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Collected But Neglected: Data Could Save The Travel Industry

11/30/20 | Authored by Philip Wolf, Founder PhoCusWright and serial board director (including Mobi's!) and Anna Jaffe, CEO, Mobi Systems. |

The travel industry has not bounced back from COVID-19 the way many of us hoped. As Warren Buffet said of crises, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.” Despite some notable exceptions, the travel industry looks more naked than Tom Hanks marooned on a Pacific beach in Castaway. 

Pre-COVID, travel, tourism and hospitality was one of the world’s largest industries and employers at about 10 percent of global GDP. No matter where your company sits on the value chain, you must be asking yourself: How do we survive this? How do we come back stronger?

After cutting costs and maintaining operations, the quest for new revenue opportunities is paramount. The greatest such opportunity is right under your feet, hidden in the data you already own. “There’s gold in them thar hills,” as Mark Twain put it.

The greatest opportunity is right under your feet, hidden in the data you already own. “There’s gold in them thar hills,” as Mark Twain put it.

But you probably knew that already. No businessperson can escape the relentless growth of data, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). Snowflake’s September 16 IPO underscored that trend: yet another company turning the analysis of data into a multibillion-dollar business. So why haven’t travel suppliers and intermediaries done more, seriously more, with their data? And what will be the cost of this insufficient progress?

We’ll tell you. Most travel companies lack the skills needed to analyze, clean, restructure, process, learn from, augment and monetize their data. For them, data is an operational necessity. A basic set of data is collected while digital gold is tossed out as waste. The remaining data sits unused. 

Some firms know there’s gold in them thar hills and are genuinely afraid to let an outside data science firm access or analyze that information. Others make the same mistake as Kodak. The photographic film giant actually invented the digital camera in 1975 yet dropped the initiative fearing it would cannibalize its core. The folly of avoiding cannibalism is that it happens anyway, only worse when driven by the competition. Too many established companies are unwilling to invest in initiatives that either threaten legacy products or significantly differ from them. 

Unable or unwilling to use its data, the travel industry today is irresistibly vulnerable to disruption.

A business strategy that projects the past on the future is a recipe for disaster. The pain of embarking on a course correction pales in comparison to the risk of awaiting a rebound or playing it safe. For travel companies, one of the best ways out of this trap is to harvest their own data. Not just from historical sources, but in real time, directly and explicitly from customers.

A significant benefit of leveraging data is transforming your customer acquisition strategy, especially if it’s overly dependent on search engine marketing (SEM). There’s a reason “person” is in “personalization.” Genuine one-on-one customer connections provide relief from paying the Google Tax by building brand and loyalty. Performance marketing spend is simultaneously a lifeline for revenue but can be a persistent erosion on margins. While many companies wish they could reduce this dependency, they haven’t succeeded. It’s time to look in them thar hills.

Enter Amazon, the king of data. Exponential growth at Operation Bezos during the pandemic has made the master of exploiting customer data even smarter. The recently launched Amazon Explore, a virtual tour and activities platform with global destinations, is yet another sign that Amazon is relentlessly experimenting and strategizing its return to travel. When—not if—that happens, a momentous episode in travel will unfold. Amazon, armed with data, will generate new revenue streams in our industry that few others can counter. 

Mining your data seems tangential to your business because, well, it is. However, not pursuing data-related opportunities leaves much-needed money on the table and the door wide open for new entrants. 

In a typical article about data, the writer would now pummel you with buzzwords to produce feelings of inadequacy: predictive analytics, predictive modeling, cognitive computing, customer-centricity, data fabric, data lakes, data silos, self-service BI. Instead, let’s speak like human beings about what needs to be done.

The solution is simple when broken down. Companies need to:

  • Realize that bringing in a data science firm is no riskier than bringing in a management consultancy which, like the data science firm, needs access to sensitive data to be of service.
  • Determine how their data should be structured and stored to take advantage of today’s artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) approaches.
  • Augment internal teams with outside experts to leverage the extraordinary data generated in every customer interaction.
  • Enhance their digital offerings—especially mobile apps and websites—to produce more insightful datasets.

The mistake companies make is to use AI and ML for simple problems, like inferring that if someone bought golf balls they might enjoy a golf vacation. 

Real AI is far more powerful than that. It’s an associative intelligence with the ability to pull in thousands of data sources: the weather during your customer’s stay; the battery level of their phone; their GPS trace data to understand where they have been and how long they stayed; the reviews of every store, show, and transportation method; and their booking history. Real AI interprets the human narrative in these data points, responds accordingly and becomes smarter with every interaction. 

If you are one of the large players working in travel, transport and hospitality, you effectively run a small nation state. You already have more data on human behavior and decision making than most of the world’s best AI researchers. You have also made a promise to your customers: to deliver them a sense of safety, home, service and personalized results day in and day out. That opens the door for you to ask your customers what they desire, need, love and want to spend. 

So what does real AI look like? 

From a customer perspective, it means your digital tools think and act like the best concierge at a five-star property; not just for your ambassador status, Black Card holding, private jet flying, unlimited spend customer, but for each and every customer. The difference is that these personalized results are delivered at the speed of thought and at a fraction of the cost.

From a business perspective, it means increasing trip spend, loyalty and lifetime value while cracking open new lines of business. It means leveraging every asset you have and not just the physical ones. 

From an operations perspective, getting started should take very little effort. The right partner can connect to your data where it sits today and work with your existing infrastructure.

At present, though, too few CEOs make data harvesting a priority. Too few have engaged with data science firms that specialize in revealing all the gold hidden in them thar hills. Too few realize that personalization means person to person, not face to face. 

What COVID-19 offers the travel industry is this: permission to try almost anything. “There is less to lose, so more risk-taking,” as travel analyst Lorraine Sileo says. 

It’s time to stop neglecting the data you’re collecting. It’s time to preempt the disruptors and future entrants eager to snatch a piece of your business. The data is already there. It’s yours. It’s time to do something useful with it.