Rebuilding, rethinking travel

Travelport’s chief marketing officer Jennifer Catto shares her thoughts on the digitalisation of the travel industry, post-pandemic opportunities, and the future of travel technology on the sidelines of the company's The Future of Travel Retail Thought Leadership event held recently in Dubai

As travel starts to rebound globally, what does the industry need to do to thrive?
The industry needs to rebuilt trust. Actually, I do think consumers are giving the industry credit for acting very quickly around restrictions and transparency of information. Refunds and exchanges by and large went very smoothly during what was an unprecedented time. I think consumer trust is shockingly high for the travel industry right now, but continuing to build that trust, like making sure consumers and travellers know what the latest is on restrictions and everyone along the chain is trained on that so when things change they know, is key.

What opportunities has the pandemic presented for the industry to reinvent itself?
There are a couple of key moves that the industry is poised to make in the wake of the pandemic. The first is more flexibility. The rigidness around changes and refunds has changed drastically. The industry had to act very quickly to become nimble about how to operationalise those quicker and in a much more flexible way than we as travellers were used to. I hope that stays; travellers will expect that to stay because there’s still uncertainty.

The second is that consumers expect a good experience. It’s been a hard-earned pent-up wait for travel, so we expect things to go smoothly and we expect suppliers to provide that experience. We’re really counting on suppliers to deliver that now more than ever.

Why is the travel industry lagging behind in digital innovation?
Travel technology is very complicated if you compare it to other retail sectors. What I like about Travelport, and why I came to Travelport, is it’s a company with decades of in-depth experience and deep expertise, yet it is building something altogether new. There are a lot of upstarts in the industry but they don’t have the depth of experience to understand the complexities and how to simplify them.

What exciting entries to the market should the industry look out for in 2022?
We are very lucky to have a new CTO (Tom Kershaw, who joined as chief product and technology officer in July 2021) who is evaluating travel technology with fresh eyes. He’s very passionate about rebuilding search for travel and making it work just like the Internet; adding machine learning and the data we know about the traveller to the search so that it’s more personalised.

The second is workflow. It’s really important for the industry to make the workflow feel more like the Internet. This isn’t just for the end consumer but for the people working in the industry. A technical example is PNRs. They’re woefully outdated and have been flawed for a long time. Our plan is to reinvent them and move to an open-source model so that more than one person at a time can work on a file and bring the data closer to end travellers.

A recent Travelport survey revealed shopping for travel is complicated and cumbersome for consumers. What does the industry need to do to change this?
As we build Travelport+, our goal is to simplify that experience for both the industry and consumer. It’s not necessarily to reduce the complexity, travel is always going to be a really complex back-end technology, but to reduce the interaction with that complexity is our goal. To be able to simplify it for the users would be a real first in the industry.

What new needs have arisen from post-lockdown travel behaviour?
The depth of digital has accelerated across all of our lives and all generations. We carried out a study on trust last year and the thing that came out is there is zero tolerance for hidden fees, especially during a pandemic. For example, when you’re ordering food online, you know what it costs to have it delivered and any gratuity fees (are) not hidden. That transparency has to carry into travel.

There is a lot of buzz around personalising the travel experience. What does this mean?
The key thing is information sharing and, again, the industry needs to move towards a more collaborative model that is maybe some form of unified traveller ID. However, there is hesitance there. Like with the publishing industry, there is a reluctance to share information for fear of competition despite the fact everyone knows it would be for the best. I think this will continue to be a discussion that evolves.

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