BANGKOK, Thailand - The pace of innovation across every industry and every company, both in Thailand and globally, is astounding today - from natural language processing and data sciences to artificial intelligence and virtual reality. How exactly these mega trends are going to affect our industry, and hoteliers specifically, remains to be seen, but we do know that tomorrow will look very different from today.
The world is a lot flatter as a result of consumers' undying thirst for adventure. Combine that enthusiasm for travel with more disposable income, more information about the wealth of culture and experiences that await them and a smart phone with which to book a trip, display a boarding pass or check into a hotel room, and you have an almost combustible recipe for growth and innovation. The Tourism Authority of Thailand's figures show an additional 2.6 million people traveling to Thailand in 20161, while Expedia Group's data showed international travelers to the Kingdom explored new destinations such as Lipe, Rayong, and Trat, with demand to these locales having grown over 60%2 last year compared to the year before.
"We're fascinated by this, and work daily to understand, harness and apply the technology that will provide the best consumer travel experience and create the best business opportunities for hoteliers. In turn, consumer experience should dictate and drive hotels offerings – so hoteliers can give their guests relevant, timely, and tech-forward experiences", said Arthur Chapin, SVP - Global Product and Design, Expedia Group.
"It is not a question of whether the travel industry grows, but rather how emerging technologies and platforms will shape that growth – from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to chat bots and completely self-managed mobile check-ins. This is critical, and something that we are already building for and strategizing around", continued Chapin
Since travel is visual and experiential by nature, augmented and virtual reality are a natural fit. Layering historical knowledge into travel destinations and landmarks, or bringing travel experiences to those who can't travel, maps to the very nature of travel – curiosity and personal growth. Imagine if hotels started offering guided local walking tours or 360-degree virtual hotel and room walkthroughs, as part of their app experience.
Personalization and simplicity are core consumer demands today. As a service-oriented industry, we need to meet this need. From increasing the efficiency of natural language processing for real-time chat bots to voice computation with Amazon Echo and Siri, hotels need to get smarter about how technology interacts with consumers – to give them that personalized, instantaneous and satisfying interaction.
The sharing economy is a very real phenomenon that is changing how people travel – and will continue to grow and evolve. "What we are seeing at Expedia, with insights into both hotel and HomeAway bookings, is that consumers will jump between traditional accommodations and vacation rentals. For business trips and quick weekend getaways, hotels remain the preferred choice. But for extended and family stays, the multi-room, multi-bathroom and kitchen functionality of vacation rentals is unmatched", highlighted Chapin.
And it's not just home sharing that's driving, it's services like Foodpanda and Uber Eats, which will deliver food from almost anywhere, directly to a guest's hotel room. The good news is that hotels are already finding new ways to stand out and monetize the sharing economy – from offering food and beverage and key pick-up for guests of nearby vacation rentals, to shared work space and rooms that can easily accommodate meetings.
Mobile continues to grow, and this share will likely continue to grow in the coming years. Mobile is not only a platform where people browse for offers; more and more, the mobile experience is the preferred customer experience, per a study conducted in late 2016 by Expedia Media Solutions and comScore. People now want to be decoupled from devices and just consider an interaction with a travel brand, similar to a conversation with a friend they can start and stop at any time, independent of the device.
By allowing real-time conversations with hotels via mobile, through natural language growth and chat bots, consumers may have a better user experience and hoteliers will continue to make themselves accessible to consumers in new formats and platforms. Travel starts at the dream, and ends at the destination – and every point of the journey, from research to planning to booking, should be a positive and seamless experience.
Chapin shared, "To us, it's not big data – it's just data. It is big by nature. Today, we have servers handling 50 petabytes (50 million gigabytes!) of data – and absorbing 8.6 billion air searches per year. How and why consumers dream about, research, and purchase travel, is critically important to us, and we dive in deep to understand the behavior and share our insights with our hotel partners to deliver best-in-class travel experiences."
Expedia Group conducts around 120 test-and-learns every month. When they see emerging trends, they study, learn, and apply those learnings to product and functionality tests designed to make life easier for their customers and consumers. Recent test and learns have resulted in Vacations by Marriott visitors now being able to directly book packages that include hotel rooms and flights from Expedia's 475+ airline partners; and all Expedia partners now having access to a chat bot that allows them to have real-time communication with their customers 24/7.
"The holistic view is that the travel experience really exists from dream to destination, and we need to provide an amazing experience at every point of the customer journey. Only technology can do this, and do this well.
As a technology-first company, we find the rapid pace of technology development and adoption fascinating – and we plan to be there, at the forefront, to understand, adopt, and offer the most consumer- and partner-forward technologies that will continue to bring the industry forward", concluded Chapin.
1Source: Department of Tourism, International Tourist Arrivals to Thailand in 2016 (By Nationality and By Country of Residence)
2Based on Expedia group internal data 2016