ChinaTravelNews, Ritesh Gupta - What all is needed to plan and to actually embark on a trip continues to be a big challenge for travellers.
The role of travel technology specialists, associated with airlines, hotels, car rental companies, offline agencies, OTAs etc., is of paramount importance. They all need to simplify and find ways to support travellers at all the stages of a trip.
“Everyone in the travel ecosystem needs to play a part,” asserted Chua Hui Wan, Head of Agency Sales for Asia Pacific, in an interview with ChinaTravelNews.com.
The industry needs to fill trust gaps. Travelport has highlighted that ‘having no hidden costs’ and ‘fully flexible or refundable products’ were the two most important factors in determining what made travellers trust airlines or agencies. The focus must be on eradicating hidden fees and work on aspects like clarity over pricing.
Also, with travel restrictions still quite fragmented and changing frequently, “we expect that this will continue to be a key concern for travellers into the near-future,” said Hui Wan.
“We expect that Chinese travellers will share similar concerns. As and when travel opens up, they will likely pick destinations that have been successful in managing the coronavirus and which have high vaccination rates, given China’s own success in keeping Covid cases low. With China’s achievement last month of vaccinating one billion people after an impressive acceleration over the last few months, recognition of Chinese-made vaccines will of course be key,” she said.
Role of technology and travel agencies
As countries open up for travellers in the Asia Pacific region, facilitators like Travelport are counting on technology to make it easier for their agency customers to access information in real-time.
“Our research has shown that 33% of travellers anticipate an increase in their use of travel agents, with the majority (65%) saying it’s because they feel travel agents are best placed to provide them with the latest travel safety information. With all the complex rules in place for each country, travellers are likely to lean on travel agencies as the experts, to make travel simple again,” said Hui Wan.
Referring to the role of technology in boosting confidence, she highlighted following points:
-Providing assurance around restrictions: According to Travelport, travellers believe agents are on top of the constantly-changing patchwork of travel restrictions. The company believes its tools give agents the assurance they need to advise their customers on the restrictions and precautions in place, wherever they’re traveling – all seamlessly integrated into their existing workflow.
-Handling uneven demand: “Every time a travel bubble is announced or restrictions lift in other countries, like clockwork we’ll see an immediate spike in travel interest and demand,” said Hui Wan. “For instance, when Australia announced in October that the country would lift its 18-month ban on Australians travelling abroad, we saw a quadrupling of booking (vs the two-month rolling average) instantly. China was among the top-searched destinations, in addition to others like the US, UK, India and Singapore.”
“Similarly, in early October when Zhong Nanshan, one of China’s top epidemiologists and government advisers, suggested that border restrictions might begin to be eased once vaccination rates hit 80-85%, we saw an immediate 25-26% uplift in shopping and booking demand (vs the 2-month rolling average) for travelers into China with Japan, South Korea and Macau the top origin countries,” said Hui Wan.
She mentioned that travel companies will have to be able to scale up and handle that influx of data, search requests, bookings and transactions. “That’s one of the reasons why we recently partnered with Amazon Web Services – enabling us to easily scale up processing capacity as and when we need it, without compromising performance,” explained Hui Wan.
-Stimulating demand: Conversely, there’s also a demand stimulation aspect. As Hui Wan pointed out, there are also many who are still apprehensive about traveling in the current climate – they may have concerns over the safety measures in place when they get on a plane; or they may worry about getting a refund for their ticket if the situation changes; or even whether they can find a travel route to where they want to go.
“We are enabling the retailing tools that both corporate and leisure agencies need to stimulate demand, match travel products with those that are looking. That process starts with getting the right travel content on the shelf. Then, there are some markets where leisure has returned to 2019 levels, but that isn’t global. There are very few places where business travel has recovered. So, we want to help agencies help travellers get back to traveling, leveraging the tools to match supply and demand, while we help them with their efficiencies,” she said.
-Increasing efficiency: Many agencies may find themselves doing more, but with fewer people.
Technology is letting agencies remove manual processes. For instance, allowing online agencies to provide “self-service”, kiosk-style ticket exchange capabilities to their travellers, helping off-load call centres.
In terms of capturing the demand for travel the Chinese domestic market, Travelport has supported the same via API connections and data-driven insights.
“We started working with a number of Shanghai-based hotel-focused travel agencies earlier this year. They’ve been capitalizing on the strong demand for hotels driven by domestic tourism, which has exceeded 2019 levels. The majority of these bookings have been captured via their mini-app on WeChat, enabled by the new and enhanced Travelport APIs we launched a few months ago,” said Hui Wan.
She shared that these JSON APIs are functional and lightweight, driving up to 68% faster average transactions and a faster shopping and booking experience for travellers. They also have capabilities like streamed, cached content, speeding up the delivery of marketplace pricing and giving retailers the ability to inspire customers with highly relevant travel offers.
Handling personal health data
A critical point that is being looked into is the willingness of travellers to share their personal and health data, and how to handle the same.
“While travelers are understandably being asked to share more personal and health data in managing Covid-related risk, developing a solution which works seamlessly across borders and travel providers has been challenging because the participants in the value chain are as diverse as they are unified by a common purpose. Furthermore, the touchpoints along that chain are as geographically dispersed as they are inextricably interconnected,” acknowledged Hui Wan.
Another concern is related to managing of COVID-19 vaccine passports. “Naturally, emphasizing data privacy and security will be crucial to building trust, and maintaining travellers’ openness to sharing their personal and health data that is normally kept private,” she said. Hui Wan added that the industry should provide travelers with effective control over their data – for example: requests for permission should be made in the form of simple ‘yes/no’ questions; making use of cryptography to protect personal data etc.
Facilitating the sharing of health data is also key. Considering that travellers are being asked for the same set of data at just about every touchpoint in a journey, a public-private collaboration, to building a framework for interoperability that will facilitate “secure” sharing of health data would be helpful.
Historically, the travel industry has not kept up with the evolution of modern digital retailing, which has made buying and selling travel more complex than it needs to be.
But certain Chinese players have been proactive.
In China, Travelport has been working with Tongcheng-Elong on a trial of their new modern and lightweight API.
While Travelport already powers Tongcheng-Elong’s shopping and booking engine, this trial will enable them to access NDC functionalities, including the NDC content from the multiple airlines. Tongcheng-Elong is strengthening its merchandizing capabilities by focusing on personalized and dynamic offers. All of this can be integrated into the different channels and devices Tongcheng-Elong’s customers use, including its mobile client and Wechat mini-program, mentioned Hui Wan.
Overall, Travelport is looking at its role in fuelling the recovery, and this isn’t without understanding the expectations of the traveller or the role of business entities Travelport works with.