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Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 10 : 51 AM [IST]


P Krishna Kumar & Akansha Pandey
L-R Rahul Chakravarty, Director & Head-Tourism, FICCI; Ashish Kumar, Managing Partner, Agnitio Consulting; Dr. Jyotsna Suri, Chairperson, FICCI Tourism Committee; Avijit Banerjee, VP, Avalon Global Research & Suman Billa, Joint Secretary-Tourism, Government of India releasing the FICCI-Avalon Knowledge Paper

The Digital Travel, Hospitality & Innovation Summit 2017 held in Delhi from March 22 to 23, saw a good turnout of serious delegates wanting to know more on the technological innovation in the travel, tourism and hospitality sector. The sessions were quite informative and kept the delegates glued to their seats on both the days. Though the speakers didn’t miss the opportunity to make a marketing pitch of their own brand, they also talked about the tech savvy initiatives taken at their end and what the future has in store for the sector.

Inaugurating the two-day summit organised by FICCI in the capital, Suman Billa, Joint Secretary-Tourism, Government of India, said that the digital explosion that is happening globally has removed the advantage big players were enjoying over their smaller counterparts, thus creating a level-playing field for everyone.

He added that this shift has affected brick and mortar agencies that haven’t harnessed digital technology. Many services are being commoditised in the travel tourism and hospitality industry with the help of digital technology; therefore it is high time that even brick and mortar agencies try to shift atleast certain percentage of the business to digital platforms. Even in the accommodation segment, digital technology can be used to unlock the under-utilised inventory in the homestay and bed and breakfast segments.

He also asked the industry to take reviews seriously and respond to them quickly to remain successful in the business. Other than the big players, a large chunk of the industry is yet to take reviews seriously, he lamented.

Billa said that India as a destination cannot move ahead without being fully digitally enabled. The Ministry of Tourism, he said, will try to take this message across the country to create awareness about the importance of ‘do it yourself’ digitally.

Talking about the changing landscape in travel, tourism and hospitality, Abhishek Rajan, Vice President & Head-Travel Marketplace, Paytm, exclaimed that mobile revolution has surged their business and presently 92% of train bookings on Paytm are done through the mobile app. He added, “Personalisation needs to be looked into much more deeply and the search results must be keenly filtered. There should be different variations of search for each customer, adding value to customer experience. Moreover, virtual assistants such as chatbots are the future.”

Chinmai Sharma, Chief Revenue Officer, Taj Hotels, Palaces, Resorts and Safaris, agreed that mobile has been growing at a lightening speed. Even the luxury and uber luxury travellers are now discovering products and experiences on mobile. He also quoted that it shouldn’t be taken for granted that other segments of travellers on mobile spend less on travel. As a matter of fact, these travellers are staying longer and spending more. On the customer front, more people are getting online and accustomed to e-commerce and seamless localisation is the answer to this growing trend. Realising this, even Taj Group is monitoring social media in real time, he revealed.

Hari Nair, Founder and CEO, Holiday IQ exclaimed, “Thanks to social media, one can now tap customers even before they search you. One of the biggest challenges here is to reach out to them with meaningful content.”

Recalling the disruption at TripAdvisor, Nikhil Ganju, Country Manager, TripAdvisor India, shared how handing over customers to hotel partners was getting clunky. The brand disrupted the same integrating the booking experience which is a win-win in the long term. Going forward, they are planning to enhance on-trip experiences and are currently testing new technology and services.

Vikram Ahuja, Founder, Byond Travel, said that travel has evolved from a luxury to a commodity and is led by inspiration. If one is focussing the next-gen smart holiday traveller then new technology such as Virtual Reality (VR) is the future. Its appeal is way better than the traditional mediums.

Highlighting the features of a new-age traveller, Neerja Bhatia, Vice President, Indian Subcontinent Etihad Airways, stated that the frequency of holidays has increased as travellers are much more informed with plethora of information available on the Internet. Accordingly, travel brands should understand the needs of their customers and differentiate themselves from the rest by creating their own novel USPs. Here, brands need to play the role of consultants, she said.

Telling their own story, G B Srithar, Regional Director, South Asia, Middle East & Africa, Singapore Tourism Board (STB), said that they are looking at customer-centric marketing strategies targeting the sophisticated new-age traveller. Also, STB is leaving no stone unturned in leveraging technology with a heart catering to hyper-customisation.

Talking from a technology standpoint, Siddharth Dabhade, Head of Industry, Google India, stressed that real time feedback and data assists in improving the travel products and services. Also, video consumption for travel in India is higher than many other countries.

Sriram Rajmohan, CEO and MD, Club 7 Holidays, outlined, “Today’s customers are more informed than the front line staff of travel companies. Thus, we push our staff to get familiar with unique experiences and promote accordingly to different age groups. However, witnessing the tech-boom, it seems robotics will take over our business in the future with chatbots, Siri on iPhones, etc.

Lamenting on the dominance of Online Travel Agents (OTAs), Zia Sheikh, Chairman and MD, Svenska Design Hotels, urged that the unfair commissions by OTAs which goes up to 25% should be rationalised. Also, there is a constant tussle with the OTAs to maintain rate parity. This needs to be looked into. Although, the OTAs play a big role in promoting niche hotels, which was a challenging task earlier.

Highlighting opportunities for the OTAs, Sidharth Gupta, Co-founder, Treebo Hotels, commented that at the time of booking the OTAs can elaborate on the experience that the customer can expect at the hotel. This potential marketplace can further assist the hotel in branding and conveying customer feedback. For hotels which use dynamic pricing, OTAs are the right platform.

Driving direct bookings through brand’s website, Sonavi Kaicker, CEO, Neemrana Hotels, exclaimed that their brand site is the brain of their business and the investment being done in it is for long-term. Pointing out an opportunity, she added that OTAs do cross selling which can further be researched.

The Indian aviation space is going through exciting times; however things are not planned as per the projected growth. Domestic travel will triple and outbound travel will double in the coming times. Thus, billions of investment is needed to support the robust growth and the planning cycle should cover a broader duration, said Kapil Kaul, CEO-South Asia, CAPA. He also questioned the airlines saying, “How many of you carriers actually know the profile and preferences of your customers? The question here is how will the Indian aviation space become smarter and who will take the responsibility for the same?”

Essa Sulaiman Ahmad, VP-India & Nepal, Emirates, agreed with Kaul saying that understanding the customer’s demographic and behaviour is of utmost significance as technology is going to be the only way to communicate in the future. Following the same, Emirates has localised its websites in native languages and has invested in enhancing the customer experience and innovation. We now focus on collecting database for improving services, he outlined.

Airlines may want to introduce some new technology interface but airports have a number of limitations, pointed out Kamal Hingorani, Senior VP & Head-InFlight Services and Customer Experience, SpiceJet. The airport experience is very crucial and acts as a deciding factor in making or breaking the customer delight. No one today wants to wait two hours prior to flying. Such experiences are a big turn off, he feels.

Besides, SpiceJet is awaiting the permit for using Internet onboard. They also claim that they’ll be the first carrier in among Indian airlines to roll out chatbox feature as 60% customer queries are standard.

Customer is at the heart of every initiative launched at Etihad, said Neerja, “We have designed loyalty programme for their front line staff and is the first carrier to roll out a Virtual Reality experience for Airbus A380,” she exclaimed.

Realising the demand for ancillary services, flydubai has majorly tapped this potential revenue-generating opportunity. Talking about the future trends, Pran Dasan, Regional Manager-India, Nepal & Sri Lanka, flydubai added, that the trend of using own devices such as mobile, laptops, tablets, etc., onboard will further grow and accelerate. May be in the coming times, travellers won’t be filling up the immigration form but will have a printed form to handover.
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