Aug 10, 2020 / Mark Rizzuto (CEO)

What Year is This?

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is having a transformational impact on millions worldwide. Overnight, many of us had to redefine our business practices (and personal lives). Several of us had to consciously take a few steps back to go forward. As ironic as that may sound, the simplification of business objectives allowed us to take a stock of what’s important and how we execute on these going forward. 

I must admit, the low online adoption in the tours and activities (T&A) industry continues to baffle me. Arival estimates online sales account for less than 30% in 2019. Such a low share in a modern-day digital world reminds me of Robin Williams’ infamous panic reaction from Jumanji, “What year is this?” The high reliance on offline processes for vital aspects of the business – email or telephone to confirm bookings, manually verifying every voucher that comes through, and above all the unavailability of last-minute bookings makes me wonder if we’re living in the 1950s! 

Considering the reality of our times, the pursuit of introducing frictionless traveller experiences in the COVID-19 era should be the sole objective of everybody across operational and retail divisions. There is no better time than today to accelerate technology adoption so as to enable these desired frictionless experiences. 

Why Now? 

For starters, travellers now expect touchless experiences more than ever. The definition of hospitality is changing before our eyes. COVID-19 is ushering an era of touchless hospitality. The pandemic-forced shut down has given a “breathing room” for the suppliers and even distributors to refine or reset operations and innovate offerings, putting technology in front and centre of every process. 

Further, international travel is all but decimated. UNWTO estimates that continued travel restrictions could impact up to 80% of international tourism receipts globally in 2020. The result – mass tourism as we know it is dead, and it will be a long-drawn W-shaped recovery curve before travel demand returns to the pre-COVID levels. Even though the concept of travel bubbles, air bridges or green corridors may bring in some relief, they are highly unpredictable. Take for example the initial inclusion, and then exclusion of Spain & Luxembourg from UK’s list of green destinations, upon a sudden spike in cases in the former countries. Similarly, the highly anticipated Trans-Tasman bubble between Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands has been put on hold until the end of the year due to a fresh outbreak in Victoria. Given the circumstances, targeting local and regional markets will become the primary focus for most suppliers and distributors. 

The T&A industry is undergoing a period of renaissance. Private investors have poured in US$2 billion in online distributors and technology providers since 2017. All of them, including Livn, are in the race to onboard suppliers and making last-minute inventory availability across all channels and platforms a reality. Recent news of Musement powering Booking.com, in spite the latter acquiring FareHarbor in 2018, validates the complexity to access T&A products and its real-time availability. 

‘Tech’ a Chance 

It’s been 60 years since the first computerised airline ticket was booked. Most of us today don’t even bat our eyelids thinking about booking flights or hotels any other way. This needs to become the norm in the T&A industry too. As the world reopens, thousands of activities and experiences will be forced to come to terms with the new normal. Technology can deliver the much-required jumpstart to align with the new traveller expectations. Among the foremost requirements is visitor management to ensure social distancing norms and guidelines are met. By onboarding inventory on distribution platforms, suppliers and distributors can have a centralised view of schedules and admissions, while travellers gain confidence about the on-site experiences ahead of them. 

The unfortunate number of retrenchments in our industry also gives us the opportunity to rapidly move towards automated sales and marketing solutions. For example, a promotion can be pushed across multiple sales channels within minutes rather than manually configuring and coordinating with individual distributors. Every second spent on doing sales the old-school way, is a second away from implementing refreshed experiences including safety protocols for visitors. In addition to promotions, technology can also help streamline product content, including photos, copy and prices across resellers. 

Finally, use of technology solutions by suppliers could also gravitate mega-online sellers towards them. As they see your commitment towards investing in technology and automation, they may also prioritise your onboarding over others which require countless hours of handholding and content management. This is the fundamental premise behind Viator/TripAdvisor introducing a listing fee of US$29 – the costs associated to sanitise and streamline content. And when more distributors prioritise quality over quantity, you can be rest assured that those suppliers offering minimal integration steps will be put first in the queue. This is also a win-win situation for distributors as they get to do what they do best – technology development, marketing and packaging. 

One Last Thing… 

It is understandably normal to be overwhelmed by technology and the changes it may bring about. Yet, the flip side of it is that these initiatives will put suppliers and distributors in the driver’s seat – in knowing that they can focus on the things that matter the most, while technology can do all the heavy lifting for them. From product management to promotions, analytics to recommendations, there are countless ways in which technology can bring in business efficiency across operations and sales. Above all, it will put us as an industry at a vantage point to plan better for the future, as we seek to return to normalcy… or create a new one. 

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