WHEN IT COMES TO PREDICTING FUTURE TRENDS, the travel industry works harder than most. Ask a travel buyer what’s going to be hot in the future and they already know, or think they do.
Why? Because they can look at the supply side. Hotels and airports take a long time to build, and nations and economies move in large super-cycles. And if these new capacities are to be filled, someone had better know who might be filling them (assuming war, terrorism or economic upheaval doesn’t mess it all up first).
But what about the technology we’ll be using in the next decade? Well we already know a lot about that, too – mobile platforms will become more pervasive and we’ll expect faster, better, richer content. There’s a payment revolution going on at the moment so expect virtual and electronic payment solutions. Predictive pricing has reached new heights, as has traveller tracking and notification.
However, what can’t be predicted are those disruptive technologies and applications that few can see coming. These are innovations that essentially displace conventional and established technology, rendering them obsolete. They can certainly spawn opportunities for new products, new markets, and even new ways of conducting business.
Who would have thought that ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft would gain traction or the shared economy epitomised by Airbnb would be used by so many executive travellers? “The greatest challenge is coping with the speed of change,” says Antoine Boatwright, chief technology officer at Hillgate Travel.
A business traveller from Niger today has in the palm of their hand the same knowledge and information that only the president of the United States did 20 years ago. Our computing power is still doubling every two years – as explained through Moore’s Law – and prices continue to drop.
Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the Singularity University and author of a best-selling book called Abundance, says: “It means computers are getting twice as good for the same amount of dollars every two years, and this law has held for 50 years. Technology today is taking what used to be scarce and making it abundant, over and over again. It’s made knowledge and information abundant, as well as demonetising and democratising it around the world.” This certainly has and will continue to impact travel buyers worldwide.
The accelerating effect of exponential change in technology explains why we had bulky desktop computers for decades before rapidly switching to smartphones. These same hand-held devices we review our travel policy on now have more processing power than the Apollo moon landing spacecraft – also expect that acceleration to continue as well, with consequences.
“There is also a low cost to entry with any type of technology now,” says Howard Rawlings, travel buyer and partner at Cloudberry Digital, a supplier of digital marketing technologies to the food and drinks industry. “Software development cycles and lead times are reducing constantly,” he says. This adds up to a heady storm of disruptive innovation ahead.
So what can we expect, moving on? Well, there are many disruptive technologies on the horizon. First, ‘big data’ – the ability to analyse lots of data points – and artificial intelligence (AI), where machines replace brain power, could be making a difference in predicting a lot more travel behaviour, using algorithms to do more listening, talking and even thinking.
“AI and its application are big topics. There are a lot of things being developed in leisure travel today, which can be really exciting if applied to business travel in the future,” says BCD Travel vice-president for product strategy and innovation, Torsten Kriedt.
When Apple’s Siri really can second guess your answers or IBM’s Watson can track down your rogue traveller anywhere around the globe, you know we’ll have reached a new era. “Extremely sophisticated predicting modelling of consumers is already big in the food and drinks business. I can see it coming to business travel soon,” says Rawlings. Chatbots and cognitive advisors for corporate travel are already in play. But these are likely to be taken to the next level in the decade ahead.
Quantum computers – which rely on the fuzzy world of quantum mechanics to function – are also starting to make an appearance, albeit with Google, IBM and NASA. For some calculations they are 100 million times faster than your laptop. These are used to calculate very complex optimisation problems, many of which appear in travel planning applications.
“Those who are looking at using intelligent data to address behavioural change have the greatest opportunity,” explains Trevor Elswood, chief commercial officer at Capita Travel and Events.
The rise of artificial intelligence, big data and super-fast computers could completely transform the nature of work and business in the travel sector. Data centres will be able to pool vast amounts of information from a myriad of sources into a single mesh, and process this into actionable intelligence that travel buyers can use – all at a speed close to real-time. Driverless cars will be possible with this type of technology, smart-connected cities, hotels and airports as well.
“Travel buyers should approach this new era with open arms and an open mind – solutions that meet a current need or enhance a current process or workflow, that are easy to use and intuitive will always rise to the top,” says Jon Smiles, European product manager at Corporate Travel Management.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
We already know that your average executive traveller is connected, but what about everything the road warrior comes into contact with, from the hire car to the hotel room fridge? This is where the ‘Internet of Things’ comes in. It is a big disruptive trend that is only starting to appear on people’s horizons. This uses wireless technology in products not usually associated with internet connectivity to connect them and manage what they do.
There could be 50 billion connected devices by 2020, according to technology giant Cisco. This could allow smart devices, systems, processes and business travellers to be connected in new ways. “Travel managers, especially those who run larger multi-national programmes, must continue to be open to pockets of innovation,” says BCD’s Kriedt.
Not only will web-enabled everyday objects streamline the back-end operations of airlines, hotels and rental car fleets, they could mean better safety for hire cars, better tracking for travellers, a hotel room that mirrors the heating in your home or a customised hotel stay based on your smart-phone preferences. Tie this in with big data and you have some very powerful tools.
Kriedt explains: “It is all about keeping travellers engaged. We all need to embrace and encourage others to embrace a culture of innovation. Don’t be afraid to try things; accept that some will fail and when that happens, move on to the next thing. However, the treatment of security and privacy concerns will determine the speed with which the Internet of Things rolls out.”
In this environment, a number of travel buyers are concerned about sharing data and the amount of information we hand over, with fears of a dark Orwellian future. As Rawlings points out this is really an issue for an older generation. “‘Millennials’ – those who reached young adulthood in the year 2000 – have given up on the idea of privacy,” he says. “They don’t mind sharing data or information as long as they get something out of it.” Certainly, as millennials invade the travelling workforce we can expect a lot more sharing of data. They are also more likely to buy into the shared economy as highlighted by the rise of Airbnb or Uber.
If a travel buyer wants to be up with the latest technology coming their way, it is worth following what’s being adopted in the consumer world before its application to business travel and buyers becomes clear. People bring their everyday life or holiday habits, preferences and expectations to the business traveller space. So watching the consumer space is very important.
Take virtual reality, originally considered a gaming technology. It is becoming more mainstream, and the applications for businesses are plentiful. Robotics are certainly in this category, as are wearable technologies such as smart watches, which will become more sophisticated and geared towards the business sector.
This technology, when combined with data on patterns of behaviour, could not only empower travellers but help them be more efficient, productive and happier. Smart clothes are potentially the future of wearables. This could allow insurance companies to monitor the health of travelling executives as they jet around the globe.
A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit last year stated that “businesses will have nowhere to hide from the disrupting yet energising effects of technological change.”
What does this mean for you? Don’t just think about the short-term gains that technology will bring – really do think ahead. Think exponentially, and how these disruptive technologies are going to impact your business in the long-term. Because the next phase of disruptive change is literally just around the corner.