Bangkok Post

Technology and travel hoisting Thailand’s sharing economy

It’s not a question of whether the travel industry grows, but technology will shape that growth, says online travel company

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 1:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 1:15pm

The pace of innovation across every industry and every company, both in Thailand and globally, is astounding — from natural language processing and data sciences to artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

How exactly these megatrends are going to affect the tourism industry, especially hoteliers, remains to be seen, but we do know that tomorrow will look very different from today.

The world is a lot flatter as a result of consumers’ undying thirst for adventure. Combine that enthusiasm for travel with more disposable income, more information about the wealth of culture and experiences that await them, and a smartphone with which to book a trip, display a boarding pass or check into a hotel room, and you have an almost combustible recipe for growth and innovation.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand’s figures showed an additional 2.6 million people travelling to Thailand in 2016, while Expedia Group data revealed that international travellers to the country explored new destinations such as Lipe, Rayong and Trat, with demand for these locales growing more than 60 per cent year-on-year.

“We’re fascinated by this, and work daily to understand, harness and apply the technology that will provide the best consumer travel experience and create the best business opportunities for hoteliers,” said Arthur Chapin, senior vice-president for global product and design at Expedia Group. “In turn, consumer experience should dictate and drive hotels offerings — so hoteliers can give their guests relevant, timely, and tech-forward experiences.

“It is not a question of whether the travel industry grows, but rather how emerging technologies and platforms will shape that growth — from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to chat bots and completely self-managed mobile check-ins. This is critical, and something that we are already building for and strategising around.”

Since travel is visual and experiential by nature, augmented and virtual reality are a natural fit. Layering historical knowledge into travel destinations and landmarks, or bringing travel experiences to those who can’t travel, maps to the very nature of travel — curiosity and personal growth. Imagine if hotels started offering guided local walking tours or 360-degree virtual hotel and room tours as part of their app experience.

Personalisation and simplicity are core consumer demands today. From increasing the efficiency of natural language processing for real-time chat bots to voice computation with Amazon Echo and Siri, hotels need to get smarter about how technology interacts with consumers — to give them that personalised, instantaneous and satisfying interaction.

The sharing economy is a very real phenomenon that is changing how people travel — and will continue to grow and evolve.

For business trips and quick weekend getaways, hotels remain the preferred choice. But for extended and family stays, the multi-room, multi-bathroom and kitchen functionality of vacation rentals is unmatched, he highlighted.

It’s not just home sharing that’s driving, it’s services like Foodpanda and Uber Eats, which will deliver food from almost anywhere, directly to a guest’s hotel room.

The good news is that hotels are already finding new ways to stand out and monetise the sharing economy — from offering food and beverage and key pickup for guests of nearby vacation rentals, to shared work space and rooms that can easily accommodate meetings.

Mobile continues to grow, and this share will likely continue to grow in the coming years. Mobile is not only a platform where people browse for offers; more and more, the mobile experience is the preferred customer experience, per a study conducted in late 2016 by Expedia Media Solutions and comScore. People now want to be decoupled from devices and just consider an interaction with a travel brand, similar to a conversation with a friend they can start and stop at any time, independent of the device.

By allowing real-time conversations with hotels via mobile, through natural language growth and chat bots, consumers may have a better user experience and hoteliers will continue to make themselves accessible to consumers in new formats and platforms. Travel starts at the dream, and ends at the destination — and every point of the journey, from research to planning to booking, should be a positive and seamless experience.

“To us, it’s not big data — it’s just data,” Mr Chapin said. “It is big by nature. Today, we have servers handling 50 petabytes (50 million gigabytes!) of data — and absorbing 8.6 billion air searches per year. How and why consumers dream about, research, and purchase travel, is critically important to us, and we dive in deep to understand the behaviour and share our insights with our hotel partners to deliver the best in-class travel experiences.”

Expedia Group conducts around 120 test-and-learns every month.

When they see emerging trends, they study, learn, and apply the knowledge learned to product and functionality tests designed to make life easier for their customers and consumers.

Recent test and learns have resulted in Vacations by Marriott visitors now being able to directly book packages that include hotel rooms and flights from Expedia’s 475-plus airline partners; and all Expedia partners now having access to a chat bot that allows them to have real-time communication with their customers 24/7.

“The holistic view is that the travel experience really exists from dream to destination, and we need to provide an amazing experience at every point of the customer journey,” Mr Chapin said. “Only technology can do this, and do this well.

“As a technology-first company, we find the rapid pace of technology development and adoption fascinating — and we plan to be there, at the forefront, to understand, adopt, and offer the most consumer- and partner-forward technologies that will continue to bring the industry forward.”

Technology and travel hoisting the sharing economy