Reservations.com's Co-Founder Yatin Patel is Fueling a Service Renaissance in Online Travel
The travel agency business is changing at a breakneck pace. A space once defined by face-to-face meetings and personalized advice was completely disrupted by the internet revolution. Now some 20 years later, shifting consumer preferences have highlighted the need for a fresh approach.
The travel agency of pre-internet times seems antique by today’s standards. It was a people-based business, fueled by relationship building and personalities. It treated travel planning as a luxury item. Travel agents had physical offices, with picture lined walls in effigy to exotic places a world away. Their services provided a bridge into these otherwise distant and inaccessible locales.
At the end of the day, travel planning was a service business. You picked a travel agent that you liked and relied on them to help with planning your family’s next memory creating journey. They recommended bespoke travel experiences catered to your needs, preferences, and desires. Tour packages and lodging rates were based on connections and access. In other words, who your travel agent was had a direct impact on what your vacation consisted of. It was expensive and inefficient, but there was no alternative.
The rise of the internet and the velocity in which it became ubiquitous forever changed the travel industry. What was previously a people-based business that competed on service was no more. Travel commoditized and the old way of doing things became less feasible. The mass consumer wanted access and they wanted it cheap. This is not to say that old line travel agencies don’t exist. They do. And they occupy a much-needed niche in the market. However, they have increasingly catered to the luxury segment, which is getting further out of reach of the average consumer as the years go by.
Online Travel Agencies (“OTAs”) emerged with the help of the internet to help fill a much-needed gap in the market: low-cost reservations and itinerary planning. OTA’s provide a hands-off, self-service solution for planning travel that was purpose built for the digital age. There are different flavors of OTAs—some are focused solely on flights or accommodations; others cater to last minute travelers who are hunting for deep discounts. Despite the differences, one thing rings true for most of the major OTAs in the market today: travel is transactional.
As technology continues to disrupt entire industries, it is also illuminating a hard truth about what consumers value most. Consumers want smart service that is commensurate with the amount they are spending on an underlying product. They want to be treated as if they’re unique. They want to experience new things that are different than those experienced by their friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
At the same time as general consumer preferences are changing, travel is experiencing a resurgence in social relevance. Travel is becoming a thing through which we measure success. Those that are exposed to different locations, foods, and cultures, are being revered through social channels more so than ever before.
The online travel agency of the future needs to compete on more than just price. It needs to internalize all of the trends in consumer psyche and proactively position an offering that is set up for prolonged 21st century success. OTAs are often the first touch point a traveler has with a trip planning process and have a unique opportunity to rise to this challenge.
However, current industry norms do not provide much comfort that OTAs will be successful. Service is viewed as a cost-center and travel is treated as “one size fits all.” Investment is being pumped into acquiring scale, but not in differentiation. Even Silicon Valley darling Airbnb takes a low-touch, self-service approach to what has been heralded as the “new age” of travel accommodation. The industry is wide open for a nimbler competitor to crack the code of technology, process, and people and once again change the game.
Some OTAs have already started to invest in this new reality. For example, Reservations.com has doubled down on its commitment to service by providing its customers with 24/7 access to human powered sales and support. Its CEO Yatin Patel explained the strategy, “We are investing heavily in customer experience. That is where all competition in the travel space is heading. We want to offer our most valued customers personalized advice by pairing them with a travel advisory team that is aided by the latest advances in AI. We want to provide our customers with smart value; we view this as distinctly different and more sustainable than being the lowest cost provider in the market.”
The company’s R.Club loyalty program also provides financial incentives to members, mainly through access to special deals and a waived service fee. However, its main selling point is in direct response to how customer attitudes towards travel have changed. Personalized one-on-one travel advice and a digitally powered relationship with travel advisors have been developed in direct response toconsumer preference for unique, experiential travel.
The only certainty in travel is that tomorrow will be different than today. The model that reigns supreme will likely place importance on customer identity. It will prioritize service and experiential travel in all of the right places. It will make consumers feel special and unique at an affordable cost due to a smart, technology-enabled approach. Whatever the specifics, it seems that the real winner will be the consumer and there is never anything wrong with that.