The Internet has changed the way the world travels. You choose travel destinations based on what your friends put up on Facebook, set out to eat the best food in highly rated hotels on TripAdvisor and Zomato, book places to stay on Airbnb, and rely on search engines more than guides in checking out a new place.
In a recently published report by Colliers International, biometric-enabled baggage solutions, cloud passports, personalised travel, spontaneous travel apps, and virtual reality travel, are listed as the themes that will define the online travel industry.
Self-service check-in facilities are undergoing a huge change with biometric technology playing an important role. In Auckland, Air New Zealand has installed the first of 13 biometric-enabled self-service bag drop units, which feature an embedded camera to capture an image of the passenger’s face at the point of bag drop. Baggage tracking devices are also being adopted by many airline firms. Australia is planning to experiment with a digital passport, that would incorporate identity and biometrics data and can be downloaded or accessed when required.
Closer home in India, it is personalisation and community travel that are emerging as key elements of the online travel industry. The launch of Airbnb Trips in Delhi recently is targeted at helping users discover communities and their passions. Some of the experiences include song writing and producing music; learning more about the art of brewing coffee; a session learning about saris, among others. Google has also joined the bandwagon with a few tweaks to Google Trips, that helps people figure out what to do once they arrive at their destination, and now pulls in information from train and bus tickets that have been sent to your Gmail address.
This ability of the online space to create and curate communities of people, with similar interests, was what resulted in Padhaaro, an online platform to offer customised experiences for travellers in Indian cities.
“At present, we operate in about 18 Indian cities and are a platform that seeks to answer the basic questions that many tourists tend to ask – what do I do in a particular city? The main concept behind Padhaaro is to connect tourists or travellers with locals who can act as guides to a particular culture, and offer insights that would not be available to anyone unfamiliar with the place. The online space helps us connect locals with those on the lookout for options off the beaten track — from a cycle ride to the Nandi village near Bengaluru, to a peacock trail in Mylapore in Chennai, among many others,” says Ish Jindal, the founder of Padhaaro.
“Most of our clientèle consists of travellers from outside India. Exploring outside the usual tourist circuit is also on the rise. Though Indian domestic travellers are not very keen on experiences at this point, the numbers are seeing a steady increase over the years.”
Community travel is the basis of Byond Travel, a Bengaluru-based travel start-up that aims at getting people with similar interests to travel together.
“Travel is also a lot about shared experiences. The rise of social media has meant that more choices have opened up for people to plan trips better, often with people they share interests with. You no longer need a Lonely Planet guide to visit the world. I feel that Airbnb and couch surfing are game-changers that allow travellers to get a glimpse of community travel and live like a resident,” points out Vikram Ahuja, the founder of the start-up.
He adds, “We have created a virtual reality platform that will let you relive the best touring experiences, be it kayaking in the rapids or spending time on a remote lakeside in Ladakh. It helps you get the sense of the experience and helps you make an informed choice. Most of travel involves the anticipation of travel, and through virtual reality, we hope to bring this aspiration to life for travellers. I feel that in the long run, applications like Google Tango (an augmented reality platform that enables precise location mapping) will help build on the experiences of people who have visited a specific place before, and help make your own journey better.”
The company is also introducing chat bots that will make answering questions about destinations and packages easily available to users.
While Byond Travel has focussed on creating travel experiences, Thrillophilia.com aims at letting customers discover and book unique activities and connects local activity providers with travellers across the globe. It was launched by Chitra Gurnani and Abhishek Daga in 2011.
“When we started, there were no online marketplaces or websites with extensive information on activities and things to do. Discovery of activities and booking them online was a hassle. We relied on information from friends or whatever came along while we travelled. This seemed to be a big gap and motivated us to build a marketplace online to address it.”
Talking about the solutions on offer, Abhishek says, “In the online space, from the user’s point of view, the hard part is figuring out where to start the search, how to book the experience, which one to choose, and so on. We aim at solving this through a strong curation model consisting of big data analysis, web scraping, and on-ground physical checks to ensure that the customers get the best experience.”
He adds, “Mobile travel technology is a hot space in India. There are multiple players solving various problems and organising disorganised spaces in travel such as RedBus, Uber, Airbnb and more. In the activity space, the problem is bigger and no one has emerged as a leading player in solving this problem for Asia.”
The change by digitisation is changing the way travel agencies work too. Tino Thomas, managing director of Oasis Holidays, a travel agency, points out, “Aggregator sites have made booking tickets very easy. You get the best rates and are no longer dependent on travel agents alone. Booking tickets is easier. This holds true for hotel bookings as well. However, in smaller towns, where data is not very fast, travel agencies are the best bet.”
He adds, “It has made handling logistics much easier. One of the biggest changes is that it has generated more awareness about lesser-known countries and locations. A few years ago, most travel would be restricted to well-known locations such as Thailand, Western Europe and the United States. Now, South America, countries such as Uzbekistan and countries from the former Soviet Union Bloc are getting a lot of visitors, mainly inspired by social media posts of tourists from these places. Travel is becoming more and more of a group activity.”