Mobile is having an impact on the travel industry around the globe, and while there are some constants across geographies there are also material differences between what the customer demands and how travel businesses can satisfy these demands.
Sabre’s knowledge of and experience in mobile covers almost every market in which travel is bought and sold, serviced from its network of 60 offices around the world. Two important Sabre customers – Mexico’s Best Day Travel Group and India’s Via.com – shared their thoughts on mobile.
Firstly, an interview with Best Day Travel Group’s chief technology officer Pablo Vega, discussing how mobile is now an integral part of its sophisticated multi-channel approach. This interview is followed by Via.com’s Himanshu Garg, vice president mobile, and Ashu Gupta, head of international technology, explaining how mobile is driving its B2B and B2C growth in India’s crowded and competitive travel market.
Latin America’s travel industry was worth an estimated $60 billion in 2015, and will climb 3-5% for the next five years to reach more than $73.3 billion by 2020, with Mexico and Brazil accounting for more than 70% of the market, according to the latest Phocuswright report.
Mexico will have 44 million smartphone users in 2016, according to eMarketer.
And a year ago a survey from IAB México and Millward Brown found that smartphones were the most commonly used devices to connect to the web, with 68% of internet users using smartphones to access the web compared with 58% using laptops.
So with a large travel market and smartphones the device of choice to access the internet, how are the region’s travel agents responding?
Bestday.com is an OTA which operates across all of Latin America but is particularly strong in Mexico. It is part of the Best Day Travel Group which also has a B2B bedbank Hoteldo, a destination managment business BDTravel and an white-label IT business BDTravel Solution.
The consumer-facing business is not exclusively online. The group’s chief technology officer Pablo Vega explained the role that mobile plays within a travel business that is committed to serving what remains a multi-channel market.
“The B2c travel agency business is committed to working in different channels. Nearly 40% of searches on bestday.com come from mobile devices or from our iOS and Android apps, but we are not a pure online agency – we have a strong offline business, with hundreds of physical points of sales, such as kiosks in shopping centres.
“The offline business is important to us as we have a mix of people – some come to the physical stores only but we convert a lot of sales for people who have looked at us on their device or desktop.
“We also have a strong call center business which, again, is important in converting people who may have started their search on a mobile.
“That’s why it is not right to talk about specific conversion rates on specific channels because very few of our customers are using only one device or only one channel.”
This leads into a familiar mobile conundrum for travel firms around the world – multi-channel attribution. Best Day’s response is also familiar – getting people to log in – but its approach is more aggressive than most.
“We are moving towards encouraging customers to log in so that we can follow them across devices and channels. But our CRM strategy is to be focused on the customer, not on the device.
“We are planning a big marketing investment in this next year to try to try to get more customers to log in, and as part of our investment in this project we will move some of the budget we currently spend on Google into special promotions for people who log in.
“It’s not a technical question, it’s something we have to work on with the customers. We have managed to get many of our app users to log in and it is a big priority for us over the next few years.”
As one of the leading travel groups in the region, Vega can call on his contracting team to leverage their existing relationships with hoteliers and secure deals and promotions to help drive this push towards getting customers to log in.
Another project the team has been working on is making sure that the online platform is fit for purpose in an increasingly mobile world.
“Right now we have different platforms, for desktop and mobile, but we have been on developing a single responsive platform. It is near completion and we hope to release it for key products in the first quarter of 2017.”
An important part of the platform revamp is to make sure that the apps have access to all the products, keeping in synch with the strategy to make sure all its customers can be serviced across devices and channels.
“We have to be able to sell all our products on the apps – flights, hotels and most importantly packages. We have built our reputation on packages and we need to be able to offer that to our customers on the apps and on the mobile web, not only on the desktop.
“Currently we are in a good position, with different platforms to support different devices. But we decided to change the entire perspective of how operate and design a platform that was mobile-first.
“Having said that, it is important that we keep the desktop – we have no intention of losing this channel – so the responsive platform will be mobile first but also work with desktop.”
Another project in which mobile has been the driving force is Hoteldo connectivity. As a bedbank its API distributes inventory to online travel agents, and with more online travel agents adopting a mobile-first approach, the Hoteldo API needed to be rewritten to deliver results incredibly quickly.
“Hoteldo works with thousands of smaller travel agencies across Latin America, providing contracted beds but also packages and transfers. We really want to be working with larger agencies, online and offline, around the world so we have been working on our XML connectivity.
“The bigger online travel agencies are mobile-first and as a result we are having to follow their mobile strategies. We have good contacting teams across Latin America and we can get competitive prices and inventory, but the reality is for this business to fulfil its potential we needed to work on making the XML connection to be really fast, especially on mobile.
“For any company who wants hotel inventory in Latin America Hoteldo has always had the best product, now we have the best platform with the quickest response times.”
In ten years, Via.com has become one of India’s leading travel businesses. It has a significant presence in the B2B, B2C and corporate travel sectors and its turnover comes in at around $750 million per annum. It is a technology-focused company, and, as a result, is in a great position to talk about the theory and practice of mobile.
Himanshu Garg, its vice-president of mobile, and Ashu Gupta, its head of international technology, explained how mobile is an increasingly important part of the business.
Early in November, it launched Via Lite, a specially designed progressive web app which loads up to six times faster than the full version and which has been built specifically not only to address bandwidth issues in rural India but also some metropolitan areas where the signal strength can be variable.
“We needed to find a way to solve a problem on the ground for our B2C customers which was that pages were taking too long to load on their mobile device.”
Currently Via Lite is only available in Android Chrome, reflecting the dominance of that operating system and browser in India. Garg said that “90% of the smart phones in India use Android.”
The decision to launch Lite appears to be resonating with its target audience, and the growth in the first month has been organic and by word of mouth. Gupta said: “We’re seeing traffic increase by 100%, conversion rates are up by around 40% and we have done this without actively marketing it and when we do, we expect to see even better results.”
The largest part by far of the overall via.com business is its B2B operation – providing a platform for over 75,000 offline travel agents across India. It is vital, Gupta said, that Via.com makes its platform available to its agent customers in a way that allows them to distribute the inventory via mobile.
“So while we talk about our travel agents as being offline, a lot of their customers are actually multi-channel, so B2B is more and more about mobile as well.”
He noted that many Indian travel agents “are not sitting in front of their desktops, they are out and about” and that WhatsApp and other messenger services are often used by travelers to contact the agent, with the travelers expecting the agents to respond through the same channel.
“So it is important that the apps that we build for our travel agent customers allow them to talk to their potential customers through these channels.”
And when talking about Facebook Messenger and WhatApp, chatbots are never far from the conversation. Gupta said:
“We are looking to automate a lot of the support functions through chatbots, and it is a major investment for us right now. At the moment, we have around 150 different support functions that we can automate.”
“Also, we think that as well as automating cancellations and ticket changes, the chatbots can respond directly to queries for travelers as well.”
“It is something we already offer for our B2C business but it will also be part of what we offer to agents, because we think that bots can take over a lot of the manual functions that travel agents currently spend their time on, especially in the larger agency customers of ours.”
All this is made possible by Via.com using the same platform for its B2B and B2C offerings, meaning that mobile-based initiatives for B2C customers can be rolled out for B2B, and vice versa.
The core platform is also powering its rapidly growing corporate travel division, which currently works directly with over 5000 corporates rather than through a travel management company. Garg said that Via.com is targetting “every SME is India.”
He added that Via.com has its own technical team which is building complete solutions for its corporate clients on top of the core platform. “The corporates want their own look and feel and may have different requirements, so we have experts in place who know out platform and can build what the corporate clients want”.
And being able to expand its mobile expertise is helping it win corporate clients. “The very first thing that every corporate client wants when we talk to them is a mobile app, and we can show them one straight away,” Gupta said.
Overall, 60% of the Via.com bookings come from mobile with the biggest growth coming from B2B. Garg noted that: “90% of the agent bookings are made on desktop in India and 10% on mobile. I think in six months’ time it will be 50/50.
Garg added that this is because of the investments that Via.com has made in mobile and the general shift in India as the population as a whole becomes more comfortable transacting on mobile.
“And one really important point about mobile for B2B is that it is a lot easier for us to do personalisation. We can make sure we only give the agent access to the relevant content, and we can give the agent the tools needed to engage with the traveller and send them push notifications, all of which help the service and conversions.
“With mobile the agent can manage his or her entire business from a single device, and in turn that device can reach their customers more quickly and in more effective ways.”
With the Indian government announcing demonitisation in India, there is a big push towards digitisation of payments and Via.com has been a beacon light for its partners giving them options to sell varied products and services through a digital platform and giving customers multiple mobile e-payment options.
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