Ai Editorial: How astutely are you predicting what, when and where to offer a hotel room or car rental as a user is about to book a seat on a plane? Ritesh Gupta finds out
Airlines, just like other travel e-commerce sites, are vulnerable to losing out on a visitor in a matter of few seconds. It is imperative to be spot on with the sort of work that happens the moment a user lands on a site, or even when a traveller opens an email.
Airlines need to ensure they maximize any opportunity to cross-sell in order to step up the average order value. A key here is to embrace a dynamic form of merchandising and marketing, fundamentally based on data-driven decision-making.
There needs to be a mechanism that would predict what a customer is likely to buy.
“What to offer each individual customer, when, and through which channel is the new merchandising paradigm. What this means is that unique and personalized offers for individual customers based on their attributes,” says Boxever’s VP – Sales, Ultan O'Brien. There is seemingly an extreme polarization – if you get it right, then customers can buy a lot more; if your offer goes wrong, then there is cart abandonment and dismay is what a customer ends up with. “People not only buy more products when offered ones that are more relevant to them, but they are also more loyal to brands that seem to understand them and can accurately predict what products to offer them,” says O Brien.
Trip essentials – how to offer them aptly?
Making the right offer at the right time is a challenge for most, says Justin Steele, Senior Director of Innovation, Switchfly.
Predicting what would click is the key here. Here we explore how it matters:
For most airlines, as Steele says, hotel ancillaries are best sold post purchase, or after the customer has completed his or her airline ticket purchase. One great method is through a simple `pre-trip’ email. Do not just send an email with a link saying `need a hotel?’ asking the user to click a link, enter their specific dates, and conduct a search. Users can do this on their own. Instead, try to predict the top 2-3 hotels that customer is likely to purchase.
Steele further explains: Airlines can use previous customer information such as purchase history (star rating, chain affiliation), demographics, or even member tier status to begin the targeting process. Airlines can also use other factors such as length of stay, days of the week travelling, number of travellers in the party and other factors. The goal is derive the top 2-3 hotels that this customer is most likely to purchase in their destination. Then, display these 2-3 hotels directly in the email with live pricing allowing the customer to see results. Use minimal content to surround the hotel property. Large pictures with hotel name, star rating, and total price are the only 4 required pieces.
Timing is the next key. Airlines need to learn the travel journey and purchase habits of their customers. “Airlines should be able to say, “customers who book their flight 6 months in advance, and that are traveling with a family are most likely to begin their hotel search / booking process 3 months in advance” and airlines can target their email for the exact date the customer is about to think about a hotel purchase,” he says.
As for ensuring the path of booking is not riddled with unnecessary products or content, Steele says the focus should be on well-timed, planned touch points. “A certain subset of ancillaries belong in-path, varying by factors such as airline, route and business model. These ancillaries should be limited to items that a customer requires in order to complete a ticket booking,” he says. An example of this is that many customers will not book a long haul flight unless they can pick their seat. “Other ancillaries need to be sprinkled throughout non-intrusive touch points – we call these casual checkpoints. Some additional casual checkpoints include the confirmation page, confirmation emails, pre-trip emails, check in time and pre-boarding,” he says. “Understanding the relevance of the offer and the timing of the offer in the customers purchased decision process can help airlines determine which products to market, when to market and where to market. Then tweak and test. This is definitely not a ‘set it and forget it process.’ The process needs to continue to be refined by the airline.”
O'Brien says the existing descriptive and diagnostic analytics landscape has traditionally been a very lean-back approach to merchandising ancillaries. A typical example might be to create an email segment from an operational CRM by querying all family bookings who purchased previous (the same time last year), and who added a specific ancillary (also bought a hotel, car or insurance package). “It’s using historical data points to inform a contact strategy with the customer that is delivering increasingly limited success – mainly because it is generally based on stale information and is part of a generic grouped campaign rather than personalized to an individual,” he says.
He adds, “The result is a form of scatter gun marketing communication – with a kind of “throw mud at the wall and see what sticks approach” – which is batched rather than real-time (so tends to be stale and out of date) retrospective in its nature and based on historical information (thus missing any intermediate interactions the customer has with the brand that can indicate an intent to spend, a buying persona, a context and the relevant product(s) of interest).
The New World
By using a data-first merchandising platform - which captures all interactions as well as shopping and buying behaviour across all channels – airlines can commence building a unique contact strategy for each visitor, traveller or customer.
“The use of predictive analytics to drive offers in practical terms means you stop asking the question “What products do I need to sell” and start asking “When will a specific customer next make a purchase?" and "How best can we communicate to them to make it happen?”, says O Brien.
According to him, predictive marketing is really about understanding who the customer is, what products they might be interested in based on their behaviour as well as their transaction history – and then marketing contextual relevant personalized offers in an automated way, orchestrating this across all customer touch points to achieve what is referred to as customer-centric marketing. So, when a customer has not purchased a product it’s then about inspiring them or pre-targeting them with appropriate travel experience. When they are however in the purchasing funnel it’s about offering the optimal assembled product set (or dynamic package) to convert them, and re-targeting them with the next best ancillary to widen their traditional travel basket.
Whatever airlines strive to offer needs to be spot on. Anticipating the next product a customer will want to purchase right before the customer does, then making it available to the customer through the proper channel is a top priority right now.
Passengers see different products, different prices, different offers or bundles. Airlines are trying to overcome such inconsistency.
We all avoid irrelevant offers. It could be that the offer isn’t fit for that moment or just isn’t for me at all.
If I receive an offer that is actually invalid, not just uninteresting, it can be quite annoying.
So it could be a product that I could buy but just don’t want. As for the “invalid” part, it could mean there really is a strong reason, based on the data the airline has, that I will never buy that product. For example, I won't buy it because I have already bought it. Another example is that I’m already entitled to that upgrade or lounge access for free because of my tier.
“It is imperative for any airline to having intelligent filters and business rules in place - to do things like remove invalid offers are an essential first step before you can implement recommendations based on data analysis,” says Mark Lenahan, VP of Product Strategy at OpenJaw.
E-commerce entities, including retailers, today assert that customers do not see channels. Whatever is offered, wherever it’s seen - needs to be useful or inspirational for a future buy.
But airlines have some specific challenges.
If we were to talk whether airlines are in control of what they would like to offer or not, Lenahan says there currently isn’t enough control because of both technical and commercial aspects.
“Airlines, in general, feel that their current technology does not provide sufficient control over what they sell. Most airline environments consist of a mix of technology vendors, but some of that technology is very old and inflexible,” he says.
There are also commercial issues with the way airline product is distributed, for example, there is no such thing as a gentle transition from being “full content” (meaning all fares on the GDS) to having channel-specific pricing. The airlines either live with the status quo or start what gets described as a “revolt”, as we’ve seen with some carriers in recent months.
The combined impact of complexity in both technology and distribution leads to inconsistency for the passenger – and their overall experience.
“The passenger sees different products, different prices, different offers or bundles, all depending on which site they are visiting, or what device they are using,” says Lenahan.
“If an airline goes to the effort of sourcing or creating a unique product, whether it’s an on-board experience, destination event or hotel package, the decision on where and how to sell that product should be based on what the passenger wants and commercial needs of the airline, not on what channel (or silo) the passenger happens to be interacting with at that precise moment,” says Lenahan.
Getting better at retailing
So technology and infrastructure is definitely one core aspect of ensuring a flyer is offered something that is likely to click with him or her. But this wouldn’t be possible in case airlines continue to stick to non-integrated pricing and merchandising solution providers (these entities can have competing priorities, too). Airlines need to avoid going for multiple merchandising processes/ systems. Managing it across direct and indirect channels is neither scalable, nor technically, economically, or commercially feasible.
The second aspect is data analytics for keeping a tab on the intent of the customer. “I think it’s still early days,” says Lenahan, referring to the maturity of the same.
Delving deeper, he says “inspiration” (meaning capturing the customer’s attention, getting them to shop, or inspiring them to look at a destination) is a source of data (e.g., click through, impressions) but marketing need data to begin with. Search and other datasets from external sources, i.e., Google, meta-search etc., can help airline marketing teams to better understand what to promote, where to target their content curation and allocate digital marketing budgets.
Referring to the concept of retailing experience, Lenahan says, “(At OpenJaw), we try to help inspirational shopping by aggregating live product data such as compelling content, accurate availability and live pricing from multiple sources, for all product types, into one platform.”
This supports inspiration and “browsing”, selling the outcome, focus on the destination, and better customer acquisition.
Permutations and combinations based on data
Continuing further, Lenahan mentioned that after a customer has narrowed down to a specific destination, data helps and informs about priorities for product biasing, bundling, etc.
In theory if you have 10 ancillary products, you have 45 possible 2-product bundles, or 120 possible 3-product bundles. However, many of these bundles don’t make logical sense and in any case, you still have to let the customer choose any of the 10 products individually. While that’s only partly a data problem, it’s also a user experience and design issue. “There’s no doubt that data analytics and behavioural economics can help. The challenge of recommending the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on from 200 hotels is quite different,” explained Lenahan.
For their part, OTAs believe it’s only after a considerable number of years they have reached a stage where they can rely on repository of data to make ensure whatever is offered sustains the booking flow. For instance, as a B2B specialist, RentalCars Connect, relies on the intelligence that its B2C business has its disposal, and ensures the products offered for a certain destination are likely to be bought.
Equally important is being adept at statistical demand forecasting models to predict demand for ancillary products. Also, price optimization is another component that needs to be factored in.
Also, as it turns out, some automated processes aren’t equipped to come up with precise recommendations when it comes to personalisation. Machine learning algorithms are playing their part, by evaluating which offers were most valuable. If an offer didn’t click with a passenger, the algorithm can capitalize on that intelligence and integrate it to work out for relatively more accurate offers.
Overall, travel retailing, with a broad set of products, requires a broad set of tools. Also human curated product management will not go away, even if machine learning is used to automate some aspects of bundling or pricing, asserts Lenahan.
By Ritesh Gupta
Gain an insight into the world of retailing at Mega Event in San Diego which is taking place on the 4/5th of November. More information at www.MegaEvent15.com
Follow Ai on Twitter: @Ai_Connects_Us and Checkout our events at: www.AiConnects.us
Tracking users who have deserted a travel ecommerce shopping cart and approaching them with a relevant message or ad is becoming common. But doing the same with a seemingly blind targeting tactic is dangerous.
There is something wrong with the current level of personalized retargeting.
A recent experience exemplifies this. I accessed a car rental OTA website and checked options for moving around in London. The site stood out for its functionality, especially the mapping feature and the ease with which one could compare options. All in all, it was a pleasant experience, but I chose to leave the site before booking.
After doing so I was bombarded with a display ad, session after session, encouraging me to click and book the rental car that I searched for. There was no modification in the content of the ad at any stage; the ad formats just changed depending upon the site that was being accessed. Quite annoying to say the least.
So if travel advertisers are attempting to capitalize on the identity of the user and their search behavior, but are only re-approaching users with the same cart content, conversion value or even the opportunity to upsell can go awry.
“It is a clear case of spam,” says Dave O’Flanagan, co-founder and CEO of Boxever.
“If done intelligently, re-marketing can serve the intended purpose of directing a traveller back to the website which can drive conversion, but blanket retargeting without any intelligence applied definitely presents the risk of annoying a customer and potentially driving them to a competitor,” he says.
Personalisation isn’t only about conversion and revenue optimization, but also about experience optimization. A personalized experience can create positive sentiment and increase brand loyalty.
Identifying the right person and the customer that is most likely to buy are just two components of personalisation. “How the ad served is affecting a particular brand also needs to be assessed, as well as monitoring responses to ads in order to determine its effectiveness (too needs to be done),” said O’Flanagan, who acknowledged that the travel industry is in the early stages of serving content that aligns with the interests and activity of the user.
“It’s also important to know when not to retarget, as unnecessary targeting can annoy a customer. Knowing when not to do it requires a certain level of sophistication,” he added. There have been instances where customers end up complaining that their booking flow is interrupted or disturbed by unsolicited ads and messages on a travel supplier website.
“What's important in these scenarios is understanding which customers will be most responsive to that tactic - and at what saturation - based on propensity scoring, past behavior, current context, and so on. In some cases the best action may be to take no action at all, and save the re-marketing dollars for a better prospect and ensure that you don’t annoy the customer,” explained O’Flanagan.
Count on personalisation as a journey
It’s important to view personalisation as a journey, not a single moment in time.
Airlines are in the midst understanding the whole game.
In a recent interview, Nik Laming, general manager, loyalty division at Philippines’ leading carrier Cebu Pacific Air, shared that identifying customers across proliferating social platforms, devices and channels is difficult and becoming more difficult every year.
So how should airlines go about building up resources and infrastructure in a practical way to address these concerns?
O’Flanagan, who agrees with Laming, says airlines, OTAs, and hotels have been awash in traveller data for years; the challenge is pulling it all together into a meaningful profile that can be acted upon with intelligence and recommendations. “It's important to define what you want the end goal to look like (e.g., 1-to-1 offers across all digital and offline channels), and then build toward that in phases. For example, perhaps you start by merging web site data with email data, and then layer on customer service history and social data, to create a more robust customer profile. Each time more information is added, it creates new opportunities to understand your customer, refine segmentation, messaging, and offers across one or more marketing channels,” summed up O’Flanagan.
Travel companies are certainly beginning to infuse more personalization into the booking process and beyond.
Referring to one moment of surprise and delight, O’Flanagan shared a recent experience: “I travelled with Air New Zealand (a Boxever client) recently and when I arrived in the airport their app asked what type of coffee I would like in the lounge. So I selected a cappuccino and made my way through security. Once I made it to the lounge, the barista had my cappuccino waiting on the counter with my name written on it. It was a complete surprise, seamlessly blending the online and offline worlds into a delightful customer experience.”
Sounds exciting indeed.
By Ritesh Gupta
Learn more about personalisation at Mega Event in San Diego which is taking place on the 4/5th of November. More information at www.MegaEvent15.com
Follow Ai on Twitter: @Ai_Connects_Us and Checkout our events at: www.AiConnects.us
Optimizing merchandising on an airline’s website is not rocket science but it is easier to get it wrong than it is to get it right, says Rentalcars Connect’s Ady Guthrie
In how many clicks a travel booking should be completed? How much time would it take to do so?
These might sound like simple questions, but airlines continue to learn and test various designs and functionalities as they try to optimize the booking flow in order to optimize the ancillary revenue generation. Airline e-commerce executives dread the idea of poor execution of merchandising, be it for air ancillaries or non-air ancillaries. For them, of utmost importance is to offer an enticing design, aid users in the task they are about to perform, and eventually present them with results that are relevant and fine enough to complete a booking.
As an experienced professional, Ady Guthrie, Global Director – Strategic Partnerships, Rentalcars Connect says a key would be to get the basics right first and then build more sophisticated cross sell options down the line.
“It’s all about using the data you have to offer a relevant car at a relevant destination. It’s not rocket science but it is easier to get it wrong than it is to get it right, which some do. We’ve have spent years building the relevant B2C data and analyzing this to understand how to properly execute this throughout our partner integrations,” he says.
“Our platform is predominantly search-driven, with destination information directing the results. So where the customer is searching from and their eventual destination shapes up the search results. Sometimes previous searches aren’t that relevant, and if irrelevant results are shaped up by something that isn’t actually the intent of the customer, then it can hamper the user experience and the performance of the site. Our objective is to facilitate simplest and easiest user experience, and pave the way for conversion,” shared Guthrie.
So the focus is on offering relevant products and facilitating a quick purchase, be it for Rentalcars B2C (rentalcars.com) or B2B platforms (rentalcars connect).
There is talk of real-time personalisation on the web. Merchants today are in the process of setting up an interaction timeline for each visitor and customer from the instance they visit a website. Once they have an “identifying” event then all of the rich anonymous behavior is incorporated into the “known” profile. And then known and unknown site visitors can be served dynamic content. Guthrie acknowledged such developments, and says the level of sophistication also depends upon the industry. “I might log on to Amazon.com 50 times in a year, but a car rental site only few times in a year,” he mentioned, referring to apt utilization of resources. “But yes, destination content needs to be relevant, and there are certain areas such as these that we are looking at as well.”
Sustaining the booking flow
Patrick Dowling, Regional Director, Rentalcars Connect says the team tries to ensure its merchandising offers a seamless booking flow, along with a certain level of personalisation.
Citing an example, Dowling mentioned that if there is a PNR featuring a certain destination and it emerges that there are four people with four bags in total, it doesn’t make any sense to offer a car that won’t able to serve the basic needs of the journey. Other than relevancy, the design and functionality that at times are seemingly “cool” can actually derail the booking process. Guthrie cautions against “over-engineering” the whole exercise, and strongly recommends a quick response rate to testing in order to embrace the best features and design on the site.
It is also important to garner the attention of a flyer at the right time.
“(This can be done) partially by testing but also by building an understanding of which ancillaries convert for which destinations and for which customers. Also, if you’ve offered a car twice already for example, then logic would dictate to offer another ancillary product to maximise the opportunity of earning some revenue even if it might not always be the most lucrative,” shared Dowling.
Fine-tuning the product
Sometimes even the intention of a supplier isn’t completely understood or customers just shy away from sharing extra information.
Citing an example, Guthrie mentioned that when customers were being asked to share their flight information in order to ensure that their car is available or waiting even if there is a delay, users were dropping out from the booking flow. The team at Rentalcars reassessed the situation and chose to introduce additional functionality to elicit such information. “We asked customers departure and arrival dates, and then there was a drop down to dynamically choose the flight number from the list of flights,” shared Guthrie.
Handling partner integrations
The company is certainly counting on its expertise it has developed from its B2C brand, RentalCars.com.
“We work with airlines partners to ensure the products offered for a certain destination are likely to be bought. For low conversion rate destinations, the cross –sell products could be insurance, hotels, extra luggage etc,” mentioned Guthrie. Rentalcars Connect banks upon the repository of data and the intelligence that its B2C business has its disposal, and this also paves way for prudent product development as part of ancillary offerings. Guthrie also mentioned that the eventually this plays a strong part in any co-brand solution as well.
A case in point what needs to be shown to a Chinese customer in order to book a car rental is going to be different from a U. S.-based user. As the team at Rentalcars experienced, one of the risks is that Chinese customers may not fully understand what they are and aren’t covered for when they drive in another country such as the US. So in case there is an accident with another vehicle and the occupants are injured, those legal claims can easily run into a hefty amount, unlike what Chinese customers would generally expect. So rentalcars.com has developed this know-how, and this in turn improves the conversion rate when the B2B division takes over the booking flow from its airline or any travel supplier.
“As we take all the learnings from rentalcars.com, where we conduct endless and robust testing and experimentation on both the booking flow and pricing (front end customer experience), we only roll out positive margin and conversion improvements to our partner solutions,” mentioned Guthrie.
He also referred to another crucial aspect.
“We try not to interfere with any partner integrations that have been tried and tested on rentalcars.com – why would we if it may negatively affect conversion and margin! We don’t change the platform that has been tried and tested but we do collaborate and tailor the integration based on the partners preference or requirements, we do believe in collaboration,” mentioned Guthrie.
So what’s the benchmark for success that an airline partner should typically look for – average order value or conversion rate when they look at the efficacy of a car rental partner/ solution in overall bookings?
Guthrie says the same varies depending on an airlines source markets and destination mix “but we nominally see PNR attach rates of between 1-4% and the conversion rates on our partner solutions tend to be higher than that on rentalcars.com as the customer is in a more purchase ready frame of mind”.
By Ritesh Gupta
Latest developments pertaining to personalization will be discussed at our global Mega Event (04 & 05 November 2015, San Diego).
Follow Ai on Twitter: @Ai_Connects_Us and Checkout our events at: www.AiConnects.us
IT infrastructure and distribution of data - where does NDC fit in today?
NDC, as a communication standard, has been in the limelight for three years or so. Ai’s Ritesh Gupta finds out how this initiative is shaping up on a couple of counts
There has been a continuous scrutiny of how the XML-based data transmission standard is going to pave way for superior air travel retailing.
Standard development is the core to the entire initiative. The first version of “end-to-end” schemas was published late last year. Airline adoption, from testing to deployment, is expected to be gradual this year as well as in 2016.
As much as airlines themselves refer to the limitations of legacy distribution and the potential of a modern industry communication standard in opening gates for a differentiated product offering, they, too, have comprehended a couple of lessons over the past few months. For instance, one can’t really foresee replacement of all the airline systems with NDC-compliant systems at this juncture. (It [replacement] is still untimely, as there isn’t yet a standard to define “NDC-compliant”,” mentioned an airline executive. Also, there is a need to gear up for the data that NDC will bring along with it. Indeed there is an option to enhance offers and corresponding take rates. This is going to be a key development for airlines in how they market their product.
Here we explore a couple of important aspects that are related to IT infrastructure and the impact on distribution of data that NDC is resulting in:
To their credit, carriers have invested in merchandising platforms tailored to dynamically bundle ancillary services based on a passenger’s value. There have been concerns about transparency, with questions over whether the price resulting from a specific request is lowest or not, in case pre-filed fares come to an end. Also, multiple direct connects featuring agencies can make price comparison more difficult.
For their part, GDS companies have been integrating with NDC-like XML APIs from carriers.
At the same time, a section of the industry also points out that NDC-XML is only a part of the merchandising effort underway in the industry and is far from the only connectivity standard.
“We are already seeing that usage of NDC -XML by airlines and GDSs will vary in its shape and form, resulting in a mix of EDIFACT and XML connectivity,” shared a source.
A case in point, IT specialists are introducing their merchandising systems, integrated with their PSS offering. They promise that this would also help carriers to work out dynamic and relevant offerings: any time, any point of sale or channel, direct or indirect, through any device.
So is this just another way of improvising existing legacy technology? Can it last? Only time will tell.
It is often debated whether the IT specialists behind PSS’ deliberately tend to resist change and rather not succumb to an attempt by new players to enter their territory in any fashion.
Sebastien Touraine, Head - Airline Merchandising, IATA, says the NDC technical standard provides the opportunity to implement a modular environment where valuable assets are leveraged, out-of-date assets are renovated and new assets can be added easily.
“In effect, this modular architecture will allow airlines to respond rapidly to changes in their business environment; this is a must for retail organizations,” he says.
But it’s time airlines move on to an API or other XML-based technology. It’s simply for the fact that even “with the frequent updates to and from the ATPCO databases, the pricing remains relatively static and is difficult to personalize”, as an executive shared. The IATA NDC initiative is expected to improve this.
It must be mentioned that airlines have been waiting for the continued rollout of EMD-A, which makes it possible to relate a non-flight item to a flight ticket, offering insight into the buying trends of flyers. Until EMD-A comes to full implementation, any ancillary sales will continue to be recognized as a separate transaction; however, that does not prevent an airline from selling it, it only makes it difficult to associate it to a specific flight activity.
The industry has been waiting for standardization of ancillary offerings to support interline sales, fulfillment, settlement and reporting, etc.
Touraine says: “Having led on behalf of IATA, the Electronic Miscellaneous Document (EMD) implementation across the industry, modernization of end-to-end process, capability and industry standard is a must. While some industry functions will be simplified/ modernized through the capabilities enabled by the NDC standard, there are definitely more opportunities to update/ modernize the order and delivery processes. As airline merchandizing provides greater options, some processes (for example PNRs, ETs) were not designed with this level of complexity in mind.”
He also referred to One Order, an industry-led initiative intended to “modernize the multiple and rigid booking, ticketing, delivery and accounting methods with a single, flexible order management process”. As a result, a flyer wouldn’t require different reference numbers and documents. One order reference would be sufficient. For carriers, this would do away with expensive reconciliation between PNRs, e-tickets and EMDs. And agencies would be able to pursue same procedure to book flights and products from airlines regardless of the airline’s business model or technology capability.
According to the IATA, the One Order business case is ready and will be presented to the Board of Governors in December this year for the final decision on whether to move forward.
Going forward it’s interesting to assess how airlines can get closer to creating their offers. Also, the NDC adoption is the way to go, but how much of IT infrastructure would be changed hangs in balance at this stage.
Gain an insight into the world of NDC at Mega Event in San Diego which is taking place on the 4/5th of November. More information at www.MegaEvent15.com
Follow Ai on Twitter: @Ai_Connects_Us and Checkout our events at: www.AiConnects.us
Would it be possible to gauge the lowest available price for a personalized offer coming from an airline in the NDC-driven environment?
NDC, as a new, XML-based data transmission standard, continues to be in the limelight. The standard is moving on, with the lure of the industry drifting away from commoditization of air travel.
A prime example of this exercise is the drive to do away with any process and technology that was designed to manage static price information. Either way, associated stakeholders have concerns or case for improving upon the state of affairs. The likes of aggregators and travel agencies are guarded against what would happen when there would be an end to looking out for options among all pre‐filed fares. It has been openly stated that this would result in loss of transparency.
This concern stems from the fact that there would only be case-by‐case personalized offers, in the absence of a detailed comparison shopping in CRS neutral display. However, equally important is to understand how comparison shopping would shape up – is there a provision for a like-for-like comparison for what a passenger is seeking, on the basis of what the indirect channel partner has requested from the airline.
As for putting an end to pre-filed fares, there is a case for bringing in efficiency, too.
“The current pricing model is bizarre when you look at it from the context of almost any other industry, or even other travel verticals. An airline will tell you the current availability using RBD letters and single digit numbers (e.g. M4), and the retailer or distributor needs to have previously subscribed to millions of complex pricing records from ATPCO to be able to convert that into a price,” says Paul Byrne, SVP Development, OpenJaw Technologies, and Member Board of Directors, Open Travel Alliance.
Byrne further adds, “Not only is that so complex it requires specialist companies to provide consumers the shopping experiences they expect at a reasonable price/ performance, but every step from that point on through ticketing, revenue accounting, reconciliation, interline billing, agency settlement, etc. has added and unnecessary complexity.” In the long run NDC has the possibility to simplify this process, to one of API based offers and orders that can be reconciled with standard off-the-shelf accounting and ERP software, says Byrne, who on behalf of OpenJaw, is an active contributor to the Order Management taskforce as part of the DDXWG pushing forward IATA’s NDC initiative.
The future of comparison shopping
Commenting on this, Byrne points out that NDC would not put an end to comparison shopping; in fact, it is one of the underlying principles i.e. it allows a like for like comparison where the consumer can see exactly what is included in the offer price from one airline versus another airline’s offer.
“It is also bizarre when considered in the context of almost any other industry that some retailers would rebel against getting better product information. The real threat to agencies is that airlines want to be the retailers themselves. That is a commercial issue airlines and agencies have to work out. As in any supply chain everyone from suppliers and distributors to agents and retailers need to add value,” said Byrne.
It is also being asserted that airlines would gain an upper hand with the possibility of the direct connect model featuring airlines and travel agencies. Also, there is an apprehension that the new standard would result in escalation of costs for agents.
Byrne doesn’t deny that airlines would have greater control of their pricing in NDC; however, as he points out, it is not true that this will inevitably lead to higher costs/ prices for agents. “If an agent sends an anonymous request to the airline where the airline knows nothing about the traveller, a different offer may be returned than if the airline knows something about the traveller e.g. his/ her FFP tier status,” shared Byrne.
Paris-based Hélène Millet, Senior Consultant, Conztanz, (she was New Distribution Processes Director when she quit Air France KLM in 2013), believes pre-file fares aren’t going to disappear completely as of now. She adds, “There are concerns whenever there are changes. NDC comes from the IATA, of course, so those standards have been designed by airlines first, indeed. It is quite natural that travel agents would have concerns. But the goal was not at all to unbalance the airline economy against the agents. The initial need of the airlines was to be able to distribute their product as a whole to travel agencies too, the way they were able of doing it on their website.” She further adds, “As for offers, (it would be about) only show what you can sell, avoid proposing something which is not available anymore! Sounds like a better situation for agents, too, doesn’t it?”
Over the past few months, a couple of distribution and e-commerce executives associated with airlines based in the U. S. and Europe that I have spoken to are in favor of NDC.
NDC is an opportunity for airlines to start controlling their own content and how it is presented in GDS and other indirect channels. “The major threat is that the adoption will cost airlines a lot of money, but at the end the additional content will be another opportunity for GDS to charge airline extra. It also seems that they are not clearly adopting the NDC XML standard, but building their own XML schemes, which also add complexity related to interfacing and data flow,” says an airline executive.
More to come on this…stay tuned!
By Ritesh Gupta
Gain an insight into the world of NDC at Mega Event in San Diego which is taking place on the 4/5th of November. More information at www.MegaEvent15.com
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As mobile apps usage continues to grow, ease of access and relevancy become highly important. Deep linking can help in this context, writes Ai’s Ritesh Gupta
What is decisive when we are shopping or seeking information online/ via a mobile app?
Time that is takes to complete an action, not being exposed to irrelevant pages or sections, feeling secured etc. are some of them. Also, when purchasing online, every customer is required to undertake a specific sequence of actions that require time, memory, and effort. These include setting passwords and preferences, entering external information, remembering past choices and making decisions relevant for the conversion.
A big goal in digital business is reducing these gates, making the process as much smooth and simple as possible.
Deep linking help us doing exactly this, says Federica Grazi, performance marketing analyst at hotel mobile booking app HotelQuickly.
Grazi says this tool is in fact able to create bridges between different pages, both within the same app and between different apps. When clicking a link, instead of being directed to the home page, the customer immediately lends on the page relevant to him, without the need of following a complex series of steps. This of course impacts positively on the bottom line of the business: the easier the process, the higher the purchases.
The travel industry offers a big potential to deep linking: imagine yourself lending in Sydney for an event and receiving a push notification from a travel app, inviting you to book a hotel for the same night. Clicking on it, you would be redirected directly on the city specific hotel listing, without needing to specify your selection. Once paid, you might want to book a cab. You wouldn’t need to insert either your location, or the address of the hotel, as they would both be recorded without losing the metadata. Also, you wouldn’t even need to download the app!
Trends to look out for
It’s becoming common practice to enable “view on app” notice when a user is browsing the content on the mobile web, says You Teck Lam, head of performance marketing, HotelQuickly.
He says by implementing deep linking, developers/ marketer can easily offer the option for the user to consume the content in a native app experience. Push notification deep link and email content deep link is also something to look out for.
Deep linking has been around since the first version of Android and a very early version of iOS. But it is pointed out that only handful of native apps went ahead with the technology because it’s so confusing to do so. Teck Lam says this could be down to a lack of documentation, platform integrations and cross-functional adopters to push deep linking.
“Developers are aware of the feature but it’s probably seen as a marketing feature than a product feature. Either the product or marketing team will have to decide upon the schema (deep link) before any integration can be done. Real world usage is also not immediately apparent as there is a lack of standard between the different platforms to enable cross-device deep linking. It creates a scenario where the technology is available but there is clear use case to use it,” he says.
Why it’s important now?
Mobile content is quickly becoming an important aspect of search engine optimization. App discovery is one of the key challenges for most of the apps out there and Google already provide app indexing to allow Google search to crawl through the app content. Enabling a deep link to direct users directly to the content they were searching for will greatly enhance the user experience. This would simply mean that the link quality is high which will result in better SEO.
Also in the context of how to make the most of what Google can do for a mobile app, it should be noted that there are two valuable use cases - the deferred deep link model which direct new users to the intended content after installing the app and retargeting ads which direct users to the content most relevant content based on their interaction with the app. This essentially help build a better customer journey which would increase customer retention and thereby sales.
Also, setting up of deep links is a way to leverage an entity’s social media presence. The likes of Facebook and Twitter allow the use of deep links on their platforms (allow to promote deep views as ads, and this is helpful in retargeting campaigns).
Contextual deep linking
Contextual deep linking can uplift the user experience.
Citing an example, Anthony Collins, lead iOS developer at HotelQuickly shares: As a traveller, if I see an advertisement or receive an email from a company which is focused on a very specific thread e.g. ‘Great hotel deals on the HotelQuickly app today, average 28% discount in Bangkok!’, I have been provided with the important contextual information that not only does HotelQuickly have “great hotel deals...” but, more specifically, that ”...Bangkok!” is being highlighted.
From a deep linking perspective, the aim is to connect the statement to the relevant content in the app.
“I expect to click on the link, be navigated to the app and presented with the heavily discounted hotel deals in Bangkok automatically. A fully seamless journey. A regular deep link lacks the contextual awareness of opening the app in Bangkok and perhaps, would simply open up the app,” says Collins.
As a developer, Collins says the team knows a lot more about the traveller, their habits, their favorite destinations, where they are right now, what time of the day they prefer to book. With this data the team can have an incredibly granular approach in targeted marketing that, based on the data the traveller has shared, is far more user centric than ever before.
“Looking into our data, we see you have used our app recently, you looked for a luxurious hotels in Singapore. You closed the app whilst viewing ‘W’ Singapore. Today you also did the same and looked at exactly the same hotel. We can then provide you with a push notification informing you that we have 1 room left, in the hotel you were looking at two hours ago, at that fantastic price you won’t find anywhere else and might want to return back to the HotelQuickly app. Clicking on the ‘push notification’ we have sent to your mobile device with this information, opens the app and takes you straight to the hotel. We have saved you the disappointment of losing out on that hotel room you clearly have a keen interest in,” explained Collins.
So how to approach seamless transition from the link to the app?
The first is to ensure the schema is properly integrated into the app and take note of the logic flow for the particular deep link the user is entering to. For example, if a user needs to be in login state before they can access the screen, the developer should ensure that the user is properly transitioned through the user flow.
The second is to use a cross-device link to enable proper transition between devices. Platforms like URX and Appsflyer OneLink already provide that level of transition.
Very few companies are using deep links today on mobile, says Jerome Seidita, mobile commerce director, Nok Airlines. “But I believe it is a top priority for any companies offering their services on different devices types, even more when it comes to retargeting,” he says.
To answer this problem, the team at Nok Airlines created an efficient tool that allows to understand how users are connecting with the airline and redirect them to the best available channels using deep links.
“If you have the application installed we will open the app with pre-filled fields whereas if you are connecting from your computer we will redirect you to the right page on our desktop website. Other companies started to do that recently like LinkedIn but we are still at the early stages,” says Seidita. “We are also working on one-to-one push notifications, targeting the right person at the right moment with detailed information such as weather or traffic linked to booking information and behaviour. A very exciting and promising area,” he says.
So clearly the industry should go in this direction. Nobody likes to arrive on a page that is either not related to the advertising or not mobile/ desktop friendly.
As a specialist in the arena of airline IT solutions, Amadeus is gearing up for the new XML-based data transmission standard in NDC as well as focused on refining its merchandising offering. Ai’s Ritesh Gupta finds out
Airlines have successfully targeted new revenue streams over the past few years, but the contribution of a PSS and the lowering of associated costs still remains a topic of discussion. It is an issue that continues to hover around the possibility of finding new ways to replace what are often termed as “old-fashioned” distribution connections.
There have been IT companies in the airline distribution technology space that have been propagating the significance of improving upon core aspects, be it for managing bookings out of the airline reservation system, apt way to merchandise offerings, settlement and reporting for every sales outlet, embracing an efficient business rules processing engine and the last component being NDC-enabled XML API.
It should be noted that the existing PSS systems, which are platforms featuring reservation, inventory and departure capabilities, have supported selling airline offerings, which have always been termed as a complex proposition.
It is often debated whether the IT specialists behind PSS’ deliberately tend to resist change and rather not succumb to an attempt by new players to enter their territory in any fashion. As a result, the new age IT players at times just come across as provider of ad hoc solutions.
So to what extent are airline IT solution companies, the owners of a PSS system, ready to embrace change?
As we all know this happens to be a crucial juncture for the industry.
At this point of time the industry is evolving to embrace a new, XML-based data transmission standard in NDC. Also, the new commerce platforms are promising to assist airlines in ensuring they offer an opportunity to a passenger to buy any air or non-air product at any touch point. Also, modern merchandising and pricing engines do not operate independently.
So can we expect an established airline IT entity to strengthen their merchandising capability? Also, develop an NDC-enabled API to ensure the content is delivered dynamically in the omni-channel shopping environment?
Christian Baillet, Regional Director – Airline IT Sales, APAC, Amadeus acknowledges that the progress is being made in the industry, and says the development of an API or even a merchandising offering isn’t a technology constraint anymore. A core aspect of merchandising is building personalised offers, which is managed by business rules, and Amadeus’ PSS makes extensive use of business rules to help airlines deliver tailored services to travellers.
“Amadeus’ PSS system has responded to the changes in the travel landscape, and we are equipped to support airlines’ needs today for a competent merchandising strategy,” says Baillet.
“Our technology manages massive volumes of shopping transactions, works out pricing in real-time, for both simple and complex itineraries. This functionality encompasses the ability to process all sources of fares. So airlines can count on us for flexibility, and configuration and management of new products and pricing. We have been refining our merchandising engine. The technology is in place, as it is relies on open architecture, XML-based,” he says.
Why is it tough for legacy systems to manage ancillaries?
The introduction of ancillary products results in a complex scenario, something that legacy systems weren’t developed for. Management of air ancillaries requires setting up of multiple processes. It isn’t an ideal scenario for a legacy system to manage it if they don’t support a multi-host and multi domain commerce.
“Unlike legacy systems, Amadeus offers an integrated solution, based on scalable and open architecture and if any airline intends to go ahead with one vendor for the entire merchandising strategy we are up to it. But we also respect airlines’ vision if they choose to take a different approach,” mentioned Baillet, referring to the best-of-breed approach or even an airline opting to work with different partners.
So do niche IT specialists have any advantage?
“Yes, there are entities that are nimble, but then large IT players like us have our advantage in serving the needs of airlines, too. Yes, we are prepared for where the distribution landscape is headed, and soon we will be ready with our improved merchandising offering,” said Baillet “Our airline customers will have access to a full range of tools to execute their marketing and sales vision for the entirety of their content through both direct and indirect channels, with the ability to execute on product, price, placement and promotion, delivering a tailored offer to travellers at the touch point chosen by travellers.”
As for the so-called pipe or the XML-based API that simplifies distribution of air and non-air products to various distribution channels – both direct and indirect, Baillet says the team has already made progress on that count. “We fully understand the significance of such development,” he adds.
What to expect in future
“Amadeus is committed to embracing technologies to drive efficiencies and greater capabilities within our industry while supporting transparency, choice, competition, privacy and innovation in the air travel market place,” says Baillet.
He says proof of this is that Amadeus is already working with United Airlines on the only NDC-XML actually in production with a GDS. Also, Qatar Airways has also confirmed working with Amadeus for an NDC 1.1 pilot.
Based on information from the IATA website, the airline introduced a pilot to cover the design of the NDC solution (this initiative’s highlight is from a user interface and architecture perspective). It would allow the airline to make and manage NDC offers and orders.
The second phase of the pilot was scheduled to deliver ancillaries to certain Amadeus agents in the third quarter of this year. The pilot will focus on showcasing the airline's premium product across all cabins to travel agents, through an Amadeus graphical user interface connected using NDC XML data standards.
It needs to be understood that NDC is a facilitator and it is about bringing consistency in display of what airlines can offer to users across all the channels, Baillet stated. “The bigger issue here is how can we support airlines in their endeavour to know their customer better, using the data they have about their customers to personalise their offering,” he added, indicating that the airline IT solutions provider is up to it. Also, the company is also preparing for what will be a stronger push into data analytics to support better retailing.
Also, NDC-XML is only a small part of the merchandising effort underway in the industry and is far from the only connectivity standard.
“We are already seeing that usage of NDC -XML by airlines and GDSs will vary in its shape and form, resulting in a mix of EDIFACT and XML connectivity. And this is why we’re launching our merchandising system, fully integrated with our PSS suite, to enable airlines to create dynamic and relevant offerings: any time, any point of sale or channel, direct or indirect, through any device,” he said.
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Identifying a customer is great, but better not to intrude in everything
Airlines are getting sharper in knowing how to personalize. But there are examples where the idea of knowing a customer seems to be going too far
Airlines are in the infancy stage when it comes to controlling their products to the point of creating a consistent, personalized, and value-added product for each customer.
As experts point out, the industry is directionally positioning itself to do just that.
“Today, the majority of airlines use a fairly simplistic algorithm to create a generic “individualized” product using a frequent flyer number to identify airline status, then sending out the appropriate set of products, such as a free premium seats, special boarding, etc.,” says Jim Davidson, CEO, Farelogix. He adds, “However, tremendous progress is being made by many airlines that are starting to adopt technology capable of taking input from customer management systems (usually in the form of a customer “score” that equates to a set of products to be offered) and sophisticated optimization systems. But we are just beginning to turn this corner.”
From an airline perspective, an executive based in the U. S. recently told us the “personalization of the passenger experience becoming more and more individual, as opposed to being based on a certain market segment”. He added that this is evolving from the automation of several areas which used to be manual processes and it is through that automation that huge data sets are now being created that can be used specifically for this purpose. The executive went to add that the era of big data is actually here now, but the tools and strategies to fully take advantage of it are still just a bit below the horizon for the most part.
What does it take to “personalize”?
Being able to offer tailored travel products to individual customers is being attempted for years now. However airlines have certainly moved from a phase of consideration to a period of action over the last 12 months.
Kieron Branagan, MD, OpenJaw Business Unit at GuestLogix, says effective personalization requires a “collect, predict, act” approach.
Firstly, airlines need to collect relevant data about the customer, often from a variety of sources, and airlines with a CRM and FFP/ loyalty program partnership already have a decent start. However it is also necessary to have single e-commerce platform that provides a 360 degree view of all digital interactions (including past transaction history and current online behaviour etc.) across the omni-channel (including desktop, mobile, tablet, on-board, contact centre etc.) for the entire customer lifetime, in order to make the most of the personalization opportunity, says Branagan.
He says data needs to be mined for insights by data scientists in order to predict and continually test which offers resonate with which customers.
“When beginning a personalization strategy, many airlines categorise customers into personas, for example the “business traveller”, “family holidaymaker”, “couple”, “solo traveller” etc. As knowledge and data quality matures, it is possible to get closer to serving each customer’s need on more of an individual level,” says Branagan.
Data analytics is crucial to offer personalized offers throughout the travel process. Without knowing what a passenger has done before, it makes it very difficult to visualize what they might want in the future. Without quality data, and knowing what the data actually represents, analysis of the data becomes impossible.
In order to act on insights, airlines need a logic/ rules-based merchandising engine that is powerful and flexible enough to create and manage offers and present them in an optimised shopping experience for individual customers.
Also, from an organization’s structure perspective, the challenge for most will be identifying the need to more closely integrate IT into the commercial processes to manage the sheer volumes of data and create an output that is functional and beneficial to the passenger.
As much as technology evolves, and customers can be tracked with much more precision, it shouldn’t be forgotten that it is the customer who dictates how far you can go at times.
Data can do wonders. But if the user behind the technology disables certain functionality then one can’t do much.
For example, if a passenger using a particluar mobile app has the location functionality deactivated then it is unattainable to offer location-specific offers.
In one of our recent articles, Ryan M. Harris, e-commerce and ancillary products manager, InselAir and InselAir Aruba, explained that in the EU, there is a requirement for a passenger to opt-in to accepting tracking cookies, which allows you to collect information on their search habits. “If a passenger does not opt-in, I can’t tell that they have been searching for a trip to Milan, so I can’t offer them a personalized offer when they come to my home page,” he mentioned.
Importantly, Harris also emphasized that there is a deep public distrust, in general, in automated tracking.
“Full personalization opportunities requires building that trust with the passenger and ensuring that the information will not be used except for the specific reason that the passenger grants access. Technology has made many things possible, but there are limitations as to how far you can take it without being “creepy”,” Harris mentioned.
Also, for those who don’t understand much about how retargeting works, when they get a feeling that they are being followed they may not like it.
For instance, I know of OTAs who sort of “follow me everywhere” after I abandon certain booking flow. I might have just touched upon a fare or a hotel for a particular destination and left the site in few minutes. But then session after session, when I access any website on my PC, I get to see a banner ad for the search I had conducted. It can go on and on for a week at least, as far as I can remember. Yes, the ad that is being shown to me is personalized but certainly not the way technology should be used to annoy the potential traveller.
So airlines definitely need to be cautious about their plans for personalization. It is not easy to foray into new areas of technology or analytics. Yes, there are huge benefits to be reaped by being data-driven, but not at the expense of losing out on customers in the name of knowing them better.
By Ritesh Gupta
Many of the latest developments pertaining to personalization will be discussed at our global Mega Event (04 & 05 November 2015, San Diego).
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Combining all valuable data sources into one customer hub – how to make it work?
What’s impeding the effort of airlines to fully capitalize on the prowess of personalization? Ai assesses the same, featuring recommendations from Boxever and OpenJaw
Advancements in data analytics and how the same paves way for understanding the intent of the customer is one area that is being followed closely.
As Datalex’s CEO Aidan Brogan puts it, the effort is in combining all valuable data sources into one customer hub and ensuring that the commerce system can turn an insight into an offer.
It is also vital to ensure that passengers are duly recognized across every digital touch point. In this context, it becomes imperative to have a single view of the customer. But then there are still hurdles in attaining the same.
Ai’s Ritesh Gupta spoke to senior industry executives about some of the crucial areas related to personalisation and analytics:
Boxever’s CEO Dave O’Flanagan explains there are several key points to being data-driven:
1) Understand why you’re doing it. There’s no point in building a large repository of data unless you’re clear on the RoI and can clearly demonstrate the business value to your organisation, which can be direct revenue, says O’Flanagan.
2) Start small. Deploy the solution in your digital channels first, focusing on minimizing integration while and maximising impact. “We find that web, email and mobile are great places to start then expand to call centre, operations, in-flight and beyond. This allows you to build the business case to deploy the solution across your organization,” says O’Flanagan.
3) Hire the best talent. O’Flanagan says data is useless without people to help you understand it and translate the insights into personalized customer experiences.
4) Align your organization. Omni-channel can mean omni-department for your organization and key functions will need to work together to make it a reality. “We’ve found that the organisational challenges in achieving true omni-channel are every bit as difficult as the technical ones,” says O’Flanagan.
O’Flanagan says, “In our experience the toughest part of creating a single view of the customer is that it requires many departments to work together for a common purpose.”
He says coordinating this against other priorities, aligning on common goals, allocating resources, defining ownership of the new SCV (single customer view) - these are all new efforts for many of these departments, who have traditionally worked within their own silo. “Orienting around the customer really means transforming how the company thinks about its data, resources, and operations. Part of Boxever’s approach to addressing this challenge is helping companies understand the organisational as well as the technical challenges to doing this,” says O’Flanagan.
Mark Lenahan, VP of Product Strategy at OpenJaw says the biggest barrier to a single customer view is the persistence of technology and corporate silos, per customer touch point, as opposed to the creation of a single platform for retailing.
According to him, a single platform is one where the airline can leverage its buying power to present any product in any channel. “For example, contracting a hotel takes effort (direct connect or channel manager integration takes a different kind of effort), but why repeat it for every airline brand and again for the holidays company and again for the loyalty program?” questions Lenahan. He further probes and says: from the customer’s point of view, why are they seeing entirely different hotel products on the airline.com website than they see on the airlineholidays.com website, or the airlineffp.com website, and again on board the plane? Why are they seeing different offers in-line, before they ticket, than post sale, after they ticket, pre-departure and on-board?
“I'm not saying every product must be visible in every channel. What I do believe is that the decision of what products to offer where should be a business decision, not a technical one,” he says.
At this point, not only do very few airlines have a true multi-channel single-platform approach to travel retailing, they also don’t have corporate structure to support retailing. There isn’t a single person who can own the business case for a product across all channels - direct/ indirect, web/ mobile, holidays, loyalty, on-board, at destination etc., added Lenahan.
Technology is making progress when it comes to identifying a customer in the multi-device environment.
“My view on this is that the suitability of probabilistic methods depends on what you are going to subsequently do with that assumption of identity,” says Lenahan. He says if you are using aggregate data to discover patterns in consumer behavior, probabilistic is probably fine within error bars that your data scientists and analysts will understand. “Likewise if you are targeting advertising, you only need a good percentage of hits, and even the misses are quite likely to be similar people,” he says. “Although it is based on cookies, I like Amazon’s multiple levels of authentication. They welcome you back with an assumption, but you still need to deterministically “log in” to view account details or complete an order.”
Lenahan says he also thinks customers have a right to some transparency here. If a consumer has a reasonable expectation of anonymity and they are not in fact anonymous, the airline risks some reputation damage “if they abuse that and get caught,” warned Lenahan. “There should be a way for any consumer to see the standard, anonymous market price for example. I think common sense will prevail, and no matter how clever you think you are as a retailer, you can't outsmart a market (in the long run) and you shouldn't try. Ultimately, retailers work for the customer not against them and they mustn’t forget that,” he said.
O’Flanagan says right now the strike rates for generic matching based on cookies, IP and other environmental factors are pretty unimpressive but if you can look at booking information, search behavior and other travel-specific factors the match rate increase significantly and this is where travel-specific solutions have the edge.
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