Travel industry set to mine big data
Can the ideal holiday be created by a database? Every time you book a flight online, review a hotel, or use an ATM, you're leaving a digital footprint. That's potential gold dust to a travel industry on the cusp of using big data to create personalised and intuitive itineraries that react to live events.
"Imagine being able to plan and search for travel door to door, with data such as how busy the airport is and the weather factored into that planning process," says Thomas Davenport, professor in analytics at Harvard Business School and author of a new report called "Big Data in the Travel Industry".
That scenario could be five years away, but such ideas are already taking flight. British Airways has a Know Me programme that gives flight attendants access to Google Images of passengers, plus their flying history and preferences.
Travel search site Kayak offers a predictive view of the change in the price of a flight over a seven-day window, while Hipmunk ranks flight search results in an "agony index", and hotels in an "ecstasy index".
"For flights, the system is able to look at new criteria such as stopovers needed, how frequently the flight is late, and so on, to predict how much agony you might need to endure," Davenport says.
Travel technology group Amadeus - which processes about a third of all global travel transactions and commissioned the report - now offers "extreme search", which replaces the traditional reliance on origin and destination, adding factors such as average temperature at the time of the planned trip.
Tell the website that you'd like to go somewhere in August where the temperature is over 30 degrees Celsius, that has golf courses, and it can find you options and remember your preferences for next time.
The system is already being used by Brazilian airline TAM, which gets a tenth of its bookings this way.
"It's really the dramatic rise of data generated online in web clicks or social media sites, and the information from an ever larger number of sensors connected to the internet that has accelerated things rapidly," Davenport says.
The trend towards using big data in the travel industry could dovetail with the development of the so-called Internet of Things, where all devices, gadgets and systems will communicate with each other.
But not everyone thinks that big data is the way forward.
"The ubiquitous 'inspire me' button on so many websites means that operators can influence travellers and manipulate them much more easily," says Christina Carr, director at Norman Carr Safaris in Zambia's Luangwa Valley.
Carr thinks that, although convenient and time-saving, the big data approach risks commoditising travel and removing original thought and innovation.
"The experience is the essence of what we do, and this is hard to quantify or package," she says.
Carr prefers to spend time and resources visiting travel agents and tour operators. She invites them to visit the safari camps, to encourage word of mouth and personal recommendations.
"There is no technology that can deliver the primeval shiver that goes down one's spine when face to face with a lion on a walking safari," she says.
Fear, surprise and danger are unlikely to be on anyone's website wish list. But that's often the stuff of our favourite holiday memories.