Tech Talk: digital switch-off

As our lives become more dependent on technology, it gets harder than ever to switch off. A new era of ‘causal connectivity’ may hold the key

‘Digital detox’, ‘right to disconnect’, ‘info-obesity’, ‘technology fatigue’ – these are just a few terms entering the 2017 lexicon as the uprising against our beloved smartphones steps up pace.

The right to disconnect is a newer phenomenon, relating to a French employment law that took effect on January 1 this year. It obliges companies with more than 50 employees to start negotiations to define the rights of workers to ignore their phones – to guarantee them a ‘right to disconnect’ from technology. In other words, no emailing permitted after 5pm.

And digital detox? Worryingly, this term is being used by schools including Stroud High School, Gloucestershire, which has put in place rules prohibiting the use of digital devices for certain year groups, partly to wean pupils off an addiction to social media.

On a lighter note, there is now a growing number of holidays emerging that involve a ban on digital devices. In some country retreats, holidaymakers must leave their mobile phones in a box at the entrance.

Always on

Conversely, in the wider travel industry, technology overload is becoming a trend. You check into a hotel to be greeted by a robot concierge, champagne is delivered by drone and the cars are driverless. But in the workplace, reliance on technology is also “blurring the distinction between home and work life”, according to professor Chris Ivory, deputy director of the Institute for International Management Practice at Anglia Ruskin University.

“It creates a sense of always needing to be available, or not wanting to be left out of the loop – and provides numerous, non-productive distractions (such as using Facebook at work),” he says.

Amadeus UK&I managing director Champa Magesh says: “The rise in digital detox travel shows that some people do feel the pressure of an ‘always on and always available’ work culture that can virtually erase the line between our professional and social lives. Now we’re seeing corporations create policies that mean it’s okay to switch off out of hours.”

Fortunately, it’s a trend being addressed. Nigel Meyer, director of group technology at HRG, says there is a “general technology fatigue creeping into people’s lives”, which he sees first-hand from talking to clients. However, he thinks it is mainly because of the multitude of apps available. “The way travel has been fragmented over the past 15 years it’s like, who can collect the most apps?” he says.

People are also becoming more impatient. “Our tolerance for apps that don’t work on a phone is going down and down,” says Andrew Jordan, chief technology officer at Carlson Wagonlit Travel. “There is an overload in the app ecosystem and a plethora of mediocre apps – with 70,000 in travel. How do you filter out the ones that are rubbish?”

Amadeus’s Magesh agrees: “Only 5 per cent of downloaded apps are regularly used. So while business travellers point out they would like to manage fewer apps, people don’t seem to mind having multiple apps on their phones when they are differently categorised or grouped by task.”

Mobile mindfulness

The “mediocre” app is a challenge travel technology companies are taking on. For example, Amadeus wants to make apps “richer”. Magesh says: “The more the app can do, the more you’ll use it and the fewer apps you’ll need. Think of it as mindfulness for your mobile. You don’t want to be jumping from one app to another for travel and expense management – you want to have that all in the one place. Our strategy is to develop solutions that have as many app features integrated into one easy-to-use super app.”

As a result, chatbots are being hailed as one solution to lighten the load. Already FCM Travel’s Sam is making waves, and Amadeus is looking to harness this type of intuitive technology to help its TMC customers. “We’re finding customers seriously considering chat as a way to communicate. Chatbots offer the advantage of being able to book, receive information and even pay without the hassle of changing between multiple apps,” says Magesh. “Travellers are ultimately looking for a more integrated experience that reduces multiple log-ins and avoids unproductive and repetitive data entry.

“Examples include the ability to search and book directly from daily business applications such as the calendar. Amadeus is partnering with leaders in these areas, including Microsoft and Salesforce, to offer more seamless and automated booking and expense management.”

Better use of data is also key for streamlining the experience. CWT’s Jordan argues that, to date, “nobody has done data right, which is curious as there’s not been a shortage of data”. Jordan joined the company last year from outside the travel sector, having worked for US media giant NBC Universal, so brings a fresh perspective.

The holy grail

Upon joining CWT, Jordan set up a data scientist division, which now numbers 100 people. He wants to begin blending more client data to achieve that holy grail of the ‘one-click’ booking. This type of application, he adds, has now been developed at CWT but, as yet, has not been released to the market. He says there is a need to blend data with external travel data to offer a better service to the business traveller. For example, by looking at how they book their flights outside of work, that traveller can then be offered the same airline for business travel.

HRG’s Meyer agrees it can pay to look deeper into travellers’ external data to make their lives easier. “Corporate data is largely irregular and inconsistent, and sometimes incorrect,” he argues. “So now we’re analysing the employee’s previous travel data, rather than policy. For example, the traveller might like a particular hotel brand. Time after time they may leave it until the last minute to book, knowing that particular brand is out of policy – but the only type left at short notice. So it’s a blend of personalised and corporate view. Our job as a TMC is to optimise investment, but [travellers] need a great experience, and a work/life balance.”

IATA’s NDC (New Distribution Capability) is also going some way to enhance personalisation, Meyer adds. “With NDC, we’re getting access to services we couldn’t before, such as online check-in. That can be automated, whereas before the traveller had to use an airline app.”

Jordan also believes external data is increasingly useful to analyse. “This industry is ready for disruption,” he says. “If you look, historically, at how managed travel was measured – two pillars of privacy and policy – it never brought the customer into it. But now there’s a third leg to the stool – travellers are looking for the best way to be efficient when they travel. They are looking for the path of least resistance, so now they’re speaking with their feet and travel managers have to wake up to that.

“If you take some of the trends from outside travel, such as profiling and personalisation, like Amazon does, it’s about the customer. Give the customer the best service. This industry hasn’t given the traveller this. Look at personalisation and design, not just form and function.”

Meanwhile, Jordan argues that taking things offline, in some cases, is a way to minimise technology overload. “People make a mistake thinking customer experience is all about online when it should be about the best way, including the ability to make a simple phone call when needed, for example,” he says.

For Sarah Marshall, travel and security manager at DAI, this kind of flexibility is important to ease digital stress. “People like flexibility when it comes to booking travel – sometimes they just want to log on and book a regular simple route they have booked dozens of times. Other times they want to pick up the phone and speak to someone who knows what they are talking about whether it’s a hotel or route they have never used before,” she says.

“Our travellers are pretty good – they just want a clear policy on what they have to do and when to use the most suitable booking option. If travellers know which app or website to use, they are more likely to be compliant which makes enforcement of duty-of-care processes straightforward.”  

Master or servant?

The question of whether we play master or servant could prove to be a short-lived debate, however. Nick Chiarelli is director of research and analytics at Foresight Factory, which tracks consumer attitudes and behaviour. He says that currently technology is invasive – “it doesn’t leave us alone” – but recent advancements mean technology will start to fade into the background, and become less intrusive.

“Technology overload, or digital detox, is temporary – it’s a here and now phenomenon,” he says, noting the rise in more “haptic” or wearable technology, and the theme of “causal connectivity”.

“For example, on some motorbikes the handlebars can link to a phone’s map app, and vibrate left or right to indicate which way to turn,” says Chiarelli. “There are even shoes that have pads that vibrate in the same way. In the longer term, people won’t have to look at a screen. And in about three to five years, the phone will be our servant, not the other way round.”

He also believes in offering the right balance between automation and human interaction, citing the recent revival of Google Glass as a case in point. Google launched the augmented-reality, wearable device in May 2014, but withdrew it eight months later. However, Google announced in July this year that it is planning to relaunch it as Glass Enterprise Edition – and as a business application.

“Virgin Atlantic trialled it,” recalls Chiarelli, “and I think that’s a better idea of where technology is going. It’s not replacing human interaction, it’s improving human interaction.”

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