The good, the great, and the fascinating at the Phocuswright Conference

07 December 2015
By Greg Abbott, Head of Travel and Hospitality Practice at DataArt and Charlotte Lamp Davies, VP of Travel and Hospitality, DataArt

DataArt’s Travel & Hospitality Practice’s team, represented by Greg Abbott, Charlotte Lamp Davies, Roman Peskin and Alex Shchedrin, exhibited its latest technology solutions at the annual Phocuswright travel Conference in Hollywood, Florida. With a record 1700 of the most influential leaders from 30+ countries in attendance, The Phocuswright Conference consisted of The Battleground, Travel Innovation Summit, Center Stage, workshops, and the exhibitor showcase. The theme for the 2015 Conference was – I, Traveler: Embracing Post Mobile.

Speaking at the center stage, Expedia CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi talked of the new breed of competition from alternative accommodations, as a “fact of life” and Expedia’s response to it by a 4 billion acquisition of HomeAway. Khosrowshahi said “We believe in home vacation rentals, we believe in taking that from a listings business to a transactional business”. A major deal with SilverRail to power Expedia’s global entry into the growing rail sector, was announced at the Conference. Khosrowshahi commented on Expedia’s intention to invest in air and rail is key to differentiation from other competitors and would allow the company to up- sell related products like hotels and activities and boost consumer purchase frequency.

Darren Huston, the CEO of Bookings.com also outlined two areas of the company’s future focus. One is a global restaurant booking platform Open Table, which according to Huston is the “most exciting business in the group” and the other is the market for activities at the destination, likely to be served on mobile.

Yet, the most buzz, controversy and tension was spurred by Google’s presentation of its new destination mobile interface – Google Destinations. Oliver Heckmann, Google’s new vice president of travel, spoke of the consumer shift to mobile with search traffic on mobile surpassing that on the desktop. He noted a similar pattern in travel-specific searches with a 50% growth in mobile searches in travel year-over-year and almost doubling of mobile conversions in the last year.

With Google’s new interface, the initial destination search delivers users to an inspiring digest of relevant content including destination descriptions, attractions, videos, weather and a popularity index, suggesting best travel date based on weather and price. It gives customers simple tools, like a budget slider to determine which destinations fall within their budget and dates, or to show the cheapest periods in which to travel. Once the dates and route are chosen, customers are directed to Google Flight and Hotel searches, which are currently linked to suppliers’ sites, albeit not for long as ‘instant’ booking and payment via Google Pay are well on the way.

Heckmann said the purpose of the “Destination Search” is to inspire customers by providing relevant content and increase conversions by removing friction from the mobile booking process. He said that returning 10 blue links is not providing users on mobile with information they are looking for and it would serve customers better if both research and booking could happen within the Google environment.

While Google’s functionality is clearly competing with that OTAs, Heckmann denied OTA intention. “Is Google slowly becoming at OTA? I can tell you this is not the case”.  Yet the collective panic of OTA’s was felt by many, voiced by some, and could be summarized by Kayak’s CEO Steve Hafner, who said: “Google has the financial resources to disrupt all of us. What keeps me awake at night is they really could have a default travel app on every Android phone”.

Greg Abbott, head of the Travel & Hospitality practice at DataArt said, “Relevant content, integration of flight, hotel and restaurant products into vacation-destination search on smartphones, sharp focus on price comparison in a simple (mobile) user interface undoubtedly make for a product which could finally “fix” what I have always felt was a broken consumer travel search experience. Moreover, it will allow Google to own the entire customer journey as users research and book a holiday without ever leaving the search engine. This, however, does not strike me as manifestation of Google’s travel ambitions, but a natural progression of the company’s focus on best user experience, and organizing the world’s information to make it accessible and easy to use.”

The air was thick with anticipation and excitement as forty-three innovators demoed their solutions before expert travel executives, media and investors and sixteen uncensored judges: The Travel Innovation Summit which is typically the epicenter of many of the industry’s future players, “felt more like a product demo day”, says Greg Abbott. This year, the new Battleground – a preliminary round, providing early-stage companies a chance to win main stage placement in the Summit “showed more promising innovation in my opinion” adds Abbott.

The winners were: Tansler Inc  – a vacation rental marketplace that allows renters to name their price, choose multiple homes and submit one binding offer. Hosts compete for the booking through a 24-hour “reverse auction” and the first host to accept the offer confirms the reservation and ends the auction. Travefy – a travel planning platform with tools to collaborate on trip details, build rich itineraries, and collect shared expenses. Trekkable – a service that helps to find and book the best accessible rooms for those with mobility challenges. Tripchamp – an open platform for all types of sellers of air and hotel content to reach corporate travelers, TMCs, leisure agents, white label and OEMs that provides a different user experience and better pricing than the OTAs. Proxce – a system that uses Bluetooth Smart (iBeacons/ Eddystone) and Geofence to identify guests in real time to allow auto check-in, keyless entry to hotel rooms and personalized, non-intrusive, contextual content, be it in a hotel, airport or a restaurant. Revinate – a system that unites millions of disparate guest data points in a single Revinate Rich Guest Profile and pairs it with an advanced marketing automation platform to help hotels develop targeted offers and deliver personalized experiences for a tennis player or a golfer, or a wine lover, or any other customer, providing them 24/7 access to staff via a mobile application.

Looking at these and other innovations at the summit we’ve identified a few trends: companies search for, identify and fill underserved niches (Zizoo and Trekkable). There is a focus on Concierge like experience with help of AI, either from a chat or unique personalization algorithms (Hipmunk, Pana, Headout, Qalendra and Musement). And finally, leveraging in-door location information for personalization or convenience of traveler (Grab, Revinate, Proxce).

A few notable launches at the Phocuswright Conference also caught our attention:

Musement launched it’s 24/7, free human hotel concierge service on app, notable for its partnerships with professional concierges from hotels all over the world bringing the knowhow, advice and assistance, associated with a luxury experience to everyday travelers. The app is available in multiple languages on both iOS and Android.

Moxie launched a concierge ‘bell’ icon for websites that sits on product pages and gives customers access to advice via information, email or chat functions. This provides a virtual shop assistant experience to bring conversion rates closer to those in physical stores. The kind of service is particularly relevant to travel, which is a complicated multi layered offering.

Vacatia officially launched what it claims to be the first instant book, non-hotel resort residences marketplace, targeting a vacationing families market, estimated at $10 billion in the US alone.

Charlotte Lamp Davies, VP of Travel & Hospitality at DataArt said, “Once again the Phocuswright Conference in Hollywood, FL proved to be one of the most insightful travel industry events of the year.  For the fourth year DataArt presented innovations and discussed news from our travel and hospitality practice. Phocuswright continues to be a perfect platform for showcasing our biggest achievements in solution design and consulting expertise gained by the practice throughout the year. With a record attendance, the conference reached new heights offering insightful presentations and thought provoking discussions, as well as many travel innovators who took to the stage.  The DataArt team was delighted to be involved in numerous conversations with industry players like Booking.com, BCD Travel, Momondo Group, Eysys, Blacklane, Comtec and Allianz.”

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