The latest analysis from Amadeus uses a “scenario planning” methodology to paint a picture of what the future might hold for online travel agents.
But unlike many similar projects, the future Amadeus looks at is only three years away – the paper is titled “Online Travel 2020, Evolve, Expand or Expire”.
At the start of the paper, it summarises its thoughts visually, illustrating the current and future complexities of the global online travel market.
Each of the four scenarios suggested by Amadeus is a viable extension of the current online travel market. The scenario of “digital tour operators” is subtly different from a virtual tour operator, which is how online travel agencies were often described in their early days.
A virtual tour operator (as distinct from a vertically integrated tour operator) owns no inventory such as planes or hotels or high street shops or cruise ships or dead-tree brochures. It is a tech platform which puts other people’s inventory in front of travellers.
A digital tour operator, Amadeus suggests, will come out of “traditional tour operators and OTAs merging to become the ultimate travel seller…from handling complex trips to servicing with new generation travel stores.
Part of the digital tour operator setup, as Amadeus sees it, involves servicing the customer throughout the journey via mobile devices which work in conjunction with real people.
“This new type of Travel Mate (aka travel agent) will also be able to cross-sell at the destination, making suggestions about where to go or what to see, enabling customers to be put into direct contact with potential providers of a service at the destination.”
Amadeus doesn’t name names, but the digital tour operator scenario could go both ways. In Europe, TUI and Thomas Cook have tried, with varying degrees of success, to create concept stores and apps which support their owned inventory and high street shops.
But the other interesting application of this could be, say, an OTA opening a high street shop and using cutting edge retailing tech to promote hotels which it has developed. Expedia-branded hotels might be a stretch, but a massive Chinese conglomerate such as Wanda Group or HNA – which own hotels, theme parks, airlines and stakes in online and offline travel agents – might already be thinking of itself as a digital tour operator.
Meanwhile, the scenario headlined as “mobile travel retailers” is, again, perfectly possible. In the startup world there are already a whole bunch of players who are mobile-only which tend to serve a specific niche or vertical and are not a million miles away from the “travel mate” idea mentioned above.
But Amadeus suggests that mobile-only could become mainstream as it gets more sophisticated. It suggests:
“Imagine an addictive mobile travel agency app that accompanies the traveller along the entire journey. Rather than being a complementary distribution channel, mobile could become the only means of distribution and the only app a traveller needs – or wants.”
A lot of things need to happen before an “all-things-to-all-travellers” app becomes a viable option. Amadeus suggests that chatbot and voice search functionality is a prerequisite, while mobile-friendly alternative payment options are also needed.
The idea of a mobile travel retailer works in theory. But is there a business out there which the traveller is engaging with throughout the planning, booking and in-trip stages, has expertise in devices and mobile operating systems, knows a travellers’ preferences and tastes outside of travel, has its own payment, voice search and bot products and is in a position to “facilitate the ultimate end-to-end experience”?
Apart from Google, that is?
Another scenario is the “mega travel retailer”, defined by Amadeus as “the consolidation between OTA and metasearch business models, as well as the rise of online advertising.” The heavy lifting has been done by the Priceline, Expedia and Tripadvisor triumvirate, all of whom operate this hybrid OTA/meta/ad revenue business model.
But the progression here, Amadeus suggests, is more consolidation and even greater economies of scale for the already dominant players.
“OTAs are able to produce more – and more accurate – information. They may buy their marketing channels, giving them the opportunity to build a brand, stand out from the crowd and earn more from customers, while metasearch companies get a closer relationship with the customer through OTAs.”
The final scenario is the most leftfield of the four – a “travel marketplace [where] the…industry could come together and build its own platform for OTAs, airlines, hotels, and other travel-related companies to sell their products and services.”
A version of this idea is already alive and kicking in China – Alitrip is a marketplace owned by Alibaba where thousands of different travel suppliers have an online shop hosted on the site. The obvious comparison here is Amazon Travel, a platform that only currently exists in theory not practice.
But the idea that Amazon, or other e-commerce giants, open a dedicated travel marketplace is not beyond the realm of possibility. But something similar owned by the travel industry, in which fierce competitors would be forced to collaborate, is a different matter.
Amadeus concludes the paper by saying:
“These scenarios may be projections but there are already clear indications that they may materialise. To remain competitive, online travel players will have to respond to the changes already taking place and anticipate the potential disruptions of the future, or they will be overtaken by more relevant and agile competitors.”
And while Amadeus doesn’t explicitly say so, there is a subtext in the scenarios – look at what’s happening in China.
For context, scenario planning is, according to the Wikipedia page “a strategic planning method that some organizations use to make flexible long-term plans.” In Amadeus’ case its global customer strategy team has aggregated ongoing research, internal and client focus groups and one-on-one workshops to come up with four possible scenarios.
(Article originally published by Tnooz)