Whatever we think about the pace of change in our lives, technology has been at the heart of it, enhancing and personalising our experiences like never before. And nowhere is this truer than in the travel world, where technology has positively disrupted how we plan, book and stay when travelling for work or leisure.

PLANNING & BOOKING

In many ways, technology has short-circuited the travel booking process – making methods such as booking through travel agents or calling airlines and hotels directly a thing of the past. Travellers today expect speed, instant confirmation, access to real traveller reviews, diverse places to stay and price transparency.

The travel technology space is moving at such speed that it’s hard to keep up, but it’s also exciting and every development is making the entire travel process just that much easier.

In this space, it’s safe to say that travel websites, digital content aggregators and app-based review and booking tools – such as TripAdvisor – have changed the booking process forever, so tick that box, and let’s move on to the actual trip.

CAR TRAVEL

You’d have to be living on the moon to not spit “Uber” out immediately. For car travel and transfers, this digital innovation has had an enormous impact on how people get from point A to point B.

Throw in the likes of Lyft and Zipcar, and you have proper innovation in this space, in the form of car and ride-sharing, which has traditional car rental companies hopping about like a cat on a hot tin roof.

Next up, driverless cars...

ARTIFICAL INTELLIGENCE & BIOMETRICS

AI is one of the hottest topics in the travel technology space. Google’s vice-president of engineering for travel and shopping, Oliver Heckmann, says that nearly 60% of consumers believe that their travel experience should deploy the use of AI and base their search results on past behaviours and/or personal preferences. 


“The volume of data held by travel providers, such as traveller profiles, transaction history and personal preferences, make travel and AI ideal bedfellows,” says Nicole Adonis, the general manager of FCM Travel Solutions South Africa, which last year rolled out the chatbot Sam. “At the highest level, AI has the capability to improve customer service, to make that service more personal and improve travel planning.”

A survey by SITA, a technology company serving the aviation industry, found that 77% of airports and 71% of airlines are either researching biometrics or planning to implement programmes to identify travellers using facial recognition or other biometric means.

Biometrics are already becoming a familiar part of the travel experience, to the extent that Delta has launched the first end-to-end biometric terminal in the US, promising to speed up the passenger experience at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.

Facial recognition technology can be used to confirm passenger identity at check-in, bag drop, security and boarding, removing the need to show a passport and boarding pass at each step.

“Customers have an expectation that experiences along their journey are easy and happen seamlessly – that’s what we’re aiming for by launching this technology across airport touch points,” said Delta’s chief operating officer, Gil West.

Technology companies such as Apple have also made biometric identification more familiar to the masses.

“Biometrics not only have the power to create a more secure world by validating identity with more certainty, but also create a more seamless customer experience,” says Caryn Seidman Becker, CEO and chair of airport security firm CLEAR.

“We picture a not-so-distant future where biometrics replace the need for cash, credit cards and physical forms of identification – think health insurance cards, hotel check-ins, restaurants, car sharing, smart cities and more. The possibilities are endless.”

HIGH-TECH ACCOMMODATION

The impact of technology does not stop when travellers leave the airport. Accommodation providers are increasingly recognising that the sweet spot in customer service excellence lies in a mix of self-service technology and human interaction.

This includes overhauling the check-in experience to make it more intuitive, seamless and personal, as well as providing app and gadget recommendations to help travellers navigate their neighbourhoods.

All the major players in the hotel space – including Hilton and Marriott – seem to be working on a "smart" or "connected" hotel room, with AccorHotels – which has 131 hotels in Africa, including 20 in South Africa – the latest big group to make a noise about the progress it is making, with the company testing technology that uses voice activation and the Internet to make the hotel room experience more accessible and personalised.

A model smart room at the company’s Paris headquarters incorporates a variety of technologies and accessibility features to accommodate up to three guests at a time.

They include:

-          A Google Home voice assistant;

-          A connected tablet that controls lighting, music, the bed headboard, curtains, TV, and other audio-visual equipment;

-          A special LED lighting system that senses motion at night to automatically turn on;

-          Sleep aids, like Dodow, and a Dreem headband that has “brain energy sensors and a relaxation system;” and

-          Aromatherapy aids such as Sensorwake, which helps you wake up to a certain aroma, and Skinjay shower capsules that contain essential oils.


“Voice is the future,” says Damien Perrot, senior vice-president of design solutions for AccorHotels. “To be able to use it to access the TV, go to Netflix directly, or select your favourite song – we’re hoping to connect all of those elements to enhance the guest room experience.”

Then you have the Blow-Up Hall 5050 hotel in Poznan, Poland, where guests are captured on camera as they enter the hotel, and stylised images of their profiles are projected back. Instead of traditional keys, guests are handed iPhones at reception which are linked to specific rooms and use digital recognition software to guide users to the correct room and unlock the door on proximity. This tackles a real pain point for travellers – one-in-five states that checking in and out is the most annoying part of a trip.

So, let’s look at that entire travel technology value chain.

You’ve got your planning and booking apps, followed by your Uber trip to the airport, a complete end-to-end biometric airport experience (for now, only with Delta) to get you onto the plane, and another Uber trip to your hotel, where you engage in a totally digital experience that includes unlocking your room with your smartphone and using a handheld device to assist you through your stay.

If that isn’t technology driving solution-orientated innovation in travel, then I don’t know what is.