It wasn’t that long ago that designing the travel experience was the responsibility of the travel facilitators themselves, but the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets over the last eight years has created vast opportunities for technology giants in the travel sphere. This fact was highlighted in 2013 by the FTE Airports 2025 Think Tank, which asked the question: ‘If travel industry stakeholders do not embrace change and innovation to redefine the passenger experience, the likes of Apple of Google will do it instead. Is that what the industry wants?’
So when FTE recently had the chance to speak with Javier Delgado Muerza, Head of EMEA – Travel Top Accounts at Google, we were keen to find out his thoughts on how the travel experience can be improved and what role the likes of Google can play in defining tomorrow’s travel experience.
Like most, Muerza expects the smartphone to remain a vital tool in the travel process – “not the only one, but a key one” – thanks to the “constant interaction” between devices and their owners. “It’s the one thing that’s always with the consumer and it’s the main gateway for consumers to access any kind of information or transaction within the travel cycle.”
Google has already tapped into this smartphone and tablet-oriented consumer mindset with Google Now, its own intelligent personal assistant that can provide real-time journey-specific updates. Initially released back in 2012, it has been adopted by a number of airlines, such as Emirates, Singapore Airlines and SilkAir, to help simplify their passengers’ travel experience.
“When we think about travel, it’s very intense in information,” Muerza said. “The amount of information that needs to be handled by the traveller is enormous. If you happen to use Google Now, you will have realised that it serves you the information you need, when you need it. It brings value to the consumer.”
Of course, Google Now is not the only intelligent personal assistant on the market, and Muerza also highlighted the IPITA (Integrated Pro-active Intermodal Travel Assistant) concept as something that could improve tomorrow’s travel experience. If a flight is cancelled, for instance, IPITA, which is not a Google product, can automatically identify the most suitable alternative, taking into consideration multiple forms of transport, including things like high-speed trains as well as flights, and then allow the user to book a ticket and arrange any transportation needed to get to a different airport or train station. All of this is done within the single travel assistant.
Lack of integration can be ‘painful’
While some of the features of IPITA are already a reality, to make an all-encompassing IPITA-style assistant work, Muerza says better integration is needed. “The fact that you need to go through different platforms to complete different things on a single trip, and the fact that these things are not completely integrated can be painful,” he said. The likes of Google Now can “really add value”, he stated, but if more companies were willing to share data the possibilities could be multiplied.
“If you think of some of the companies that now manage you and book you when the cost of the flight goes down for instance, things like that are always very welcome by the users and the road warriors like me who travel a lot. But often there’s a lack of integration and a lack of what’s seen as the travel experience through the journey. The problem is nobody wants to give up their platform or data…everyone is thinking about their own business instead of the user, who happens to be their real business.”
‘No need to feel threatened’
Muerza’s frustration about this lack of integration is matched by his enthusiasm to help improve the travel experience for the end user, and it is exactly this determination that led the FTE Airports 2025 Think Tank to ask the question about the future role of technology giants in redefining the passenger experience.
When asked whether airlines, airports and other industry stakeholders should feel intimidated, Muerza responded: “I wouldn’t say anyone needs to feel threatened. I think that efficiency is getting higher and higher and as a consequence competition is getting more and more fierce, which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you think about the user. At the end of the day, if you look at hotels or airlines or car rental companies, what they need to do is fill their seats, their rooms, their cars, and it’s about getting demand closer to them.
“If you look at a Google report from last year (The 2014 Traveler’s Road to Decision), a staggering 65% of leisure travellers and 69% of business travellers use the Internet to get access to any kind of information before they travel. This obviously keeps growing and shows the value of Google.”
Most airlines, airports and other travel industry stakeholders surely welcome this added value, yet it is inevitable that some will remain cautious about third parties, including technology giants, helping to define the travel experience. Muerza’s point around better integration, however, should not be ignored. Naturally, better integration requires better data sharing, which is always a sensitive topic, but if airlines and airports really do want to put their passengers first, it is surely a point worth heeding.