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Technology can make or break the entire traveller experience says Abacus International

Date: Tue, 06/23/2009 - 19:49
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Although today’s traveller faces many new stresses such as security and health screening, the situation would be worse without the helping hand of new travel technologies to smooth the way from end-to-end says Abacus International.

Robert Bailey, President and CEO of Abacus, Asia’s leading travel facilitator says that the travel agencies, airlines, and hotels who deploy these new technologies to deliver smoother, more memorable customer experiences will be winners in the emerging Travel 3.0 landscape.

“Nothing can match the experience provided by well-trained travel agents, hotel and airline staff supported by a backbone of trusted technology to attend to customers, who are themselves also turning to new a new generation of tools in all stages of their journeys,” Mr Bailey added.

For many travellers the first step of every journey is the one towards the keyboard to research the travel options according to Mr Bailey. “Today’s economic environment has prompted leisure travellers to search harder for the lowest prices to trim travel costs. Corporate travellers are also constantly sourcing for best fares as they come under pressure from management to trim expenditure,” Mr Bailey says.

Unfortunately, while online travel sites have proliferated, finding the right information from reliable sources can still be a tedious process, particularly if the customer is not travelling point-to-point or is searching for domestic flights, which can still be difficult in some countries.

According to a recent Microsoft survey, 52 percent of potential travellers search three or more sites before booking their airfare, 42 percent of travellers spend between one and four weeks weighing their travel options, while 17 percent spend more than one month.

Looking at the quality of online experience for travel buyers, a different survey by Frommers Unlimited found half of all those surveyed struggled with poorly constructed, confusing and inaccurate travel websites. 50 per cent of those surveyed were dissatisfied with content, lamenting insufficient information about the destination, hotel, cruise, airline or ferry companies. Respondents claimed information was hard to find on many sites and they were frustrated by sites that did not respond to email enquiries or did not allow online booking.

“To really improve the pre-trip experience for online travel buyers, websites should include pictures of accommodation and facilities, adequate descriptions of the destination, images and maps,” said Brett Henry, Vice President Marketing, Abacus International, referring to the two-thirds of those surveyed who wanted these elements available on booking websites.

For the traditional ‘bricks only’ travel agency there is plenty of reason to go online. Recent research commissioned by NCR found that 82 percent of consumers are more likely to use a travel company that provides online, mobile and self-service kiosk solutions over a company that does not[3]. Consumers want to book, amend and confirm their travel plans when and where it suits them at any point on their journey. For traditional travel agencies wishing to meet these needs it can be confusing to sort through the competing claims of the many ‘off-the-shelf’ website services now proliferating in Asia.

Applying its own 21 years of industry experience in the Asian region, Abacus has developed its own suite of solutions; Abacus WebCreate and Abacus WebStart, to let traditional agencies capture and express the essence of their business online, ready to go with a booking engine.

For information on less common destinations, the travel agency is still one of the best resources. Travel agencies which have invested in industry fare systems such as Abacus SmartPrice or Abacus FareX, can instantly call up the guaranteed lowest applicable fare. With this information at their fingertips, travel agents can remove a lot of unnecessary delay and uncertainty from the pre-trip experience.

In an information age, travellers are asked to complete many tasks before the trip even starts and those who find themselves at the check-in counter without a valid passport or the right visa can find their plans falling apart.

“The last thing travellers need during this busy pre-trip period is their travel agent badgering them for core information such as passport number, birth date, address, credit card number and other details. Being asked to repeat this information to various agents, adds insult to injury,” Mr Henry said. “This is not just an issue of poor service resulting in poor customer experience. In the current security-conscious environment, it also raises concerns over the number of people in an agency with access to your sensitive information and how this is safeguarded,” said Mr Henry.

A professional customer relations management (CRM) tool can help agencies consolidate client information into a single, secure database, doing away for the need to trouble travellers with repeated information requests. It can also allow the agency to control access to the data, update changes in the traveller’s information and quickly contact next-of-kin in an emergency situation.

Leading CRM systems such as Abacus ClientBase serve up the pertinent facts to support the sales and fulfilment process, sparing agents the labourious task of manually re-keying in data, which can introduce mistakes and ruin the travel experience through bungled travel arrangements.

“After taking care of the fundamentals through a good CRM system, agents can then offer value-added services such as reminding clients to renew passports, communicating their choices to travel suppliers and helping them to apply for travel documents such as visas,” Mr Henry said.

Among the worst experiences for any traveller are missed or delayed flights and lost luggage. Fortunately a number of technological solutions are just around the corner. A new generation of mobile solutions can now send alerts for flight cancellations, delays or changes of gate or terminal to travellers on their internet-enabled mobile devices.

“With solutions such as Abacus VirtuallyThere, agents can even send itineraries and e-tickets to their client’s mobile phones. This is sent complete with travel agency branding, allowing agents to have a visible presence with the customer and virtually be there with them on the journey,” Mr Henry said.

Even the boarding experience is getting a makeover. Some airlines, such as Dragonair now allow travellers to check-in using barcodes saved on their mobile devices. Scanners at security checkpoints and the gate read the barcode when a passenger boards, providing a smoother experience. In May last year, Copenhagen Airport tested a new RFID (radio frequency identification) application called “Gatecaller”. It aims to reduce the number of delayed flights caused by passengers who board late and minimise the disruption and anxiety this causes for other passengers.

25 RFID readers were installed in the airport terminal to pinpoint the whereabouts of passengers, enabling airport personnel to SMS them a boarding prompt. Marketing manager, Mr Henrik Bjorner Soe, said the technology eliminated around 300 announcements a day over the loudspeaker, reducing noise levels and “making the airport a calmer place to be.”

NCR research suggests global travellers have a growing appetite for conducting travel transactions on their mobile devices. One-third of consumers said it would be convenient to receive their boarding pass by text for flight check-in and one in five consumers said it would be convenient to use mobile phones when they are already on the way to the airport terminal or have arrived on site to buy flight extras such as upgrades, seat changes and meals.

Lost luggage is a headache travellers could do without and technology is finally starting to make some inroads into this persistent problem. According to SITA, passengers rank check-in baggage arriving on time as second in importance for a pleasant journey after the flight arriving on time.

The number of checked bags that were late, sent to the wrong place, damaged or lost entirely fell by 23% in 2008 to 32.8 million from 42.4 million a year earlier according to SITA. This decline, the first since the group began publishing an annual luggage report in 2005 was partly due to updated technology for tracking luggage.

Baggage-handling solutions include RFID, or radio frequency identification, which reads tags on the luggage, helping automate the process. According to SITA, 11 percent of airlines now use the technology, an increase from 2 percent in 2007 and some airports such as Hong Kong International, have tested RFID to track, sort and load bags more accurately and quickly than traditional barcode tags.

When things do go awry, things are looking up for the traveller with the advent of SITA’s WorldTracer kiosk which allows passengers to check on the status of their delayed bags over the web and to file ‘missing bag’ reports without having to queue and talk to an agent.

“Using these kiosks, passengers can scan their bag tags and enter their contact details. They can then generate a claim and continue their journey without having to queue at a service counter,” said Catherine Mayer, Vice President SITA Airport Solutions. “The WorldTracer application will provide them with instant feedback on the status of their bags, 99.9 percent of which are successfully traced and reunited with their owners within 48 hours or less,” Ms Mayer said.

Host cities and countries can do a lot to make life easier for today’s ‘tech-connected’ traveller. In Singapore, the Infocomm Development Authority has supported the trial of a ‘Digital Concierge’ service that delivers content and services to visitors on their mobile device, the internet and interactive television.

Feeling secure is also important for travellers. When business travellers need to visit countries where some form of danger exists, not all other companies have been able to keep track of their employees’ movements overseas as well as they like.

Traditional manual methods can take some time to find travelling employees in a particular country when terrorists or natural disaster strikes. However a new generation of tools such as Abacus TravelIntelligence, allow travel agencies and corporations to quickly locate their corporate travellers providing an instant graphic display of the whereabouts of business travellers.

Technology alone is not enough. Travel agents must also have a presence of mind and make a conscientious effort to go the extra mile for their customers. In light of the concerns about the H1N1 virus, Singapore’s Prime Travel & Tour subscribed to Channel News Asia’s news alert and international risk and crisis management systems to receive up-to-date reports on the virus to better advise their corporate travellers. They were then able to quickly locate travellers on the affected flights even before the airline broke the news.

“As you can imagine, being potentially exposed to the H1N1 virus is stressful for the traveller. By taking a proactive approach with the help of Abacus TravelIntelligence we could at least provide our customers with the information to do the right thing. In situations like this the technology could be a potential life saver for our clients,” said Ben Chee, Implant Manager of Prime Travel & Tour.

Smart agents, hoteliers and other tourism players know how to extend the positive experience travellers even after their trips are over. Anything from a simple ‘welcome back’ phone call, to a hotel email informing them of upcoming promotions or special privileges for returning guests, can extend the customer experience. Actively seeking feedback from clients is also important. “Most clients respond well when properly approached and many welcome the opportunity to share their thoughts. Post-trip surveys are a great way to gather insights for future business and product development,” Mr Henry added.

Wilderness Travel, a specialist travel agent in Berkeley, California in the United States offering cultural, wildlife and hiking adventures around the world, surveys clients after each journey. The data helps them evaluate their products and services. Guest comments are featured in the testimonial section of their website, helping to provide independent, third party endorsements.

Finally, this kind of feedback offers a glimpse into customer preferences and behaviour which could be used to expand or update the customers profile in the agency’s CRM solution. By doing this, agencies can foster better relationships with their customers and deliver better services leading to repeat business and referrals.

“Today’s travellers face a number of stresses that were not on the radar a decade ago, so it’s vital to harness all the available technology to create an optimal experience. In the future, skilled travel professionals making the best use of technology will ‘make or break’ the journey and determine whether it lives up to the original dream depicted on that glossy travel website,” said Abacus International President and CEO, Robert Bailey.

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