I recently represented Tnooz as a panelist at the Zino Society/Garvey Schubert BarerTNT Travel & Technology conference in sunny Seattle, Washington.
I was on the "Expert Technologists" panel with some of Seattle's local travel glitterati, most notably:
- Ike Anand, Sr. Director of Strategy & Business Development in Global Tour & Transport, Expedia
- Eric Bailey, Senior Travel Manager-Strategy & Technology, Microsoft
- Jeff Fox, Vice President Strategic Partnerships, Intelity
- Mike Kennedy, Vice President of Business Development, Sabre Hospitality
- Adam Luchsinger, Global Accounts Business Manager, Google
- Barry Padgett, Executive Vice President, Concur Technologies
- Conrad Saam, Director of Marketing, Urbanspoon
- Ken York, Chief Operating Officer, Ascension Software
Between our panel and the following "Expert Users" panel, there was plenty of discussion revolving around the role of technology, insofar as how it can aid identification of potential customers and be used to deliver what the consumer wants when they want it where they want it.
Technology as a means to an end or an end in and of itself was also an interesting corollary to this conversation. Is technology for technology's sake getting in the way of providing the best user experience, or is the technology not sophisticated enough to truly deliver the holy grail of a perfect trip every time?
The conversation meandered across many points of interest to those in creating technology solutions that address true customer need, and yet there were four key areas that stood out for me as topics simmering on the collective travel brain: personalization, interoperability, coopetition and trust.
Adam Luchsinger, Global Accounts Manager for Google, has the most to say about the idea of using personalization-via-technology to create the best user experience.
What is the consumer experience, and how can we take them from intent to action? Personalization is key for ease of use and providing the right answer at the right time.
Luchsinger also noted that this personalization also helps Google's bottom line, by providing a much more lucrative and targeted conversion opportunity.
The idea of personalization also came into play in the context of the empowerment of the consumer. Consumers can now "vote with their fingers" and tap away from a particular product very quickly if they aren't satisfied. The previously-opaque travel supply chain hasn't had to react to this until very recently, and is still struggling with a consumer armed with nearly as much information as the supplier.
The increased transparency of the supply chain also has the effect of burdening the consumer with far too many options, leading companies like Google to increased personalization to help consumers cut through the clutter and get the right travel product at the right price for them.
Security and privacy were robust corollaries to this personalization conversation, with many panelists warning that companies using personalization must also be extremely transparent about how data and habits are used to personalize results and recommendations.
An audience member asked about trust, pointing out that it was a topic that the panel hadn't addressed when it came to the role of trust in regards to technology.
Ike Anand from Expedia pointed out that trust is one of the key benefits of transparency. For example, by explaining why a particular property or price is shown to a consumer, Expedia can build "trust in transparency" so the consumer knows why they're seeing what they're seeing - and thus trust the brand.
Orbitz quickly came up in conversation, as an example of backlash from an opaque delivery of results - and how such opacity ultimately affects trust and potentially devalues a brand in the mind of a consumer.
Trust is also the holy grail for companies like Expedia and Urbanspoon that allow users to review products and services. The utility of such services are vastly improved by trust, and thus its imperative for all companies dealing directly with consumers to consider how trust plays into their product at all levels.
Scott Warner, the moderator from Garvey Schubert Barer, pointedly asked what it was going to take to get people to work together more directly: "With all the tension between partners, how is it possible for everyone to work together? Is it possible for partners to compete and collaborate at the same time?"
Answers were, not surprisingly, muted. Nonetheless, the word "coopetition" was brought up as a way to define the often-tenuous relationship between suppliers, OTAs, GDS, and other online travel aggregators.
Mike Kennedy from Sabre spoke of the hotelier as customer with the concept of "dial tone service," where hotels load their content in one place and it gets propagated out to their PMS, website and various partners at the same time. By providing consistency across platforms, users not only get a better experience but hoteliers can focus more on delivering great customer service that increases the bottom line and reduces price competition.
Harmonizing these relationships between segments is exactly how suppliers can compete on things besides price, and thus reduce commodification, protect margins and deflate some of the tension that appears to be growing between suppliers and aggregators.
My reporter push back was that the consumer is going to find the solution that works best for them - they will always find the path of least friction. The concept of coopetition inherently focuses on the companies need to protect and grow their business, rather than providing the best customer experience that then protects and grows the business.
This inherent tension - and the legacy systems that support a "circle the wagons" mentality - is stifling innovation and encourages companies to protect rather than grow. When asked what future technologies will impact travel, I suggested sacrilegiously, "Travel agents are the future."
Point being that if the larger travel companies don't catch up to the consumer, the consumer will have moved on to the solution - startup or otherwise - that most effectively delivers what they need. And if "coopetition" prevents some inventory from showing up in certain places, or delivers a clumsy experience, travel agents might just win out via their trusted perspectives, ease of use, elimination of pain, and re-injection of wonder into the travel planning process.
Open standards came up several times in the panel's discussion, especially during the coopetition discussion. By providing standards that every company can read, open standards encourage travel companies to work together in a less protective and more innovative manner. This increases consumer trust and also empowers companies to create solutions that solve problems without being limited to accessible APIs or funding for integrating and managing a dozen different proprietary systems.
With groups like Open Travel Alliance attempting to get companies to open up and play nice, there's definitely a sea change in progress. Nonetheless, more will need to be done on this front to truly live up to the consumer's expectation of a seamless cross-device (and even across brand and property) experience.