High-tech ticket to ride for the con­nected gen­er­a­tion

China Daily (USA) - - ANALYSIS - By HAKY MOON For China Daily

The ea­ger and early adop­tion of travel-re­lated tech­nolo­gies has en­abled Chi­nese out­bound tourism to leapfrog more de­vel­oped mar­kets, at­ten­dees at a lead­ing tourism forum were told.

At the Global Tourism Econ­omy Forum in Ma­cao, held on Oct 15-16, in­flu­en­tial busi­ness­peo­ple, govern­ment of­fi­cials and academics gath­ered to dis­cuss how dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries can cap­i­tal­ize on tourism.

A ma­jor talk­ing point over the two days was how new tech­nol­ogy is chang­ing the face of the global tourism in­dus­try. To a greater ex­tent than most other groups of trav­el­ers, Chi­nese are tak­ing ad­van­tage of this tech­nol­ogy to cus­tom­ize their travel plans, find des­ti­na­tions and pur­chase ex­clu­sive ex­pe­ri­ences.

The tourism sec­tor is con­tin­u­ing to shift from an offline to an on­line busi­ness model, driven by user-gen­er­ated con­tent and away from tra­di­tional mar­ket­ing tech­niques.

And mil­len­ni­als — broadly de­fined as those born be­tween 1980 and 2000 — have quickly em­braced all the new ap­proaches.

As a re­sult, the travel in­dus­try serv­ing out­bound Chi­nese tourists has sped for­ward and sur­passed many of its coun­ter­parts else­where.

Tech­no­log­i­cal change is mak­ing it pos­si­ble for tourists to go be­yond stan­dard ap­proaches to travel, sa­vor­ing ex­pe­ri­ences that may have been out of their reach in the past. This has al­lowed busi­nesses that make the link be­tween tourism and tech­nol­ogy to grow ex­po­nen­tially.

“We have 350 mil­lion pieces of con­tent on the site, and 255 pieces com­ing to our site ev­ery minute. That tells you how tech­nol­ogy has en­abled us,” said He­lena Egan, direc­tor of in­dus­try re­la­tions at US-based TripAd­vi­sor, the travel web­site billed as the world’s largest.

To­day’s trav­el­ers have needs “in terms of in­no­va­tion, com­fort, free­dom to feel emo­tions, to share”, she said.

Nas­daq-listed TripAd­vi­sor has grown ex­po­nen­tially over the past decade by fo­cus­ing on tech­nol­ogy in the travel in­dus­try ex­clu­sively.

“The main dif­fer­ence … is that we re­ally fo­cus on how to grow prof­its, and how to use dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing in the tourism in­dus­try,” Egan said.

TripAd­vi­sor’s pop­u­lar­ity in­dex — its own rank­ing sys­tem, fed by trav­eler re­views — is al­ways based on user­gen­er­ated con­tent, she said. “We have to fol­low the trends. Our per­son­al­iza­tion is cre­ated just for the user.”

Travel pro­fes­sion­als are tak­ing ad­van­tage of op­por­tu­ni­ties in a range of ar­eas, in­clud­ing the in­ter­net, mo­bile de­vices, wear­ables, aug­mented and vir­tual re­al­ity, and in the shar­ing econ­omy.

New plat­forms to cater to the spe­cific needs of trav­el­ers are here to stay. The evo­lu­tion of the shar­ing econ­omy, in par­tic­u­lar, is re­defin­ing tourism. Ex­am­ples of it are every­where, from taxi-shar­ing apps to home-stay net­works.

Didi Chux­ing, a ride-shar­ing com­pany that pro­vides ser­vices to 300 mil­lion users across 400 Chi­nese cities, has beaten the global leader Uber in China. In Au­gust, Uber’s China unit was ac­quired by Didi in a deal re­port­edly worth $35 bil­lion.

“We are a very young in­ter­net com­pany,” said Ling Kang, Didi’s se­nior direc­tor of govern­ment re­la­tions. “We be­lieve travel and daily com­mutes can be com­bined.”

Tap­ping the tourist mar­ket, as well as daily cus­tomers, will be made eas­ier as the com­pany’s ap­proach to its busi­ness adapts and evolves. Go­ing for­ward, Didi is likely to shift away from be­ing strictly a ride-shar­ing com­pany.

“Didi now has mil­lions of users each and ev­ery day. In the fu­ture, Didi will de­velop into a high-tech big-data com­pany,” Kang said.

Chi­nese tourists have be­come more af­flu­ent than ever, in­creas­ingly well-ed­u­cated and aware of their op­tions. Trav­el­ers who were once typ­i­cally des­tined for Hong Kong are now ex­plor­ing myr­iad des­ti­na­tions across the globe.

Now, more than ever, tourists know their own wants and needs. For ex­am­ple, trav­el­ers within China are in­creas­ingly look­ing at the Didi plat­form to book trips by ar­rang­ing car­pools.

For the time be­ing, Didi has no plans to evolve as a one-stop shop for trav­el­ers but is fo­cus­ing on all as­pects of trans­port.

Mario Hardy, CEO of the Pa­cific Asia Travel As­so­ci­a­tion, notes that “tech­nol­ogy will only be a tool” to as­sist trav­el­ers in cre­at­ing new ex­pe­ri­ences.

As mil­len­ni­als are the first gen­er­a­tion to grow up with the in­ter­net, this means they are also the first gen­er­a­tion of na­tive users of e-com­merce, on­line re­views and so­cial me­dia. Al­ways con­nected, they seek con­stant in­ter­ac­tion dur­ing their trav­els.

Com­bined with the rise of the in­ter­net-pow­ered shar­ing econ­omy, this has widened the range of ex­pe­ri­ences and des­ti­na­tions on of­fer. Peer-to-peer plat­forms — such as Airbnb or Didi — are rapidly mov­ing into new sec­tors and link­ing ser­vices. It is pos­si­ble for trav­el­ers to plan en­tire trips us­ing these plat­forms.

The new tech­nol­ogy op­tions avail­able to trav­el­ers every­where are help­ing speed the phe­nom­e­nal growth of tourism in China.

“Tech­nol­ogy adds ef­fi­ciency,” said Lug Giroud, co-founder of Hong Kong-based dig­i­tal busi­ness mar­ket­ing agency Wild at Heart. It al­lows tourists to reach their in­di­vid­ual travel goals with greater ease.

“There are lots and lots of im­prove­ments in terms of tech­nol­ogy as a way to push mar­ket­ing,” Giroud said. “Most au­to­mated price com­par­isons for air­lines are only go­ing to give you cheaper prices.”

Set­ting busi­nesses apart in the fu­ture will be the abil­ity to bring value to users, not just sell the cheap­est tick­ets or ho­tel rooms.

For car rental com­pany Avis, tap­ping into the shar­ing econ­omy is a nat­u­ral way for­ward, said An­ge­line Tang, direc­tor of Asia sales and mar­ket­ing at Avis Bud­get Group.

Avis re­cently ac­quired Amer­i­can car-shar­ing com­pany Zip­car, which gives sub­scribers ac­cess to a pool of ve­hi­cles for short-term use, usu­ally a few hours at a time.

“In cer­tain as­pects, for prac­ti­cal rea­sons, the shar­ing econ­omy will work and will be here to stay for a long time,” Tang said. “We brought in tech­nol­ogy,” she said, draw­ing at­ten­tion to the im­por­tance of “in­te­grat­ing cur­rent busi­ness with tech­nol­ogy”.

Tech­nol­ogy is al­ready mak­ing it pos­si­ble for in­di­vid­ual trav­el­ers to do, with ease, much of the work that travel agen­cies did pre­vi­ously, such as craft­ing and per­son­al­iz­ing tours.

The suc­cess­ful busi­nesses will be those that can meet the de­mands of in­creas­ingly savvy tourists, and this is likely to re­quire more ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive use of the big data col­lected from hun­dreds of mil­lions of pieces of user-gen­er­ated con­tent, said Egan of TripAd­vi­sor.

And the prospect of ser­vice from ro­bots is not too far off.

“Ro­bots will be able to be­come your travel agent,” said Giroud of Wild at Heart.

How­ever, com­plete re­place­ment of the “hu­man touch” is un­likely any­time soon, es­pe­cially when it comes to trav­el­ers in cri­sis.

For the time be­ing, ro­bots can­not com­pletely over­take the power of hu­man knowl­edge. Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence has come a long way in re­cent years, but it is not yet able to pro­vide the per­fect an­swers for ev­ery tourist ex­pe­ri­ence.

“The trend of tech­nol­ogy chang­ing the travel ex­pe­ri­ence is go­ing to be the same in the next 50 years, in a way that there will be more and more in­no­va­tion. While hu­mans will use these new tech­nolo­gies, they will still be crav­ing au­then­tic­ity,” Giroud said.

A case in point is Airbnb, where the host and trav­eler make con­tact through tech­nol­ogy.

AFP

Mo­bile phones are in­dis­pens­able at a park near the For­bid­den City in Bei­jing. Tech­nol­ogy is chang­ing the face of the travel in­dus­try, with many Chi­nese tak­ing ad­van­tage of it to cus­tom­ize travel plans, find des­ti­na­tions and pur­chase ex­clu­sive ex­pe­ri­ences.

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