With growing number of smartphone users, the Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) are seeing a massive growth in their business. The ‘always-with-the-traveller’ mobile devices are becoming the tool for the OTAs to provide personalised and superior travel experience to their customers, reports Abhishek Raval.
The new telecom subscription data from TRAI shows that till June 30, 2015, there were 980.81 million mobile subscriptions in the country. The TRAI report also shows that out of 108.85 million broadband subscribers in the country, 92.70 are using their mobile devices to access the Internet. With majority of the subscribers preferring mobile devices to access the Internet, it is clear that the mobile is the future of the online travel industry.
Many of the OTAs are focusing only on the mobile space—they may even move completely out of the desktop zone. Sandeep Menon, Director – Marketing, Google India, says, “What we are seeing in India today is that a large number of purchase related decisions are being taken on the mobile. This trend is bound to have a significant impact on the tourism sector. Our data shows that more than fifty percent of all vacations are being planned on the mobile. We are working with the Online Travel Agents (OTAs) on how to make the mobile search experience as smooth as that on the desktop.”
The TripAdvisor Travel Trends Forecast 2015 reveals that the shift towards mobile channel is a global phenomenon—this shift represents a tremendous opportunity for entities in the travel business to improve the quality of travel experience that is being offered to the customer. Recently, the popular Indian travel portal Yatra conducted a survey, which shows that 21% Indians are using mobile apps to make travel bookings. Cleartrip’s mobile insight for Q4’14 notes that over 53% of the site’s total traffic is sourced from the mobile channel. According to MakeMyTrip, 53% of the total hotel bookings in June this year were conducted through the mobile.
Mobility to improve CEM
In a world where the mobile is the permanent companion of the travellers, the OTAs must leverage the mobile technology and make efforts to use mobility for providing extra value to the customers. It is only by doing this that they can improve their score over other OTAs in the area of Customer Experience Management (CEM).
“Mobile will continue to remain an important point of connection between the OTAs and the user. Earlier there was no permanent bridge between them. Today the mobile is making that possible. It follows the traveller,” says Himanshu Verma, CTO, Yatra.com.
“Mobile enables the OTAs to personalise the service to the customer. There are two more technologies to enable personalisation—Big Data and Machine Learning. The more data we churn, the more we will be able to make sense out of it. This will result in many more innovations, which in turn will lead to more personalised services.” He emphasises that there is need to understand the data via machine learning and improve the services that are being provided to the customers. Big Data and Machine Learning will ramp up personalisation to a new level. “Today it is possible for the customer to use a website or mobile app to avail services, which are customised to the same level as the services that are provided by a travel agent,” he asserts.
Travel Planning on the Mobile
As solutions become more and more mobile friendly, it is convenient for the traveller to use the mobile device for managing every aspect of the journey.
A range of mobile apps are available to provide relevant information to the traveller. “The use of mobile and geo-location based services for planning the travel as well as the local experiences makes it easy for the traveller to aspire for and probably get several unique experiences and aspects inserted in his tour-plan,” says Bernaad Chetty, Assistant Vice President, Sonata Software.
MakeMyTrip provides services on online as well as the mobile platforms.“We use a variety of engagement models to enhance our customers’ on-trip experience. We send out relevant notifications on our mobile apps and these cover the common use-cases of pre-trip and post-trip updates. For an “in-destination” experience, we recently acquired a startup in Bangalore called MyGola. They offer a great experience for users who are in a particular destination and want to derive the maximum value and maximum fun from those destinations, covering a swath of local attractions and local events,” says Sanjay Mohan, CTO, MakeMyTrip.
Cleartrip has launched the feature called ‘Activities’ in its mobile OS platform. “The feature allows travellers to book an option from a slew of activities that travellers can engage in over the weekend. Even while traveling, irrespective of the modalities of the travel booking, the traveller can book these activities at the destination. Cleartrip has partnered with the activity and event organisers,” says Ramesh Krishnamoorthy, Sr. Vice President, Technology, Cleartrip. The OTA provider claims to be the first in the travel space to have its app run on the Apple’s smartwatch.
Flash Sales in Travel
As in case of any other business, the travel sector has its own seasons. There are specific destination related seasons—there are the best times of the year for visiting any particular destination. To take care of the extra demand during flash sales periods, the OTAs have to be extra prepared. In India, travel flash sale is quite popular in airlines industry. Different airlines give hefty discount to consumers for certain destinations, during certain seasons. This leads to rise in the passenger traffic.
“The travel industry is a layered industry. To manage flash sales, we have re-architected our IT system so that sudden spikes can be managed smoothly, without impacting the airlines’ Global Distribution System (GDS),” says Himanshu Verma of yatra.com. He is of the view that it is important for the OTAs to also think about the GDS system. This was not the case before the flash sales phenomenon took off.
“Flash sale offers are short-duration focused-selling techniques—they invariably lead to very high traffic on the website or mobile site for short periods of time. It is vital to have well-tested, robust and certified e-Commerce platform to succeed at flash sales. We also need a strong Product Information Management (PIM), proven integrations to vendor inventories and a fast secured payment gateway,” says Chetty. Adequate provisioning and management of infrastructure is also a key need.
From an infrastructure perspective, MakeMyTrip is provisioning surplus capacity to handle these spikes. The software systems have been architected in such a way that the front-end load gets distributed amongst the backend servers. “We employ a judicious mix of hardware and software technologies to allow us to handle such spikes in traffic,” says Sanjay Mohan of MakeMyTrip.
Acquisitions and Wearables
The OTAs are also building their technology muscle inorganically, by acquiring start-ups, which solve specific problems in the travel industry. These start-ups can also serve as boosters for the OTAs to scale up and provide personalised trip experience. “The travel and leisure segment is abuzz with ideas. Several startups are getting funded,” says Sanjay Mohan of MakeMyTrip. The company has acquired a host of startups like MyGola and invested in Inspirock and Simplotel.
Yatra.com and Cleartrip.com are also looking for opportunities to build capacity by either acquiring or partnering with the startup community. Sonata has invested in startups like Rezopia and Halosys.
While mobile devices are becoming the default platform for travel related activities, the ‘wearable’ segment is also developing at a fast pace. “Wearable devices are predominantly being used in the healthcare sector to track various health parameters. I see a fair potential for wearables to be used in the travel segment; a good amount of information can be pushed to these wearables and to the customer. The information can also be pulled back from these devices. This information exchange can be useful in the management of various security related concerns,” says Himanshu Verma of Yatra.com.
“We are now trying to ensure our presence in a very wide range of wearable devices. This is because we strive to stay always connected with our customers,” says Sanjay Mohan of MakeMyTrip.