At the Travel Technology 2013 conference last week in London there was a wide variety of exhibitors and speakers – representing distributors, analysts, reservation and payment systems, consultants, marketing, social media and journalists. The themes discussed were ambitious enough to match the diversity of the audience – and the headline message of the conference was that the technological capabilities of the travel industry are fast outpacing the abilities of travel professionals to fully exploit them.
Dave O’Flanagan of Boxever explained how every sale nowadays is recorded digitally: Starbucks used to write your order on the side of the cup, but now the order is printed out on a digital receipt. What this effectively means is that the Clapham Junction branch of Starbucks has no more excuses for running out of mochas on a Tuesday afternoon – and nor do they have any excuse for marketing that mocha using methods or styles unsuitable for the demographic buying them.
Given that travel sales happen so overwhelmingly online, it is possible for travel vendor websites to gather even more data, even more intersecting variables. They can find out not only how many sales were made but how many browsed, and what patterns their browsing followed. We used to gather data on how many bookings were made for holidays in Greece – now we can analyse how many families with young children thought about going to Spain but eventually decided to book a trip to Greece.
The ability of the industry to segment, analyse and pitch to its customers grows ever more sophisticated, and in tandem, the demands of the customer grow ever more sophisticated. We already use our phones to book a train ticket or check in to a flight, Patrick Bosworth of Duetto pointed out, how long will it be before we can use our phone to check in at a hotel or even open the door of our designated room? For Kelly Lees of Gogobot (a social media site where a Facebook login allows you to see your friends’ travel recommendations), some day we may choose to log in to a flight with Facebook, and check whether we have mutual friends or interests with other passengers. These possibilities may seem thrilling or terrifying, but there is no doubt that technology is reinventing the travel industry at lightening pace.
In a world of infinite possibilities, however, certainties can turn into a needle in a haystack. The other major recurring theme of the conference was that the travel industry is gathering more data than it knows what to do with. As the global hum of mouse-clicking rises to a roar, they measure their data now not in gigabytes but in petabytes. To put this in context, the human’s brain’s capacity for memories is about 2.5 petabytes, all the experiments in the Large Hadron Collider produce about 15 petabytes of data per year. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petabyte).
The travel industry has so much data that ironically, it cannot transport it, it has to park it. Moreover, many companies are still sitting on goldmines of ‘little data’ accumulated through things like mailing lists or customer feedback that they still don’t know what to do with. This is their challenge right now: finding ways of analysing their data, turning it into insights that help them to connect ever more precisely with the customer.
Gathering data for its own sake is becoming more of a hindrance than a help to those seeking answers. Coming to full force now is the value of doing research sooner rather than later in the development process – if you ask the right questions, you have a much better chance of gathering the right answers. And ideally, a cleaner, more organised – and therefore more useable – set of answers.