Brick-and-mortar stores are dead. Everyone will be online all the time.
These are two assumptions that I cannot agree with, particularly if we take a look at the world of retailing.
Amazon, the world’s largest e-commerce and cloud computing platform, is choosing to expand its traditional, physical retail storefronts, promising to create what will be an all-new shopping experience. Chinese e-commerce darling Alibaba is harnessing the power of cloud commerce, digital shopping applications, and location data analytics to innovate the offline shopping experience in its 65 Hema Supermarkets.
So what is going on? Do consumers want to shop offline or online?
I think Chris Walton puts it perfectly when he says we’re seeing the rise of “New Retail” – the personalised physical space, where shopping is no longer the same as buying, and no two consumer experiences are the same. What Alibaba and Amazon are telling their customers is this: “actually you can have whatever you want, however you want, and wherever you want, regardless of whether you are physically within a store or not”.
This is the future and the opportunity for retail travel agencies. Historically, as an industry, we’ve always thought about how we book. Then came the internet and digitisation, and we said let’s add on how we search. Now, the question for travel agents is how do we inspire. You might be thinking how you can generate traffic to your stores, through your website, and to your call centres. That’s the business question, but what needs to happen to generate that traffic is the inspiration.
I don’t believe the traditional travel agent business model is dead, as such. However, travel agents will need to embrace disruption to safeguard their services and value. The challenge for travel agents is that travellers, in particular, the millennial generation, are not relying on retail stores to plan their next vacation. They’re using a combination of OTAs, publishers, social media and referrals to drive their purchase decision.
Today, travel agents know that to compete with the digitisation of consumer and corporate travel, they need to evolve the technology they use. The entire retail travel agency business model has been about the human touch – now it’s about combining the physical, digital and human. They need some form of human interaction, but they also need to be omnichannel – working across multiple channels, online, mobile and brick-and-mortar.
How then, do retail travel agencies inspire their travellers? And what are the tools they need? To become true designers of the future travel experience, travel agents need to harness the power of three.
Travellers want transparency and choice, and they want it last minute. Travellers will look to travel agents for trip planning, not product selling – they will demand more travel content and trip information such as routing, restaurant bookings and sight-seeing recommendations. To deliver this, travel agents will need to have a far more comprehensive source of content than they’ve ever had before.
The implementation of 5G, 6G high-speed networks will see the ubiquity of travel content. More video than text is expected. But this content is also becoming more fragmented; the myriad of pricing options, fare types, loyalty programs and multiple middlemen does not allow for an easy shopping process, even for a sophisticated online shopper.
Travel agents will need to customise how this content – airline, hotel, alternative lodging, and ground transport – is being managed for their customers, like sharing travel options through interactive screens that allow customers the flexibility to choose what they want and leave the fulfilment to the agency.
Travel agents need to embrace predictive technology to deliver personalised services. A family planning a vacation needs to be treated differently to an individual travelling to attend a wedding. The development of deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, brings new opportunities for applications in the travel industry; from inspiration of where to go to automation of reservations.
Machine learning can build a highly-personalised experience for travellers, based on their previous travel experiences and preferences. In some cases, machine learning could be aided with voice and natural language processing. Travellers will want to be able to tell their application or computer what to do. Travel agents that devise the most efficient way of selling high-value and high-engagement products via voice will be the future.
We’re beginning to see the application of Internet of Things (IoT) in streamlining the operations of the hotels, airlines and other travel organisations by connecting complex systems and processes to smart devices, to create a seamless end customer experience. This is just the tip of the iceberg; the design of 5G networks will see mass scale connectivity, everything from smart door sensors to fully intelligent homes, security services and monitoring services.
For travel agents, IoT has the potential to address customer pain points and create unprecedented opportunities to capture new revenues and drive productivity. The beauty of IoT is context and the way that data and sensors can work together to deliver relevant information at just the right time. For instance, location-based information for a traveller looking for the best takeout restaurant nearby with the best customer reviews.
Popular opinion suggests the demise of the retail travel agency business model. However, I prefer to see it as the evolution of the agency experience, similar to that seen in the retail industry. Agents of today need to be on the journey with the customer– from inspiration, to during the trip, and even after it’s over. It’s about designing a customer experience that is collaborative and creative.
We travel to be amazed, and retail travel agencies play a significant part in that amazement.
Champa Magesh is the Vice President for Asia Pacific Retail Travel Channels at Amadeus