The fundamental requirements to meet customer needs in e-travel distribution are changing dramatically. E-travel distribution has been built around three features for decades: Consistency, Accuracy and Completeness. In the case of airline travel, for example:
- First, travelers are looking for complete information – in the case of airline travel, the site needs to include all flights for all airlines that can get them where they want to go.
- Travelers demand accurate information so that they can make their own travel decisions and not have to separately contact each travel supplier.
- They appreciate having the information on travel choices in a consistent format so that they can compare easily; for airlines, travelers have historically sought fares, departure times, arrival times, and airline.
But this isn’t enough anymore. With new airline products, new airline-specific branded fares, and new ancillary fees, travel sites that were designed even a few years ago are often not meeting customer needs. Sites are scrambling to include ancillary information along with base fares and flight times. Branded fares are now being tested in some sites but are not widely available. Travel sites know that their customers need more.
In anticipation of this need – both for travel suppliers and travel distributors – IATA, a global airline association, has developed a standard protocol for ancillary fees and branded fares called “New Distribution Capability” (“NDC”) that is intended to facilitate inclusion of such data in sites; in addition, IATA’s One Order concept integrates the order and the invoice process – which are currently separated in the legacy reservation system – making the trip purchase process look more like the framework of an amazon.com. Such a new order/invoice process could bring on new intermediaries, like amazon, that aggregate airline flight alternatives for customers.
But “completeness” – complete flight information, complete ancillary information, base fares and new branded fares and products – can now be overwhelming. “Consistency” is challenged by the variety of ancillary fees and branded fares. And “Accuracy” is tougher to keep up with when each airline has its own rules and product features.
The complexity associated with the new breadth of choice for travelers drives a new need for customer usability. Customers don’t just want “bigger” Data – they need new tools to access the data relevant to them. “Value add” for sites goes beyond just making the data itself available. A wall of data in response to an airline flight search (many columns, many rows) does not work well for most customers in the new marketplace. There are three new “usability” elements that are now needed to help customers navigate the new travel landscape.
The old filters were pretty basic: airline, lowest fare, departure time, nonstop versus connect. New filters may include the checked bag fee or reserved seat fee, or seat pitch, or ticket flexibility – or a mix of such filters. Sites need new filters to help customers navigate new options.
Merchandising or “right product at the right time”
Rather than just relying on customer-managed filters, the travel site should identify customers’ needs or preferences based on different market segments, and help travelers find the most relevant flight information for them uniquely. For family travel, reserved seats and checked bags may be particularly useful. For business travel, ticket flexibility is likely to be more important. An improved customer interaction will come from anticipating customer needs, not always relying on each traveler to specify his individual needs in the spectrum of new choices.
Ultimately, sites need to offer a personalized experience. The sites need to recognize individual participation in frequent flyer programs or credit card benefits that allow free checked bags, for example. They need to tap into travel history to understand individual preferences. They need to build a database of relevant traveler information to then help each traveler more easily navigate the new marketplace.
“Bigger Data” – product information, ancillary service fees and rules, and branded fares – are all now needed in travel sites to better meet traveler needs. Airlines, and IATA, and various existing distribution channels are working to access this information and make it available in travel purchasing. But Big Data is definitely not enough. The sites all need to offer new customer usability features to allow users to fully exploit the continuously growing Big Data.