by Máire P. Walsh, SVP of Digital Technologies for Enterprise Ireland in US
On March 28 2018, Enterprise Ireland hosted a Travel Tech Forum on Driving Innovation & Ancillary Revenues in Dublin with industry leaders from the US and beyond. From small Irish startup founders with very ambitious beginnings, to high-performing startups, to internationally-recognized industry analysts, venture capitalists — and representatives from major US airlines, hotel chains, and OTA’s (online travel agents) — more than 75 travel industry change makers came together at the invitation-only conference.
Throughout the day, experts and trailblazers shared tried-and-true strategies to foster innovation and best practices to drive ancillary revenues. In an era where ancillary is now a main driver of profit and revenue, many insights were shared by participants.
“We should talk to customers in natural ways—you must understand what the customer wants and provide exactly that,” said Bobby Healy, CTO of CarTrawler. “That means being on WeChat, WhatsApp, and other platforms.” Healy also spoke about the rise of Conversational Commerce during his talk on Creating the Amazon of Travel.
The importance of trust was a common theme on a panel on best practices to drive loyalty and ancillary revenues that featured Lynn Bruns, Ancillary Lead, Southwest, Dave Canty, Global VP of Loyalty Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG), and Kevin McFarland, Managing Director Digital, American Airlines. At IHG retention is key for growth of their programs. Dave Canty advised that business leaders need clear goals that should focus on customer expectations and satisfaction.
For Southwest Airlines, it’s important for them to deliver on promise and that is why their programs have no blackout dates or expiration on miles. Bruns added that the company now has more intention around payment and culture as they expand outside the US.
McFarland spoke about the history of innovation at American Airlines—they were the first airline to introduce a loyalty program and to charge for bags. Now they are trying disruption as part of innovation. They need to be on WeChat in Asia for payment—that is where the customer wants to pay. McFarland noted American Airlines is a service enabler, “If customers spend too much time in the app something is wrong as it should be a seamless part of the journey.”
Christina Heggie from Jet Blue Ventures talked about how the customer journey for many decades have been shaped by exploring, comparing, booking, experiencing and sharing and they see five emerging trends driving industry transformation around data, AI, voice, distribution, and Blockchain. When they consider investing rounds from $500 – $3 million they look to innovators that are using technologies that overlap across the themes of seamless customer journey, technology powered magnificent service, a mix of MX and Ops, innovation in distribution, revenue and loyalty, and evolving regional travel.
Industry thought leader and analyst Henry Harteveldt shared insights for opportunity such as incorporating ‘intelligent thinking’ capabilities into the booking experience in the face of the steady decline in traveler loyalty. He also highlighted that as travelers change how they access digital channels, travel brands must follow. Simon Dempsey, CEO of LikeWhere talked about making the customer, not the brand, the hero in today’s consumer journey and how travelers measure their experiences against the brands they use in their everyday lives.
Gillian Hughes, of StitcherAds spoke about the challenge of growth when Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wants to promote you on earnings calls but major brands don’t want others, especially competitors, to know their secret sauce.
The Inaugural Enterprise Ireland Pioneer Travel Tech Award saw high performing Irish startups battle for the grand prize of the best new product. The winner of the award was Campsited—a company that makes it easier for people to find and book camping holidays online and through mobile devices. Born of his own personal frustration trying to plan a family holiday in the great outdoors, founder Finán O’Donoghue created Campsited in 2015. Today, more than 700 parks having signed up across Europe to-date. And more joining the movement every day.
By bringing together some of the largest travel organizations in the world with our established and best up-and-coming companies it presented a valuable opportunity for all participants to extend their network and learn how they can enhance their businesses’ value proposition and ultimately their bottom line.
What’s next? Many experts on the day felt Airbnb will be the next OTA (whether they like it or not). Watch this space as more innovation and disruption leads to better customer experiences, enhanced service offerings, and greater ways for travel companies to diversify and grow revenues.