Navigating the complexity of online travel

Written by Helen Maher, director of market management, UK & Ireland, Expedia Group

There are approximately two million destinations around the world that people are actively looking to visit. There are also roughly 10 or more ways that a traveller can describe their accommodation – from motel and hotel through to bed and breakfast, apartment, tent or even treehouse.

If we put these numbers together, we’re already looking at 20 million search combinations. This is the scale of the travel ecosystem we are operating in today: nowadays, when we talk about travel, it’s to every place in the world, and everyone in the world that constitutes who we market to, and what we market for.

This doesn’t even include any of the qualifying terms for amenities that travellers typically search for. For example, are you looking for family-friendly? Pet-friendly? With ocean view or buffet breakfast? Put simply, it’s challenging. Realistically, we’re looking at more than two billion search combinations, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg because there are even more combinations that aren’t explicitly known – yet.

Add this to the fact that the pace of innovation is changing the world at an exponential rate, and technology such as AI is making it even more complex than ever. While I’m sure you’ve heard that technology is playing an increasingly significant role in how business is conducted, let’s actually give that some tangible context.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) achieved a new milestone when it beat a human professional player at chess for the first time with a handicap. In other words, the intuition of AI reached the ability to outpace the human mind – and this was three and a half years ago.

“Is it overwhelming? Absolutely”

So when it comes to navigating a more connected, more technologically advanced, and therefore more complex ecosystem – is it overwhelming? Absolutely. But the opportunity for the tourism industry is limitless. And one of the keys to putting the industry in hyper-drive is by leveraging data and technology.

Of course, not all players are going to have the resources to invest or the might to generate the millions and millions of data points that make this possible. We are now observing over 2.3 billion interactions and exchanges of data between our suppliers and the Expedia Group marketplace every day. This represents 2.3 billion signals and feedback opportunities to learn from.

This is where we can work together – collaboratively. Rather than resisting new technology and global players, I’d implore this great industry to be optimistic about the opportunities that lie ahead.

For example, the capabilities of imagining a data-informed and action-driven bot that provides a hotelier with recommendations on how to optimise their positive reviews. Now, imagine that instead of an experience that gives you the insights and actions via words on a screen, it comes to life as a human video bot to guide you through them, helping to further optimise company performance, similar to Google Assistant. Well this is something we’re already working on, and we can expect to see in the not-too-distant future.

Chat bots are commonplace nowadays – will video bots soon join them?

Travel and tourism combined is a great industry, one that contributed £245bn in GDP last year according to the Oxford Economics for World Travel & Tourism Council, and promises to be a long-term economic pillar for us if we stay ahead of the game.

So how, exactly, do we do this? Let’s look at the opportunity provided by data and technology. Machine learning, which is a powerful and positive disruptor, can help solve industry challenges and puts the power of global platforms, such as Expedia Group, into the hands of lodging players of all sizes.

Machine learning enables lodging players to become better and smarter about how they interact with travellers and optimise their business. It allows for the predicting of trends in the market and more precise personalisation.

“What a hotel should charge based on competition, compression and other market dynamics”

For example, we offer lodging partners a free revenue management tool, Rev+, that can provide possible predictions such as what a hotel should charge based on competition, compression and other market dynamics. Through the tool, the property’s competitive set is machine generated based on market knowledge, hotel attributes and prices.

In other words, machine learning is already helping our lodging partners reduce operational expenses and increase revenues by forecasting demand for their inventory.

Looking forward, it’s clear we need a piece of AI to take machine learning one step further and recommend which of the available tools and actionable insights are going to most efficiently optimise business for our lodging partners.

Over the past few months we’ve developed algorithms to do just this. This is continually evolving. In fact, in the not-too-distant future we will develop the capabilities for lodging partners to discuss revenue management advice and opportunities with a video bot.

It’s everything we’ve dreamt of through science fiction movies coming to life in the way we conduct business, and it is not far away. Technology is already creating the type of experience where that automation feels just that little bit more human.

In this world where technology is changing at lightning speed, it is no doubt becoming more and more challenging to optimise hotel distribution globally. The industry is rapidly evolving, and so too are we, but no one part of the travel ecosystem holds the answers.

We’re hugely optimistic about the future and I implore the travel industry to embrace the technology and data that will kick our local industry into hyper drive.

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