Compare and Contrast

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There is some interesting commentary within the travel industry this week.  Only a couple of weeks ago did the ABTA conference focus a lot of time on personalisation, data and technology.  Yet, the The Travel Network Group conference (TTNG) championed the value of human to human interaction.  Now, I did not attend the TTNG conference so my interpretation is from various press reports.

Indeed, Travolution is running a report regards a session from speaker Clare Rayner at the TTNG conference citing that price comparison sites are ‘dying’.  Really?  which ones?  The argument seems to be based on a hypothesis that customers are tired of comparing prices.  I have to disagree.   Customers always compare prices, its just that they compare other components too.  The problem with price comparison sites is just that, they’re price comparison.  I believe the next move will be into value comparison as customers do compare many factors, as well as price.  I am sure we’ll see customer service ratings, value ratings etc in the not too distant future.

Back to human (travel agents) vs tech, its very clear to me that both technology and travel agents will work hand in hand.  Any tech co that believes everything can be automated is brave.  Any travel agent which believes they can trade without technology is equally as brave.  It’s no co-incidence large on line travel agents have off line call centres.  Even the on line agents are aware that not everything can be solved at a keyboard, a click or a swipe.  The OTA’s understand the value in customer service.  Likewise, travel agents use various on line tools for research and booking purposes.

Technology allows speed, transparency and should ultimately make life easier especially for the basic holiday requirements.  Agents help .  By help I mean making bookings (Cruise, Ski, multi stop bookings, group bookings etc), providing customer services, advice, peace of mind, changing bookings, amending bookings and of course, agents are there when things go wrong.  These are indeed the areas travel agents can differentiate and increase retention.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, trust is everything (Derek Jones, MD Kuoni agrees I think!) for on and off line businesses.  The goal is the same, customers are more likely to return if they have trust in you.  Trust is a key component of brand building.  So, OTA’s and agents are all looking to build brands with their audiences and potential customers.

Trust comes from delivering your brand promise.  Fail to deliver and the customer may not return.  Some agents have vast numbers of repeat customers who return year after year.  These agents get to know their customers, they can curate selections for them because they have deep knowledge of the needs of that customer.  OTA’s can only dream of this.

Technology is in no way sophisticated enough to have such relevant and personalised results.  Data mining and clustering customers into groups is not personalisation, its just dilution of an average.  Data mining doesn’t take into account mood, feelings after the last holiday, this years budget etc…the only way to really understand these intangible factors is to know the customers, actually, physically know them.  OTA’s can’t do that.  Anyone can build a recommendation engine, it’s very, very difficult to build a really good recommendation engine.  If it was easy everyone would do it.  The best around is probably Amazon and thats not great really.  It took Netflix almost three years a a $1m prize to improve their engine by 10%. Good, but not earth shattering and it took 32 months.

So whats the answer?  Well, one should always try to personalise and really thats fancy way of saying give relevant information, holidays offers at the right time, in the right place, through the right methods and to the right people.   In order to do this, you’ve got to know you’re ‘audience’.

I suppose i am trying to say that both technology and travel agents will live hand in hand.  Price comparison is not dying, it’s just not quite good enough yet to allow customers to compare value.  Customers will always want to use on line channels and off line channels, what they use each for may change but both will be in the market in some shape or form.

In essence we’re back to chapter one of building a business, it’s all about the customer and using whatever tools you have to keep your promises, exceed their expectations and keep on top of change.

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