From NDC to AI, there’s no halting the advancement of modern technology. Andrew Doherty asks experts what trends they predict in travel tech in 2019
Technological advancements have, in one way or another, affected all of our daily lives. Whether it’s near field communication (NFC) helping us pay using mobile phones, or self-service counters enabling us to skip queues to buy a pint of milk, technology has, in many ways, made life a little easier. And travel is no exception.
Here, three leaders in travel technology outline what they think the major trends will be in 2019.
New distribution capability (NDC) – an XML-based communication standard between airlines and travel agents – has seen increased investment throughout 2018, with the traditional GDS providers currently making moves to implement the technology. Last October, Travelport claimed to be the first GDS operator to manage a flight booking using the NDC standard, while Amadeus achieved Iata’s level 3 certification as an aggregator, meaning it is able to consume NDC offers from airlines and distribute them to travel sellers.
Mike Croucher, head of technical strategy – chief architect at Travelport, expects more major airlines to “come online” with NDC in 2019, meaning more ancillary content will be available for travel agents.
“I think they [airlines] are struggling to get the volume from their network. They don’t really understand the space and how they are going to use it. From a travel agent’s perspective, because the national carriers (ATPCO) are being introduced to the API connected environment, we’ll see developments in virtual interlining – voluntary commercial agreements between airlines to handle passengers travelling on itineraries that require multiple flights on multiple airlines.”
For Chuck Richardson, managing director at Dolphin Dynamics, NDC needs more work.
“Several major airlines may have embraced NDC, but they are well behind in terms of a technological standpoint. They must find a way to implement NDC in a viable way so it will truly replace the traditional GDS. NDC is the real deal and it’s here to stay, but it’s still incredibly murky working out what you can and can’t do with it.”
Clare de Bono, head of product and innovation at Amadeus, believes travel agents should be aware of technological trends already shaping how clients interact with the world.
“We can talk about mobile technology all the time, but more and more people are starting to book travel on their smartphones. For instance, look at China’s Singles’ Day holiday – 90% of sales were made on a mobile device. In the US, 37% of Black Friday purchases were done on a smartphone and 33% on Cyber Monday.”
She says agents must not only ensure their agency website is mobile friendly, but should also embrace self-service technologies. For example, applications enabling clients to have more control of their trip in-destination such as finding things to do and making dinner reservations.
“I see self-service technologies complementing the agent’s expertise. If a business can make their clients’ experience the best it can be, then [they] will keep coming back.”
Voice recognition technologies in particular have seen a surge in popularity, with findings from Travelport’s Global Digital Traveller Research 2018 showing 36% of UK leisure travellers are employing Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa to research trips.
Tourism boards are already beginning to see the value of voice search too, with the German National Tourist Board (GNTB) promoting the destination through Alexa. The GNTB travel application, available on “market specific” Amazon stores, is installed on Alexa as Germany Travel Tips, offering advice on nature, cultural experience, active holidays and recreation in Germany’s 16 states.
“We are definitely seeing improvements in voice recognition technology. It can now understand human speech a lot more effectively,” enthuses Croucher.
“However, it’s the artificial intelligence (AI) level underneath the voice recognition that will ultimately recognise the question and make more informed decisions. In 2019, I believe we are going to see AI being adopted heavily in call centres to really understand a client’s needs before putting them through to an agent.”
De Bono agrees that AI’s ability to personalise the client experience will be beneficial for travel businesses.
“I think AI will have more of an influence in digital advertising where it’s used to target clients in a more efficient and cost-effective way. It will also help guide people in real-world environments.
For example, finding the best way through airports. I think AI is all about removing the stress points in journeys.”
More imminent, and a development that Richardson feels is most relevant for agents, is HMRC’s digitalisation of tax in 2020. The government initiative will enable VAT-registered businesses to keep records digitally and use software to submit their VAT returns.
“Making tax digital is a big thing on the horizon and we may see a soft launch of it by April. For many travel businesses, that will drive some degree of technological change when they have to file their tax returns online.”
While technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) – where objects in the real world are overlaid with computer-generated information – are still in their early stages, De Bono feels they will continue to offer agents the opportunity to upsell.
“VR is moving towards helping clients get a feel for different cabins on a cruise ship or hotel rooms, making it easier for agents to upgrade the product.”
The Catalan Tourist Board has already embraced this technology, launching a VR game to promote the region’s culture and history. Available via a free download on the PlayStation Store, players will visit key attractions, including Tarragona’s Roman amphitheatre, Dali’s Cadaques and the Sagrada Familia, taking control of famous Catalonian celebrities.
Croucher predicts VR hardware will become less intrusive and will one day be replaced with more portable technology.
“I think further down the line we will be able to share our holiday experiences in real-time using VR. For example, family members back home could join the client for dinner or on a tour. Regarding AR, I think it has its uses too. Overlaying data points on a real-world environment can really enhance the user’s experience.”
In the payments space, Richardson explains that blockchain technology is still in the “blue skies” development stages, but asserts it could become an integral part of travel.
Dolphin Dynamics’ Travel Ledger platform, in the development stage, has been designed to allow all billing records between buyers and sellers of travel products to be stored and shared in a decentralised ledger, with support for secure and transparent recording and settling of payments.
“Our Travel Ledger blockchain platform project is well under way and is a clear example of an entirely appropriate use of the technology. The platform will help with the reconciliation and settlement of invoices, which right now is a terribly manual process. I believe that’s where the opportunity lies in the industry overall.”