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2018 Travel Technology Trends

The annual Phocuswright Conference took place last month and for travel, tourism, and hospitality industry professionals, the show serves as a bellwether for tech trends across all key travel segments. We conducted a post-show interview with Phocuswright research analyst, Alice Jong, to discuss the hot topics and opportunities for 2018 that created buzz at the show.

WATCH our video interview with Alice Jong, Phocuswright research analyst

ExpertFlyer: Give us a high-level description of what Phocuswright is and the purpose of the conference?

Alice Jong: We are a travel market research company and we focus on anything related to travel distribution and technology. The U.S. conference is our largest event where we gather the biggest ideas and the biggest opinions in the travel industry, and present them on stage to share trends and things to watch out for. We cover all the segments in travel … it’s a great opportunity for attendees to not only gain knowledge about what’s happening in the travel industry, technology and innovation, but also make connections with the biggest minds in this space.

EF: There were a number of highlights that came out of the show, one of which was the popularity of tours and activities and its impact on search and booking technology. How is this segment evolving?

AJ: It’s actually a big study that I worked on directly so I’m quite passionate about this segment. Essentially, so much of tours and activities — the things that you do once you’re in the destination — whether it’s going on a walking tour or participating in a cooking class or going scuba diving, much of that is still transacted offline. Travelers tend to book these activities very last minute in destination – with many actually walking up to the ticket booth or into the shop to purchase the experience in person. But there’s been a big shift where all of this is moving online now. So, think about how hotels and airlines are online.  You can easily compare options, whether it’s on a metasearch site or on an OTA like Expedia. That’s starting to happen for tours and activities now. Bike tours were among the first to do this in a big way, but in recent years, many more startups are getting on board, so platforms like “Get Your Guide” are surfacing and they’re aggregating all these activities that you can do and putting them online where travelers can easily research activities by category and then book them from a computer or mobile device.

Many of these activities and experiences tend to be operated by small “Mom and Pop” shops, but there are new technology platforms now that are being created that cater to these smaller players enabling them to basically digitize their inventory. So, once the supply is digitized, then the consumer can also book it digitally and it’s really gaining momentum, such that even the biggest travel players are now seeing a lot of potential in the tours and activities space.

The first time we did a study related to activities was back in around 2011, so just over six years ago and around that time the biggest players were lukewarm about tours and activities. Since then, brands like Expedia, TripAdvisor, Airbnb, and Booking.com, are all looking to add tours and activities into their online platform.  As a result, it’s going to be easier for travelers to research activities they are interested in, compare what they want to do and then book it directly online. With more than 80% of the activities marketplace still offline, this category is expected to grow quickly based on the demands of travelers and their online search and booking expectations.

EF: What are some of the sites that are fulfilling this travel niche search now?

AJ: Some of the biggest or well-known brands, Expedia, has a local expert now and they’ve actually integrated that into their mobile platform, as well. Airbnb launched Experiences last year, so more focus on that local experience in the destination. TripAdvisor, after acquiring Viator, one of the largest online tours and activities booking agencies, started integrating bookable content onto TripAdvisor. So, travelers may now directly book those activities from TripAdvisor. Some of the other examples are Get Your Guide, which is one of the larger global platforms, and others with a regional spin, like Newman Tours specializing in Asia, as well as Klook, and Be My Guest. In India, you have options, like Make My Trip and Clear Trip. There is a good deal starting regionally, which indicates a lot of opportunities to grow. It’s very exciting to see where these players are going to take this and keep growing the inventory.

EF: There was some talk about the impact of artificial intelligence and voice recognition associated with travel search and sourcing. What’s on the horizon?

AJ: This technology is still quite new. We’re in our infancy with this and many of the biggest online players are exploring possibilities and options. They’re looking at chat, they’re looking at voice, and they’re looking to see how they combine a mix of A.I. chatbox with human interaction to find that right balance. Many of them are analyzing and testing what they can do with customer service inquiries. Expedia has been experimenting with Facebook Messenger and earlier this year they rolled out a Facebook Messenger booking capability for Hotels.com. Kayak has been looking at Alexa capabilities, so they’re all dabbling and they’re trying to see what the possibilities are, but so far what we are hearing from them is it’s still new and they are exploring the early stage capabilities.

Over in Asia, China’s biggest OTA, Ctrip, is using A.I. customer service chatbox to handle many of their customer inquiries. Make My Trip in India also rolled out chat-based online booking for their packaging business. So, we see different players exploring different routes but ultimately it’s like finding that right balance that makes things easier and more personalized for the customer.

We saw in our travel technology survey that in the U.S. about half of online travelers now use some kind of voice assistant in their everyday life. In terms of travel though, it’s most advantageous future usage is still developing. Companies are looking at opportunities starting with customer service for now and they’re considering how the technology will play out in terms of shopping and booking stages.

EF: Let’s talk about loyalty and loyalty programs. It was interesting to see some data on customer loyalty and membership programs. According to your analysis, membership to a loyalty program doesn’t necessarily mean a customer is all that loyal. What do you think is coming down the pike in terms of airline and hotel rewards programs? Are we ripe for reinvention in this space?

AJ: Well, for both air and hotels in general, we’re definitely seeing that loyalty programs don’t mean loyalty necessarily. And what we’ve seen in our studies is that loyalty programs aren’t deal-makers for the traveler either. Overall, they aren’t making their final booking decision based on a loyalty program. In fact, for air, we see that the majority of travelers belong to either multiple loyalty programs or none at all. So the share of travelers that belong to just one is the minority. And further to that, we also find that they’re willing to book with an airline outside of their loyalty program if it means a better price or schedule. So that’s what’s really driving those purchases. On top of that, air travelers’ loyalty greatly depends on their home base location. If you’re based in Atlanta, Delta’s probably going to be your preferred airline. So much of it is based on these variables that aren’t necessarily about loyalty. It’s about the commodity and what’s available and what’s most convenient and priced right for your budget.

It’s been fascinating to see how Airbnb has been able to build this brand affinity with its user base where people keep coming back and reusing again and again – and they don’t have an official loyalty program. With the airlines, especially in the U.S., there are a set number of carriers you can fly on. If there’s the option of a $100 flight versus a $600 flight and the schedule’s pretty close, you’re probably going to go with the $100 flight rather than trying to get 500 extra points on your frequent flyer program. So, I think for loyalty, what we’re looking for is who is going be able to find a way to differentiate their brand through some kind of deeper connection, not just by offering these perks because the loyalty program and frequent flyer miles are no longer differentiating brands.

Business Traveller Magazine and frequent flyers weigh in with top tips for better air travel

If you’re a frequent business traveler, odds are you and your colleagues compete for bragging rights when it comes to getting the best perks and deals to make life in the air a more pleasurable experience. We tapped some seasoned business travelers who are also elite airline loyalty program members to draw out their proven schemes and best practices for flying better.

“I’m a big fan of the stopover. There are about a dozen airlines that now do it covering Asia, parts of Europe, and the Middle East. So, if you’re traveling the globe, what a great way to actually add a couple of days on your trip and see a part of the word you might not have seen before.”

— Ross Atkinson, Chief Marketing and Product Officer, Business Traveller Magazine

WATCH our video interview with Ross Atkinson, Business Traveller Magazine

Dave Poplin is a sales executive with an international technology company. He flies every three weeks, on average, and holds Platinum-level status on Delta Airlines.

According to Poplin, there is no reason for a Platinum or higher level Delta flyer to ever pay for a Delta Comfort Seat. “Once you book coach you will get an upgrade to Delta Comfort the next day for free.  But, be careful on what Comfort seats are available, there can be some risk that you go from an aisle in coach to a middle seat in Comfort. Look at the seat maps, if there are a lot of First Class open, then Comfort customers will get moved up and open aisle seats again.”

“Remember, Comfort gets free movies and drinks. Aside from meals being included on a 2+ hour flight in First Class, there is really no difference between Comfort and First Class, especially on Delta.”

gregg ellman

Gregg Ellman

Gregg Ellman, co-owner of Ellman Photography, does about 35-40 roundtrips per year as a freelance photographer and journalist. With over two million flying miles, he’s a Platinum Pro level member of American Airlines Advantage loyalty program.

“When your flight is canceled or delayed, etc., the worst thing you can do is stand in line.  Call the airlines directly and use your status to your advantage.  If the person you have on the phone is not helpful, asked to speak to their manager. It works almost every time.”

Ellman says his American Airlines executive card is worth every penny.  “Along with the monthly miles, you get 10,000 yearly qualifying miles and your yearly
membership to the admirals club is included.”

Another tip, book the earliest flight possible, which avoids young kids and makes boarding much quicker. “Since I travel with a lot of camera gear, hassle-free boarding is a big deal,” adds Ellman.

jennifer flowers frequent flyer

Jennifer Flowers, found & CEO of Accreditation Guru, Inc.

Jennifer Flowers is the CEO of Accreditation Guru, Inc., a consultancy that works with non-profits across the country. Averaging two plane trips per month, Jennifer is a Delta SkyMiles Platinum Medallion member.

“I have both business and personal Delta American Express cards in order to maximize miles earned. Also, because of the amount of travel and other business expenses that are charged against my Delta AmEx, I am able to earn a Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) Waiver (MQDs are a way for Delta to ensure that Elite members have spent a minimum amount of money with the airline, as well as flying a certain number of miles or segments).”

Flowers joined the Delta Sky Club as a way to enjoy the amenities offered (wifi, food and drink selections, comfortable waiting areas, etc.) and ease the stress of frequent travel. “In the past year, I visited Delta Sky Clubs around the country at least 35 times. With the discounted rate of $29 for an access pass that is available through my Platinum Delta AmEx card (as opposed to $59 regular price of a single visit pass), my annual pass has allowed me to save more than 50% off of what the reduced rate access passes would have cost.”

Airfarewatchdog founder offers advice for snagging upgrades & unpublished airfare deals

Separating fact from fiction when it comes to scoring a seat upgrade or lower priced airline tickets on your next flight has become increasingly complicated and confusing.  We interviewed long-time industry authority, George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com, to sort out the best strategies for success.

WATCH our interview with George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com 

ExpertFlyer: What type of information does Airfarewatchdog.com offer its subscribers?

George Hobica: We search and list unusually low airfares. Even though airlines have consolidated, there are still a lot of unadvertised airfare wars. Some of these deals can be extremely cheap. They’re not last minute fares. They are often for a good long travel period. However, they may only last a few minutes or hours, so you really have to jump on them. One way we get the word out is through email alerts. You can track a particular route or even airport to airport. For example, you can say I want to go from Washington Dulles or Washington National to London Gatwick or London Heathrow. We actually let you specify the airport that you’ll be flying into and out of in the alert. You can also choose the airline or if you don’t like a particular carrier, you can eliminate those from the alerts and we won’t send you alerts on those airlines.

EF:  How do you surface these deals?

GH: We have a staff of 10 people, some of whom are former travel agents. Some of whom were former airline employees, who know their way around airfares. They actually choose the deal. I hate to use the word curate, but they’re carefully chosen deals.

EF: For the more novice flyer, what are some of your tips that you tell folks who want to get a deal?

GH: Well, one thing is, you have to search often because airfares do go up and down without explanation. There might be 26 different fares on a plane or a flight, and there are only a few seats at each fare level. Once those are gone, then you will go to a higher fare level. If somebody’s holding those seats and releases them, then they will go back into a shared bucket perhaps, and you can grab them. Another thing that I suggest, unless you’re traveling with small children, is to book seats one by one because there might be one seat at a low fare and the second seat will be at a higher fare. The airline’s going to sell you both seats at the higher fare. They’re not going to average them one by one.

Also, look at one-way fares. A lot of the cheapest fares are half the lowest round trip price. It might be better to go out on one airline. Maybe on Southwest, for example, and then come back on United. Going to United.com, you won’t see that possibility. Always try those one-way fares. Sign up for airfare alerts. You definitely want to get those by email or by Twitter, using the hashtag #airfare on Twitter, is a really good place to look.

Subscribing to airline newsletters is a good idea. Sometimes you’ll find out about deals sooner than anyone else. Sometimes Singapore Airlines, for example, will send their sales to their frequent flier members first and then everyone else gets them a day later. It could be that some of the best seats and fares and routes have been sold out by that time.  I do think that some of the advertised fares are actually not as good as the unadvertised fares. That’s where Twitter is really helpful. Again, that hashtag #airfare is very useful. There are about 10 different accounts now that post deals on Twitter under that hashtag.

EF:  What are your best practices for getting an upgrade to business class for little to no cost?

GH:  Well, these days airlines are selling a lot of their business and first class seats. In many cases, they’re nonrefundable business and first at a reduced fare. For example, recently I flew one way from LA to JFK, and the regular fare was $300 one way on American Airlines. There were business class seats for about $650, which is a lot less than it used to be. It is nonrefundable at that price. I also, on this trip, booked 15,000 miles and $75 to get a paid upgrade. That was a pretty good deal; for $75 and 15,000 miles, I got $375 worth of value, so I upgraded myself that way. Also look for those last minute upgrades. If you book a ticket with Delta, they offer an upgrade for like $100 on a fairly short flight on the app. You can always ask for if there are any upgrades available when you check in or look for them at the kiosk. Sometimes there are offers.

I think the best way really is to use your miles. Now obviously if you attain upper tier status in the frequent flier program, they will sometimes give you a free upgrade, but those are getting rarer on popular routes. It’s really difficult to get those totally free mileage upgrades, or cheap upgrades. You really have to pay for it. You basically have to use miles plus cash to get the upgrade, I find, at least on American Airline on the transcontinental routes. The final way and many people don’t believe this, but on rare occasions, you get upgraded for no particular reason. Now, let’s say they oversell economy class, and everyone with status has been accommodated with upgrades. I have a friend who is a real estate agent in Los Angeles. She went to London recently and flew economy class, and she got upgraded to business class on British Airways. She said, “Why?” I said, “Well were you dressed the way you are today?”

If you are dressed way nicer than everyone else and they need one more person to upgrade, and everyone else looks like a slob, you may very well get upgraded. It’s just the way it goes. It’s happened to me before. It’s happened to my well-dressed agent. It happened to my friend Richard on Air Canada. He was flying from San Francisco to Vancouver, dressed in a business suit. He had no status. I had no status on United and I got upgraded on United because I was looking sharp.

I’ll tell you another story. I was flying on American Airlines last year, or two years ago. There was a seating problem in economy. This guy, a teenager, switched seats in economy class to accommodate somebody who was making a fuss. There was one seat left in business class – the seat next to me – and he got it. I heard the flight attendant say, “Shouldn’t we upgrade so and so who has status?” And the gate agent said, “I’m not going to upgrade that kind of behavior.” Apparently, the guy who was making a fuss was Platinum status on American. He was especially obnoxious, so they decided not to upgrade him.  So, sometimes getting an upgrade is as simple as being a nice, courteous human being.

One more thing about getting upgraded, make separate reservations because they may not want to upgrade two people together. They want to separate you, so if you have separate reservations you may have a better chance of getting upgraded.

 

Quick tips for saving money on flights this summer

airplane

School may still be in session depending on where you live, but your thoughts have likely already drifted to this year’s summer vacation.  Where are we going to go? How will we get there? And, how much will it cost? If your destination requires a plane ticket, here are a few tips for finding the best deals to ensure you are getting the most value from your airline this summer.

  • “Code Sharing:” Understand what it is and how it works

In simplified terms, Code Sharing is an agreement by two or more airlines to share the same flight. This typically occurs between airlines that are part of the same airline alliance, such as oneworld or Star Alliance. Two carriers, say American Airlines and Qantas, for example, agree to offer/market the same flight. So, even though you booked your flight through American Airlines, Qantas may actually be operating the flight and a Qantas plane and pilot will be flying you there.

So you naturally assume that the cost of the ticket you purchased with American would be the same price if booked through Qantas, right? Not necessarily. While you may be a loyal AA flyer, you might actually get a better fare by booking the same flight on Qantas (in this example). And sometimes the difference in fares between airlines can be substantial, especially when flying internationally.

Tip:

If you see that a flight is being operated by a partner of your preferred airline (This information will be listed in smaller type beneath the carrier you’re booking through.), do a quick cross-check on their website to be sure you are getting the best possible price. If the airlines are partners in a major airline alliance your ability to accrue points/miles will not be affected. Continue reading →

Top YouTube travel vlogger, “Hey Nadine,” talks about millennials’ influence on travel industry

Numbering more than 75 million, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that millennials have surpassed baby boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. To better understand how these tech-savvy up and comers are reshaping the travel industry, we interviewed popular millennial Travel Vlogger and YouTube Celebrity, Nadine Sykora of HeyNadine.com.

WATCH our interview with Nadine Sykora, YouTube vlogger at Hey Nadine.

 

Tell us about your vlog and how you got to where you are today? 

My site is HeyNadine.com and that’s also the name of my YouTube channel, which is kind of my main thing. Originally it started as a fun project when I was in university. I just started creating fun comedy videos in my dorm room to kind of give myself a creative outlet, because I was studying computer science and engineering at the time, which is not the most creative field.  When I graduated I really wanted to go travel before I settled down and started a real job. I was like, “I’m going to go travel for a year.”

I did a working holiday visa in New Zealand and I took my video camera along with me. I started doing little video blogs and text blogs of my experiences when I was traveling. At the time, nobody was doing travel videos – and travel blogging was still relatively new. So within that year, my travel vlogs just blew up from something that was a fun project, to the start of my current career. In the beginning, there was no money, it was just fun.

Who is a typical fan of Hey Nadine’s travel adventures? Who’s watching you? 

I appeal mainly to the millennial audience, so 18 to 35 are my core viewers because youth travelers are increasingly looking to go out and experience the world for themselves, as opposed to just waiting to travel when they are older. Fellow millennials that are in the same situation that I was in, they’re either in university at the moment or they just graduated and they want to go out and experience the world that they see all over Instagram, Youtube, etc.

Travel in general, I find is pretty universal.  But types of travel are very different and that could be any age range. If you’re a millennial or if you’re a senior traveler, it doesn’t matter. It’s the style of travel, whether you enjoy museums, whether you enjoy action, whether you enjoy culinary travel experiences or solo travel vs. group tours. I think style more aptly speaks to the type of traveler you are rather than your age category.

The world is so much more accessible now and people are realizing, especially young travelers and future travelers, “Hey, I can do this, this is achievable and I want to go out there and see some stuff before I …” do whatever it is they want to do in their lives.

That’s a great point. Now that millennials are maturing and settling into their careers, they are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They have money, there are a lot of them, and of course, the travel industry is paying attention. From your perspective, how do you think that millennials are reshaping the travel industry? 

I think millennial travel versus other types of travel is very much changing the travel industry because they look for different things. Millennials like a mixture of group package tours where they can meet other people because they’re finding they are traveling a lot more on their own. There are many people that aren’t traveling with a significant other because they’re single or they want to go, but their friends can’t afford it.  So I think you’re seeing a really big mixture of travelers that decide to just go solo and book and plan everything themselves, and then you have solo travelers that want to travel with other people, in which case they end up booking group tours. That’s why you’re seeing kind of an explosion in the youth group tour categories because youth travelers, millennial travelers, they want to travel with other people their own age.

Tour companies are really starting to capitalize on this. Many are distinguishing themselves as the, “Hey, we’re the tour company for 18 to 35-year olds,” and there are multiple options out there that cater specifically to that younger audience, which is really good.

Millennials are also interested in bespoke travels. They want more unique things. They’re not looking for the huge, mega resort, all inclusive, where everything is taken care of. They’re liking smaller places. They’re liking family-owned. They’re liking boutique. They’re liking cool designs or unique aspects, something that differentiates and what I like to call, “gives it that Instagram-worthy value,” because social media is a huge part of travel, and a very high percentage of millennials are on at least one social network.  Many are seeing images on Instagram and Facebook that inspire them to want to visit those places and do those things.  They are looking for places that stand out from the crowd because they stand out from the crowd.

If you were going to project into the future, 5 or 10 years out, what do you think is going to change from the airline or the hospitality industry, specifically? 

Technology is obviously a big thing. Most hotels are keeping up with at least the basics, like WiFi, public computers, in-room iPads, or chargers. They’re integrating technology a lot more into their offerings and services, which I think is really cool. Accessibility, ease of booking, easier access to reviews, all these are features that millennials expect and hotels are hearing us.

I find that millennials do a bit more investigating than other demographics. We’re a little bit more skeptical because there’s so much out there;  we want to see more of what we’re paying for. If I’m thinking about staying at a place, I want to see reviews, I want to see photos, I want to see videos. We expect more information about the places we’re going to. That’s going to affect the way the travel industry markets itself to people like me.

The sharing economy is huge with millennials, so your Airbnb, your HomeAways, your house sharing and couch surfing will continue to grow in popularity.  There is a big push away from the big box standard hotel and going for that unique experience that’s off the beaten path.  Something cool they can brag about to their friends back home and earn that all-important social clout.

Our audience is comprised of frequent flyers and hardcore business travelers. Do you have any ninja tips of your own for getting cheaper flights or just making your air travel experience better? 

There are a couple of different things, but when it comes to getting cheaper flights the biggest one I’ve always preached is flexibility and flexibility on destination. The more flexible you are and the more time you give yourself to book, the more deals pop up. It’s really up to you to keep an eye on the deals that surface.

Some rules of thumb:  Flip your way of thinking about planning a vacation. What I mean is, rather than starting off your planning by picking your destination first and then looking for cheap flights, start with a blank slate on your place and see what options pop up on Skyscanner or Google Flights by searching “Everywhere”.  You will likely find deals to domestic and international spots that are really interesting and you might not have thought of– and even some on your bucket list. If I have a date I want to travel and I seek out my cheaper options, I will achieve my objective to travel more and spend less – Be flexible.

Are there any do’s and don’ts that you think are important for younger travelers or millennials that are just getting started with their travel experiences? 

When it comes to do’s and don’ts, one of the biggest do’s is to go in with an open mind and to be respectful. When you’re experiencing a new culture for the first time, take time and research the people and their customs, so you don’t behave in a way that is perceived as disrespectful or obnoxious. Even if you’re a paying customer, it doesn’t give you the right to do whatever you please.

Remember that travel is a privilege. We’re very lucky to be able to do it and if you’re out there traveling the world as a millennial, be excited, but be respectful. You are an ambassador for your country and you want to make a good impression to the rest of the world.