Event review: Conversations, connections and the future of travel

Published: 15 December 2019 - 10:30 a.m.
By: Claudia De Brito

Travel industry professionals gathered at The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas, USA for two days of networking, learning and inspirational talks. Attendees were able to gain valuable insights and discuss industry trends and innovations as well as ways to deliver a better, safer and more engaging customer experience in the world of travel. Along with members of Expedia Group’s executive team, special guests included General Colin Powell, Billie Jean King, Colin O’Brady and Robin Roberts.

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Friction Matters
In 2018 Expedia Group spent more than US$1.6 billion on technology alone, saying the focus was to streamline its online platform. A recent report which was jointly released by the company and a business strategy firm Magid, revealed that the investment paid off as Expedia Group now tops the list for ‘friction reduction’. Friction reduction refers to how seamless a website and experience feels for all users. Making sure using its website is as stress-free and simple as possible. A report titled ‘Online Travel Friction

Index’ collated factors that reduce friction felt by hospitality-industry partners and travellers using online travel agency (OTA) websites. Expedia Group had the highest ‘friction reduction index score’ compared to other OTAs, hotel direct sites and Meta sites. The ‘friction reduction index’ is a weighted average numerical score rating. It is calculated by pooling together ratings of how seamless 15 separate online experiences felt for 850 online users aged 18-55.

The results were used to identify the most impactful friction reduction methods for travel sites. Expedia Group has been investing heavily in using technology to improve experiences. These technologies include artificial intelligence and machine learning, eye tracking and face reader technology to understand travellers’ focus on a web page and the emotions they experience while booking travel.

Beyond ‘traveller friction’, the group has also been working to reduce ‘partner friction’. Methods include the AI-powered ‘Partner Central Chatbot’, a bot which acts as a virtual assistant to partners. There is also an algorithm in place to inform partners of revenue opportunities.

Cyril Ranque, group president of the Travel Partners Group, Expedia Group said: “Expedia Group is focused on connecting the world, by enabling discovery, search and booking of flights, hotels, transportation and activities-in a low stress, low friction manner. Our technology-first platform is dedicated to providing a one-stop, easy and convenient experience for travellers to discover and book their trip with all the information they need to make the best and most informed selection. While we are obsessed with customer centricity, it also means a laser focus on partner success including helping our partners maximise productivity, visibility, conversion, revenue, and delivering to them the tools and experiences that they want and need.”

Strong Partnerships
Speaking to Hotelier Middle East Expedia Group vice president, lodging owner relations Susan Spinney spoke about the importance of working closely with owners: “If you think about the way that we’re structured at Expedia, we have teams that talk to brands, we have teams that talk to management companies (which is part of my team as well) and then we also have teams on the group that talk directly to the properties, the revenue managers etc. as the landscape started to shift, owners wanted to get more involved and so it has been very interesting trying to figure out how they work with us. Some owners don’t operate their assets. Some owners are owner/operators, sometimes there are multiple owners for one asset.”

Spinney explained that the process has been a collaborative one: “Internally, I make sure that I work with all of our different teams so we are being thoughtful about how we can help all the different segments. But what’s been great is that, more often than not, owners are coming to us and saying we heard you have this team and how can we be involved. It’s been a very nice journey of talking through their needs, thinking about specific data that they need to see that we weren’t thinking about. What tools do they need us to create and what tools do we have that they didn’t know existed. That’s where we’ve been bridging that gap of making sure that they’re part of the conversation and then we’re able to share all of the great offerings that Expedia has and even more importantly, listening to what we need to create for our future together.

“I’ve been at Expedia for 18 years. It’s been an interesting journey and most of my journey has been with the market management team so working directly with the partners. It’s one of the things I find most enjoyable. How do you listen to your partner and understand the challenges in the industry that they’re trying to solve? How can we be part of the solution?”

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Increasing transparency
Susan Spinney also spoke about the importance of working closely with partners: “I just had a conversation with an owner recently saying that they love the transparency that they have with us. They can just come in and talk and we can talk to them as well and create solutions together. They do want to be part of understanding distribution and what’s happening with their asset. We can help with that. We’ve had feedback as we’re rolling out initiatives and new ideas. I’m able to now go to this ownership community and say ‘What do you think? Is this the right solution?’ That has been instrumental to building that partnership. If the feedback is only coming in from certain segments and not all, we’re not including everybody and we’re not solving issues for everybody.

“If I look at the Macro trends certainly transparency is one of our core beliefs as an organisation. On the consumer side, we are a marketplace, we are the world’s travel platform and for me, transparency is where that all comes through. If I look at things like revenue management, for us to be able to take insights from our market place we have to be transparent about what’s going on and share that with our partners to be able to help them make pricing recommendations and allow them to be more profitable of their side. That’s a core part of our platform. We were one of the first online travel agencies. We turned the screen around. If you go back 20 years, people didn’t have all of the information. They were given the recommendations but there was no transparency,” she added.

Diversity & Inclusion
Expedia Group has announced it has launched a sub-group to focus on improving inclusion and diversity throughout the industry. Named the Travel Industry Group, it comprises US and multinational companies and works towards goals such as promoting inclusive language and workplace environments, and hosts trainings on diversity marketing, gender balance, accessibility and cultural awareness.

Travel Industry Group took shape once Expedia Group’s CEO, Mark Okerstrom, signed the ‘CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion’ (CEO Action). The pledge has Okerstrom join more than 750 other CEOs in bettering inclusive practices in the industry.

The pledge has Okerstrom and others working to create and present strategic inclusion and diversity plans with boards of directors, sharing best and unsuccessful practices; implement and expand unconscious bias education and continue to make workplaces trusting places.

Expedia Group practices equal pay for both men and women in equivalent roles and 52% of its workforce is female. Other inclusive initiatives from the group include its ‘Textio’ technology platform. Textio works to reveal hidden language patterns in job ads that impact the diversity and quality of applicants. The group also uses ‘HireViue’, a video interview interface to help reduce bias. Expedia Group chief inclusion officer and senior vice president, marketing and industry engagement Melissa Maher said: “A diverse workforce creates a more creative, more productive environment with increased trust and less fear–an environment where employees, and in turn, the companies, thrive.”
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Artificial Intelligence
According to senior vice president, Expedia end to end health John Morrey, customer preferences and interactions have changed dramatically over the past 20 years with two out of three users preferring not to speak to people. In fact, one of Expedia Group’s call centre partners reported that 30% of their interactions now are via chat. Morrey explained: “We’ve been doing a lot of the interactions with chat bots. If people log in on their mobile device and they want to have a chat or ask a question, we’re increasingly doing those things with just the chat bot by itself. But if we need a little bit more information, the chat bot is replaced by an agent who’s behind the scenes. They’re still not talking to each other but if it gets to the point where the customer needs something that requires a conversation, they can turn to a phone call.”

Research by Expedia Group found that the “I saw a stat that said we have two billion pieces of data per day that we bring in from our market place. We take all of that information and using our technology capabilities, increasingly using artificial intelligence to turn that into a better trip for you. That’s really what it’s all about, how do we take these things and turn them into a better experience.”

The platform has adopted an omni channel approach in order to meet the needs of its diverse customer base. “What we’re working on is how to recognise locally relevant needs and to make sure that we’re meeting our travellers where they want to be. We’re following the consumer patterns. As we go through whatever the channel is, the goal is the same. It’s about making sure that whatever that vehicle is a search experience, a chat experience or a voice experience, we’re giving people better trips,” added Morrey.

New Market

The big travel story from the Middle East is still the opening up of Saudi Arabia to tourists. According to Expedia, the country experience experienced 110% year-on-year growth in demand.

On whether tourists are ready to travel to Saudi Arabia, senior vice president, Expedia end to end health John Morrey said: “Any time you go through a change in consumer sentiment it takes a period of time. If I compare it to if a destination is impacted by a natural event, the destination might be fine a few days later but it takes a bit of time for the public awareness to really get through that. That’s where companies like Expedia can help. Saudi Arabia is trying to build that message. We have an enormous media solutions business that reaches hundreds of millions of travellers every month. It takes a while for people to learn. It’s like building a brand in some ways.”

According to Morrey, the platform’s strength lies in its ability to reach people who are shopping for that destination or competitive destinations and suggest Saudi Arabia relative to somewhere else where they might be looking to travel. Underlining how Expedia sets itself apart for other OTAs, Morrey concluded: “We can get you anywhere that you want to go and help you find anything that you want to do. Flights, hotels, care rentals, vacation packages, activities whether it’s down the street or around the world there are very few other companies in the world that can do that. As we have such scale and we learn for those kinds of things, we can do it in a way that’s increasingly more relevant to help you not just find a trip but the right trip.”

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