How did you spend your summer? Over the past couple of months, as many have been enjoying the sun, sea and sand whilst managing the journey there and back again, at Travel Forward HQ we’ve been finalising our conference agenda, connecting with speakers and building out the programme. These two streams of activity are not unconnected: indeed, the former is what the conference is for.
Digital technologies have literally transformed the way we plan, book, then carry out our travelling experiences: from the moment the first online site displayed a photo of a destination (Expedia was launched by Microsoft in 1995), through to today’s ultra-mobile, socially fuelled world.
What’s more, they are not slowing down, as augmented reality, blockchain, machine learning and the rest hold great promise.
And yet, in the mist of the digital hurricane, it can be hard to hear the quiet signals. “You need AI/big-data/insert-latest-tech-here,” shouts an industry of technology vendors and service providers, all but drowning out the most important voice of all: the customer.
Even when this, nebulous personage is discussed, it can be couched in terms more appropriate for board rooms and consulting white papers, than have any resemblance to a tangible being.
Which is ironic. When we talk about travelling customers as entities rather than people, we lose touch with one fundamental element.
Remembering the most important thing
Not that travellers are people, which is of course true; but that travellers are us, each and every one. We all travel: we don’t need thought leaders or industry experts to tell us what our own needs are.
However, we do need to stop and think. As I’ve engaged with Travel Forward speakers, I have been reminded of something I heard on the radio a few years ago.
An eminent surgeon, who had spent decades treating others, suddenly found himself in the position of requiring surgery and so became a patient, spending some time in a hospital. Exactly what ailed him I cannot remember; but I do recall his epiphany.
“I had absolutely no idea what it was like,” he said, vowing to transform his bedside manner, and make sure others did the same.
Working in any industry, particularly one with as long a heritage as travel, it’s easy to forget what happens outside the corporate walls.
Corporate life is all about products and plans, progress meetings and politics, and in IT departments, data, infrastructure and services.
Add to that a heady mix of technological complexity, new and uncompromising competition, relentless change and ever-increasing pressure on the bottom line, and is it any wonder that we’re not spending enough time thinking about (equally complex and fast-moving) customer needs?
Unlike the surgeon however, we are all travel customers. As soon as we leave the office, we become the very people we are looking to satisfy: individually we may be unique, but we share overlapping expectations and values when it comes to how we want to get there and back again, and what we want to do along the way.
Case in point: we use services from the likes of Trainline and Booking.com not because we are trying to prove a point, but because they meet our needs better than the (traditional) alternative.
And, just as technology is not done, neither is innovation in the travel industry.
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We can continue to do things as they have always been done, at least for a while, or we can recognise that the travel industry is also on a journey.
Technology facilitates travel, and new opportunities emerge with every new tool that comes online. It’s never too late to start innovating, nor too early to start engaging in whichever new ways become possible.
Future success lies in understanding, and delivering on customer needs—our own needs—better than anyone else, rather than being world expert in some transient technology.
While certain new providers may appear to have certain parts of the market already sewn up, nobody yet has a monopoly on, or exclusive ownership of, what it means to be a traveller.
Which has to be good news.
About the author...
Jon Collins is content director at Travel Forward.