By Champa Magesh
Special to The Nation
These are two assumptions I cannot agree with, particularly if we look at the world of retailing.
In Thailand the value of e-commerce rose to Bt3.2 trillion last year, representing the highest growth in Southeast Asia. So it’s not surprising to see traditional retailers looking to expand their presence online.
However, on the flip side, major e-commerce players like Amazon, Alibaba, Lazada and Pomelo Fashion are looking to establish a presence offline. While some may opt for temporary pop-up stores, others look to set up permanent physical shops. And this move to the offline world – and the demand for it by consumers – is why I don’t believe that traditional retailers are dead. Rather, their roles are simply changing.
This is the future – and the opportunity – for retail travel agencies. The challenge is that travellers, in particular the millennial generation, don’t turn to retail stores to plan their next vacation. They’re using a combination of online travel agencies, publishers, social media and referrals to make their purchase decisions.
To compete in this digital space, travel agents will need to embrace this transformation to safeguard their services and value. While the entire retail-travel-agency business model has traditionally been about the human touch, it's now evolving to combine physical, digital and human components, meaning businesses will need to work across multiple channels – online, mobile and brick-and-mortar.
What this means for businesses is that, instead of simply thinking about how to generate traffic to their stores, websites or call centres, they now need to also think about how they can inspire travellers. To do this successfully, a key step will be upgrading – and in some cases changing – the technology they currently use.
To become true designers of the future travel experience, travel agents need to harness “the power of three”.
Travellers want transparency and choice, and they want immediately. In an era of endless pricing options, fare types and loyalty programmes, insightful recommendations for trip planning are more valuable than ever.
To deliver this, travel agents will need a comprehensive set of content – airline, hotel, alternative lodging and ground transport options – and ensure that this information is effectively managed for customers. They could, for example, share the options through interactive screens that allow customers the flexibility to choose what they want and leave the task of fulfilling their preferences to the agency.
With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), travel agents can now analyse their customers’ previous travel history and preferences to build a highly personalised experience. This brings new opportunities for not only travel applications but also monetisation. In fact, more than 80 per cent of Thai consumers are willing to spend more for personalised products and services, according to a survey by the SCB Economic Intelligence Centre.
Machine learning could also be aided with voice and natural language processing. Travellers will want to be able to tell their application what to do. Travel agents that devise the most efficient way of selling high-value and high-engagement products via voice will succeed in the future.
We’re beginning to see the adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) in streamlining the operation of hotels and airlines by connecting complex systems to smart devices. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. With 5G services expected in 2020, we will see mass connectivity, everything from fully intelligent homes to smart transportation systems.
For travel agents, IoT has the potential to address customer pain-points by delivering relevant information at just the right time. For instance, location-based information for a traveller looking for the best takeout restaurant nearby with the best customer reviews.
Popular opinion suggests the demise of the retail travel agency business model. However, I prefer to see it as the evolution of the agency experience. It’s about designing an experience that is collaborative and creative.
We travel to be amazed, and retail travel agencies play a significant part in creating that amazement.
Champa Magesh is vice president of retail travel channels at Amadeus.