In a guest column this week, Jen Catto, Chief Marketing Officer at Travelport talks about the advent of modern digital retailing in travel and how the travel industry can take on the opportunity with the right improved tools.
People love choice. Having options makes us feel in control, and reassured in our buying decisions. But the paradox of choice is when an overload of alternatives leads to inaction. Imagine you’re shopping to get kitted out for an upcoming vacation.
You go into a huge retailer like Target, or a department store that sells an enormous range of big-brand products. There’s so much on offer you end up feeling overwhelmed, and leave empty-handed. Or, you deliberate for ages over which pair of sunglasses, Hawaiian shirt, or luggage you want, but still make a bad decision. We’ve all been there.
Having options is exciting. But it can equally make decision-making long and stressful. And because choice puts the onus on the chooser, it means you only have yourself to blame if things go wrong. Personal shoppers help consumers navigate these situations. Their unique value is being unbiased, and having expertise in finding the right fit and the best deals.
This is what travel agents do too. When it comes to travel, there’s so much to choose from now that it’s all too easy to abandon cart. Travel agents also help consumers avoid bad choices — be it unsuitable destination, inconvenient flight time, or too many stopovers (unfortunately they can’t help on the Hawaiian shirts though).
But as retailing becomes more and more digitized, the travel industry is failing to give our personal shoppers the right tools for the job. And as time passes, more and more products, technology, retail channels, and suppliers are coming on the market — compounding the buyers’ dilemma and intensifying the need for change.
Travel Retailing is Broken
Before we go any further, let’s be really clear about what we mean by ‘retailing’. A lot of travel tech companies refer to ‘travel retailing’ in the context of agencies that have physical stores. However, I believe that travel retailing should be the entire process of buying, and even servicing of travel — regardless of agency or supplier type.
Modern digital retailing in travel is about putting the customer (the traveler, guest, or passenger) at the centre of what you do and taking responsibility for their entire journey, from initial shopping through to completing the trip. The modern digital brands that consumers love have a lot in common. They’re fast, simple, convenient, provide choice, have excellent customer service, take responsibility for fulfilment and delivery, and work hard to meet their customer’s needs. And this grows trust and builds loyalty.
So why do we think travel retailing specifically is broken’? In a nutshell: the system that was built thirty or forty years ago hasn’t really kept with the times — which means we aren’t delivering that modern, digital customer experience. While other industries embraced new retailing technology with open arms, too often travel shied away from change. In innovation terms, travel is a ‘late adopter’, especially compared to retailers in other industries, like Amazon, Netflix, or Spotify. The result? Agents aren’t set up to succeed, and so suppliers can’t get the most from this über-valuable sales channel.
And hey, airlines are great at selling their own products. But for the customer, shopping is all about seeing different options, being able to clearly compare and contrast them, and ending up with the right deal for what they want or need. Especially when they’re buying (or booking) in bulk — or if the ‘store’ isn’t visible (i.e. it’s online). But, just as there are 80,000 possible ways to drink a Starbucks beverage, there are literally trillions of possible travel offers/combinations out there, and guiding the decision is the travel agents’ forte.
There are isolated silos of retailing excellence (some online travel agencies(OTAs) have built a great business out of selling hotels), but nobody is getting the most from doing it end to end, for full journeys, and across all channels.
What Does Modern Retailing Look Like?
Back to choice. Having more options and full price transparency is always better for the consumer. Like I said, the perception of choice helps to reinforce buying decisions, builds trust, and makes customers feel in control. That means showing the cheapest offer, even if we already know it’s not the one they’ll go for. Price comparison sites are a step in the right direction, but they still don’t fully solve the challenges of personalization, brand loyalty, and ensuring repeat business. Just ask OTAs.
Modern retailing happens when the consumer gets the right product/offer, at the right time, and at the right price. And in doing so, those customers immediately recognize the value of agencies in solving their choice paradox. This isn’t just my view — it’s backed heavily by the airline industry and IATA as the primary strategy for change and managing digital transformation. The nuance in the wording says it all: IATA have even replaced NDC certification with its Airline Retailing Maturity(ARM) index.
We all know the score. If you’re not disrupting, you risk being disrupted. If you let shopping become overwhelming, tedious, or a chore for your customers, they’ll go elsewhere. Travel itself is a joy, so it should be inherently easy to sell. But the fact that customers have to seek so much advice before booking proves that it’s not. The question is: how do we help agents cut through complexity, manage choice, and be the personal shoppers their customers need? If travel retailing is broken, who’s going to fix it?
Your Retail Toolkit
My two cents is: you can’t solve travel’s complex retailing challenges unless you tackle them from an impartial, independent standpoint. Just like travel agencies, being neutral is the only way to really understand the problems, and propose unbiased solutions that prioritize customer needs above all else. And, you also have to actually understand what ‘retailing’ really means, and what it requires.
At Travelport, we talk to travel businesses about their retailing challenges every single day. And we use this continuous feedback loop to develop future-focused solutions within Travelport+. Ones that make it easier for agents’ to manage choice, build better digital experiences, and sell more effectively. That means access to more and more products that are ready to sell (i.e. no development work) — including both traditional and non-traditional offers, like NDC.
Modern retailing is about embracing new technology that makes retailing better, easier, and faster than before. So we’re making it a priority to support retailing through different devices (web and mobile responsive) via our API toolkit. And, we’re bringing out smarter displays that are set up to give agents more control, more detailed searches, and intuitively help to sell more extras and add-ons as they guide customers through the decision-making process.
When I said earlier that retailing is the entire process of buying and selling travel, that doesn’t just mean booking. There are opportunities to sell, upsell, and impress your customer with excellent service throughout the trip too (or rather, there should be, if your technology partner is doing its job right). From ticketing to exchanges — and onwards through trip management — the overall customer experience is the result of multiple interactions, not just the first, simple sale. Because at the end of the day, that’s what modern retailing is all about: impressing your customer in every transaction.
Driving Retailing Excellence
The choice paradox is just the tip of the iceberg in modern retailing. There’s so much more to explore, and as a company, we’ll continue to do that through Travelport+ and our other industry initatives like Travelport Accelerator, the Travelport NDC Leadership Council, and other events that we tailor around aspects of modern retailing.
Modern retailing isn’t just a buzzword to us. It’s something we’re really passionate about. Frankly, we built a whole new platform to enable it — that’s how serious we are about it. We don’t want travel to be the late adopters anymore. And we don’t want customers to feel like they’re standing confused in the aisle of a Target, unable to make up their minds. Travel retailing is broken, but we’re fixing it. So stay tuned for more.