foster this human-to-human connection is a strategy worth investing in.

3. Put the customer at the center of what you do 

Many corporations, in travel and not, are moving toward customer centricity. You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how many companies put shareholders, executives, brand, and the bottom line ahead of their customers. The charge is being led by the likes of Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Costco, Disney, and Ritz-Carlton, who all have customer-first strategies written in their mission statements and company visions.

Viewing customer experience through this lens can elevate the game to new heights. Carnival is doing this, as they have in-depth “experience intelligence” to provide their guests with best-in-class entertainment, dining, accommodation, and various other options. They build their strategy putting the customer at the center, asking “what technologies, services, and strategies can we implement to make the experience great?” The alternative is “how can this technology, service, or strategy make the experience great?” Small difference with major implications.

4. Customers will give you data, but you need to make it worth it 

We’ve all heard it – GDPR, Cambridge Analytica, data privacy, consumer privacy, it goes on and on. This is all extremely important stuff, as it can dictate the longevity and trustworthiness of your company if not followed to the strictness standards.

Some may view these regulations as a stroke of bad luck or a hindrance. When you look at it from a different viewpoint, this is a major opportunity for brands to elevate customer experience. You’re probably scratching your head right now, so allow me to explain: 

Customers are willing to give up their data, but you need to make it worth their while. Simply collecting an email address and blasting a generic marketing message is not the answer. Gathering rich data and segmenting your audiences, which produces the baseline for personalization at scale, is the answer. The more you know about your customer, the better you can make their experience and the more targeted your marketing efforts can become. It’s important to recognize the new reality – customer data and consent is not a given. Having your cake and eating it too is a thing of the past. It’s time to give your customers and prospects what they deserve, and fortunately for you, positive business outcomes are a nice side effect.