Technology & Innovation

The future’s bright, the future’s digital

By Perry Krug, principal architect, strategic accounts, Couchbase
Technology & Innovation
Published: 4 June 2018

‘Digital Transformation’, the ‘Digital Economy’, ‘Digitalisation’ – the list goes on. There’s no shortage of buzzwords that sum up the changes sweeping across almost every organisation, and while many of them are becoming somewhat clichéd by this point, their impact on the travel industry has been enormous.

We’re now living in the ‘age of the customer’. Thanks to a decade of progress in which a constant stream of innovations has emerged to make the customer’s life easier, the bar has been set high. In today’s environment, every innovation sets a new standard for others to follow, as audiences become increasingly demanding. So, when a firm like Emirates, for example, upgrades its in-flight entertainment system with a more personalised offering, we soon expect the same service across the board.

Alongside this customer-centricity, rapid digital progress has created a world in which the largest cab firm doesn’t own a single cab, the largest hotelier doesn’t own any hotels, and the largest travel companies own little more than an office and a URL. The lesson of ‘prepare to innovate, or prepare to fail’ has cut a swathe across the travel industry, and there are a number of trends that its executives need to consider if they’re to adapt to it.

Going big
‘Big Data’ is just one concept associated with the drive towards digital, and by this point, all industries are trying to analyse it to help them make informed decisions.

The travel industry is no exception. The industry’s largest names perform a staggering amount of transactions every day, covering airline reservations, hotel bookings and rail purchases, with every single one leaving a trail of data. Yet while these firms once relied on tracking detailed demographic data, along with bounce and conversion rates, now they have access to a wealth of new data sources like social media or even weather patterns.

Given that customers are already used to a high level of personalisation from the entertainment services they use, the retailers they shop with and the restaurants they eat at, the day where travel companies can personalise the service they offer by understanding the customer’s holiday routine and spending patterns is just over the horizon.

Taking the driver out of driving
Artificial Intelligence, commonly referred to as AI, remains on the edge of the mainstream for the time being. Yet there are already several use cases, from everyday voice-recognition systems to the more sophisticated automated check-in desks. Spurred on by technologies like inexpensive high-speed internet, secure cloud storage, mobility solutions and low-cost devices, AI is beginning to become a reality this year.

Rolls-Royce, for example, has unveiled its ‘car of tomorrow’, while Elon Musk and Tesla have won plaudits for their innovations in driverless technology – despite some notable early setbacks around its safety. It’s clear that autonomous driving is on its way, all empowered by innovations in AI. The impact of technology on some transport businesses has already been huge – just ask any London taxi driver – but the mainstream adoption of autonomous driving will shake up the industry even further.

The app economy
Mobile apps are another prominent feature in today’s digital landscape and are being downloaded at a remarkable rate – most of us now have at least 20-30 on our phones. This mobile ecosystem, with a whole host of apps allowing us to engage with providers on our own terms has led us to expect more and more from the companies we interact with.

Yet this growing expectation has piled on the pressure for many firms. As soon as one company offers a more customer-friendly service, customers expect every business they interact with to meet this new standard. For example, Ryanair recently upgraded its app to allow users to access it at any time, at any location, and regardless of whether the device is online or not, all while reducing booking time from five minutes to less than two. With this type of capability on offer to customers, the expectation for the same experience across the board grows.

Augmented reality
Despite its futuristic connotations, augmented reality has been around for some time. Yet it wasn’t until 2016 that it really hit the mainstream, thanks to the release of Pokémon GO. Virtual reality’s less glamourous cousin now seems like it’s here to stay. It even has the potential to transform the travel industry.

Travel often takes us to places we’re unfamiliar with, so access to all the information we might need as we go about our travels is crucial. Since AR is now (if not that widely) available from mobile devices, it makes access to information both portable and simple. This means that as we’re on the go, we can find information and reviews about nearby locations, locate Wi-Fi hotspots, and even check a real-time weather forecast.

It’s also a bonus for those who often find themselves lost in an unfamiliar town or country. By adding digital elements such as arrows and other helpful directions, AR elevates typical navigation maps to add clarity. Services such as those from Geo Travel, for instance, can help users find the attractions and events that suit them without having to search a map. With this capability at their fingertips, customers might be forgiven for wondering why every service they use doesn’t pick out the best options for them, in the same way.

A vicious circle or vast opportunity?
Each of these trends demonstrate the way in which technology is impacting the travel industry and raise questions around how organisations can respond to them. Taken together, they represent a broad power-shift away from organisations and towards the consumer. But while augmented reality, the app ecosystem, AI and big data are all aimed at giving the consumer more personalisation, choice and control, they are constantly rewriting customer expectations and raising the bar across the entire industry. Whether this vicious circle is the death knell for organisations in the travel industry, or an opportunity to win over customers through ever-greater experiences, all depends on how prepared for the digital economy these organisations are.

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