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Unlocking the Future of Tourism in the Digital Age

We live in a world that is in the throes of a digital revolution, and the speed at which change occurs is unprecedented. What does that mean for the travel and tourism industry? By Teresa Richardson

In June, I participated in a panel discussion about the future of the travel and tourism industry in the new digital age, held at the Regenesys Business School in Johannesburg. Discussing the impact of the digital revolution, and changing requirements of the workforce in the South African travel and tourism context, three key themes emerged.

Use digital to personalise

The most significant development in the digital realm is undoubtedly Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR). While AI has some way to go before it becomes commonplace, it requires data to be effective. By far the biggest buzzword in travel-related data is personalisation.

Data that can be harnessed and AI will bring with it some exciting changes, allowing travel businesses to transform the customer experience, becoming more efficient, and more personalised.

From trip inspiration tools to post-trip feedback, every step of the customer journey should be personalised. That is essential to closing the booking cycle, converting sales and ensuring repeat business.

The Travel Corporation (TTC) has managed to harness the customer data we already have to identify repeat travellers, personalise product that is offered to them, and up-sell them to another member in our family of brands when the time is right. For example, a Contiki customer having reached 35 years old, can then travel on a Trafalgar trip with no age limit. And Contiki’s Facebook Messenger chatbot, Tiki, helps travel agents and customers find their perfect match from the brand’s eight travel styles.

Trafalgar, in particular, has achieved a high rate of repeat business by using personalisation. Trafalgar offers past guests VIP benefits and savings of up to 2.5% when they book two or more trips – just one of the ways we like to reward our repeat guests.

Intelligent use of data has also allowed us to identify that 50% of all TTC business out of South Africa is on Costsaver. That is unique from a global standpoint and has allowed us to position Costsaver in this market strategically. Like us, businesses can give travellers the choice, personalisation and authenticity they’re looking for by using data effectively.

Integrate AI with a human element

While some may argue that AI will replace the work done by humans in the long run, what was evident during the panel discussion was the belief that rather than replace us, AI is more likely to help optimise our tasks, and enable us to work much smarter. There is still a need for people to handle the data-derived intelligence.

For example, TTC’s ‘follow the sun’ model allows the Australian, Canadian and South African offices to respond to website queries from another country’s website when those offices are offline at night. We can do this because all the information is centralised online and we can harness technology to meet the challenge of different time zones and traditional office hours, giving customers 24/7 service.

Technology works at its best when it’s undetectable and seamless. But its people need to be visible – and seen to be doing a great job. There is still very much a need for genuine human connections.

Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, Chief Executive Officer of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) voiced this beautifully by asking: “What is tourism? Perhaps it is our human element that makes tourism what it is. Or is it about the tech?”

Robyn Christie, Thought Leader, Mentor and Keynote speaker, echoed this from the floor with a wonderful line: “It’s the people that people remember, not how well the App or tech worked.”

We know this very well at TTTC. We have more than 500 travel directors who work with us around the world. They are our greatest assets and deliver that authentic and personalised experience our travellers come back for.

We have seen the importance of real human connections in the popularity of our immersive experiences. Trafalgar’s Be My Guest experience, which takes travellers into a local’s home to meet and dine with them over a delicious home-cooked meal, is the most common highlight mentioned in our guests’ trip feedback.

Trafalgar’s other immersive experiences include our Dive into Culture, Stays with Stories and Hidden Gems experiences, which our guests love. A machine cannot replicate human connections.

Up-skilling and education is critical

Another key theme was the importance of education and up-skilling in the industry. There were questions on how big players are responding to the critical tech skills gap; how we can ensure we have more ‘travel savvy’ employees who will lead us into the future.

Dinesh Naidoo, President of the Association of South African Travel Agents (ASATA) said that change wasn’t new; the difference now, however, is that “change is coming faster.”

TTC puts a lot of emphasis on emotional intelligence. The ability to negotiate, communicate, be empathetic and have good people skills, is a single skill that will take you a lot further in the industry than technical expertise.

Millennials are taking the workforce by storm, and they want a positive working culture and environment and to make a difference in the world. At TTC, staff get an extra two days of special leave to volunteer at a charity or organisation of their choice.

We want our youth to choose the travel industry, and employee-centric benefits such as this will make your business more enticing. However, the industry also needs agility and employees to be responsible for their own personal growth and up-skilling.

I started as a consultant, and today I’m the MD. I learnt everything I know about the business internally. I developed emotional intelligence, and that’s what got me where I am today.

Andy Hedley, General Manager of Amadeus Southern Africa, reiterated the need to invest in personal development when he revealed, the value he most looks for in employees is the ability to “think, change and move.” That is what will keep the travel industry relevant in the years to come.

Let’s embrace new technology and invest in our people. If you are not rattled or under pressure, you are in your comfort zone and haven’t fully grasped the changes of the digital revolution.

To successfully lead the travel industry in this new digital age, we need to harness technology to give our customers and employees the choice, personalisation and authenticity they desire. That’s the future of travel and tourism.

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