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How Google will change the travel business

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A general question when it comes to the hospitality sector is if Google will dominate it, leaving online travel agencies and others in its wake? STUART PALLISTER of EHL Hospitality Insights, looks at how the company can affect it.

Google, whose mantra used to be ‘Don’t be evil’ (until it dropped it for the motto ‘Do the right thing’), is almost omnipresent in our lives these days. We use it for all sorts of online searches, whether it’s trying to access arcane information or find our way from A to B.

The European Commission though recently took the giant to task — slapping a 2.4 billion euro anti-trust fine on the internet giant at the end of June, following a seven-year competition investigation. It concluded that Google had “denied other companies the chance to compete” by placing its own comparison shopping service prominently and demoting those of its competitors.

While Google, which has ‘respectfully’ disagreed with the findings and has 90 days to change its ways, considers its next move, lawyers have been mulling over the case and its implications for Google’s other specialized search services such as maps and travel.

What then of the hospitality sector? What’s the impact of Google – good and bad – on the industry? Sit in a hospitality-related conference these days and the subject of Google is bound to raise its head.  One general line of questioning has been: will Google come to dominate the industry, leaving online travel agencies and others in its wake?

Martin Soler, Marketing Advisor and Partner with Dryven.co, believes there will be a “massive shift in channels, where the channels will no longer be the OTAs or various structures as we know them.” He points out that Google has – up to now – not been interested in transactions as such as “they’ve always been about being the channel and getting the clicks or driving traffic.”

“They’re an ad agency and they like to be the channel, leaving the transaction to someone else, especially if they have one massive channel. It would be a bidding war between Expedia, Booking, direct channels and everyone’s just going to bid higher and they’re going to make more money.”

However, he says, they “could flip the switch and do it” so he would “definitely keep an eye on it.”

So could Google become a dominant force in hospitality?

“They’re one of the best poised currently to do so because they have integration with flight data, hotel data, integration with Uber and many others, so they could essentially have the entire trip.’

Also imagine a world in which we no longer search for information via browsers and apps as we do now but instead ask a virtual personal assistant – whether it be Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or Google Assistant – to book holidays or business trips for us. That may not be that far off now. But when we ask for help with booking flights, hotels and so on, will we get more than just a few suggestions?

“How do you know that you can talk to your fridge, your Echo or your Google Assistant to book a hotel? You don’t. So a lot of work needs to be done to get there. But it will reduce a lot of the issues with travel booking and if done right, we could totally shift from mega destinations which are still probably getting 80 per cent of the traffic and distribute all that travel to different destinations.” (Emphasis added).

On the issue of chatbots, Soler told the recent Young Hoteliers Summit at EHL that the “current booking funnel from inspiration to booking” takes about 29 days and involves checking some 50 or so websites. “It’s a really painful process”. But if that could be reduced to a few interactions with a bot, “we could grow the pie of travel because suddenly the spontaneous and impulse buy of travel becomes a reality.”

“So I believe once the technology is there and we can do that with three interactions, or four maximum, it suddenly changes the game completely … It’s definitely coming and that’s going to be a paradigm shift.”

“You know OTAs are going to have to rethink (this) because there will only be Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant or Microsoft Cortana will be the channel. The channel will no longer be Expedia or Booking or direct. It will be the device that you’re using and it’s going to be the war against who has that channel, who has purchased the rights for the channel and has the AI (artificial intelligence) connected to it. So it’s going to change the game quite a bit – not tomorrow but maybe the day after.”

Ait Voncke, Expedia’s Vice President of Market Management for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), says they regard Google as one of their marketing channels. “We’re optimized in that channel of course, at scale globally, so in that sense we’re a big partner and Google’s a big partner of (ours).“

As to whether Google presents a threat to OTAs like Expedia, Voncke says: “We are getting transactions in the booking space right. We have 5,000 engineers just focused on that process, on building that technology. We have market managers in the field, thousands of them across the world, working very closely in a partnership with our hoteliers to be successful in the online space – and that’s typically not Google’s business. So I think there’s a very complementary skillset at work here.”

Another speaker at the Young Hoteliers Summit (#YHSconnects), Jeremy Ward, Chief Operating Officer of iRiS Software Systems, said although Google may start creating apps for guest experiences, he wasn’t too concerned about its potential to dominate the sector, as most of its revenue comes from advertising. “They’re not there to pick up the small transaction fee. So I think anything that can drive traffic through them, they’re quite interested in, because they take the revenue from it.”

What then is Google’s view of the hospitality sector? At the International Hotel Investment Forum (#IHIF2017) in March, Terri Scriven, Google’s industry head for hospitality, emphasized how the tech giant works with hoteliers and others. She had plenty of practical advice for hoteliers about the need to hire data scientists and to integrate a hotel’s customer relationship management (CRM) system with the property management system or PMS. Asked about the ability of hotels to analyze and use data, Scriven replied: “It’s horrible, it’s kind of hitting my head against a brick wall on a day-to-day basis.  But there’s progress being made which is good.”

“Your websites are rich with so much data,” she said, adding hoteliers should use an analytics tool for insights into why customers visit their sites but then leave to book with an OTA.

She suggested that hotels should not chase the OTAs, but instead should try to make sure their messaging relevant to their target audiences. “And the more relevant the messages are, the more likely they are to book direct with you.”

“Hotel websites leave much to be desired. It’s the reason why OTAs are winning out. The focus has been very much on conversion and how to better convert that user who comes to the website. And instead of providing beautiful imagery – and videos are so important as you need to inspire them to come to stay -focus on how you can better convert them and there’s a lot of data that can help that, and AI is part of it, to understanding people when they’ve come back to your site, customizing the suggested hotels for them to stay at or the overall offer on the site.”

“Let’s get the basics right first. Let’s get those sites looking much better, get mobile sites in place and then you can evaluate AI but you need to start with the site that converts first.”

Watch the panel discussion video “Meeting customers’ needs in hospitality”

Google then is currently working with both the hotels, in terms of their online presence, and also the OTAs. Asked whether the war with the OTAs was over, Scriven replied that she disagreed. “The game is not lost because you have to optimize different channels, booking.com channels, etc. but there’s still a good percentage of traffic that comes direct.”

The game may not be lost – yet – but as the game continues to change rapidly, hotels may find it difficult to keep pace. Even OTAs like Expedia with significant budgets for marketing and tech spending may be a little wary about what’s on the horizon if Google does broaden the scope of its ambitions, despite the European Commission’s attempts to rein it in.

EHL senior lecturer Ian Millar who moderated the Young Hoteliers session on the power of data, writes:

These are indeed exciting times. All of these discussions show the power of Google and OTAs over our industry. But this is also a shame. Through lack of vision and investment in technology, the booking process – and more importantly the customer – has been taken away from the hoteliers. Hoteliers in the past would pride themselves on “knowing their customers”. Unfortunately this is difficult to say in the current climate. Google and booking.com know more about the customer than hotels do. It is time for hotels to change this around. However I feel this may be a lost battle as the cost, time and resources a hotel can put into this, versus what Google can do, is quite frankly a David and Goliath scenario. With regard to voice recognition and AI, I believe it will be the next stage of technological advancement as these systems are becoming more and more intelligent and accurate.

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Showmax launches in Nigeria

Basketmouth and Bovi are the hosts of an exclusive Big Brother Naija recap show, Big Brother Naija Hot Room, as Showmax launches in Nigeria.

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Showmax has launched its video-on-demand service in Nigeria. The video streaming service features a dedicated slate of Nigerian TV shows and movies, international hit series, Hollywood blockbusters, and a Big Brother Naija partnership with live streaming and exclusive new BBNaija shows.

The launch brings two important firsts: the first time a wide range of popular Nigerian series can be binged from the beginning, and a partnership with Big Brother Naija featuring live streaming of the Sunday night evictions as well as two new BBNaija shows that are exclusive to Showmax. One of the new shows will be hosted by comedians Basketmouth and Bovi, who will provide commentary on happenings in the Big Brother Naija house.

“We’re aiming for the sweet spot that other services may have missed,” says Niclas Ekdahl, CEO of MultiChoice Group’s Connected Video division. “Taking a generic service and tacking on a few Nollywood movies won’t cut it, so we’re coming in with a strong mix of bang up-to-date Nigerian shows, international hits and favourites from across Africa, and now, as something completely new: on-demand and live Big Brother Naija content.”

Showmax will live-stream all Sunday eviction episodes of Big Brother Naija as well as the finale, and recordings of the nomination shows will be posted on Tuesdays. In addition to this, two brand-new shows, exclusive to Showmax, have been produced. Big Brother Naija Extra View is a 25-minute compilation of unseen footage and will be added to the site daily from Tuesday to Saturday. Big Brother Naija Hot Room is a 25-minute satirical commentary on the week’s main drama and action, hosted by legendary comedians Basketmouth and Bovi, with new episodes coming every Sunday evening ahead of the evictions.

The following shows will be added daily, as they air on Africa Magic channels, with all past episodes available to binge from the beginning:

– Tinsel, one of Nigeria’s longest running TV series and Africa Magic Viewers Choice Best Drama 2017

– The Johnsons, featuring City People Award winners Olumide Oworu and Charles Inojie

– My Flatmates, starring 2018 Savanna Pan-African Comic of the Year Basketmouth

The new Showmax service will feature hundreds of Nollywood movies and thousands of TV show episodes and Bollywood shows. Telenovelas will also be part of the lineup, as will hits from the rest of Africa like Kenya’s Supa Modo, winner of 50 international awards, and South Africa’s big Africa Movie Academy Awards winner Five Fingers For Marseilles

The lineup of international shows on the new service includes ChernobylVikingsPowerGame of ThronesTrue Detective (starring Mahershala Ali), InsecureBillions, Ballers, and Luther (starring Nigerian BAFTA winner Wunmi Mosaku opposite Idris Elba). The latest episodes of Big Little Lies are added weekly.

There’s also a major focus on kids, with shows like Paw PatrolPJ Masks, and Doc McStuffins.

To get Showmax, visit www.showmax.com. Showmax has a risk-free trial: once signed up, cancel within the first 14 days and pay nothing. Once the 14-day free trial is over, the cost is N2,900 per month.

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Want a competitive edge? Unlock your business data

By Dr YUDHVIR SEETHARAM, head of analytics, insights and research for FNB Business

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The businesses which will be able to count themselves amongst the most successful in the coming years will be those that have succeeded in fully harnessing the power of data. But while you’d be hard pressed to find many businesses that are not currently building or acquiring systems and technical resources aimed at unlocking the value of data, the same priority does not appear to have been given to embedding data-driven organisational cultures.

This failure to focus on culture in parallel with technology not only reveals a lack of understanding of the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the two, but also presents a real risk that the massive investments being made into data might not deliver the returns that companies are hoping for.

The problem lies in the fact that while data analytics and processing are relatively exact sciences, a data-driven culture is significantly more difficult to define. So while company owners, managers and executives may not be able to tell you exactly how data analysis works, they can tell you what they want to get out of it. The same isn’t true of their understanding of a data-driven culture, and so the creation of such a culture is either assigned a lower strategic priority, or simply handed off to the organisation’s Chief Technology Officer, Chief Data Officer or HR executive.

This approach is very unlikely to unlock the full value of being data driven. To do that, every person in the organisation has to recognise the importance of being fully data-driven as a competitive differentiator and embrace the need to build a data-driven culture within that organisation.

This is by no means a small ask. Apart from the significant challenges – both technical and human – that a business is bound to face en route to becoming truly data-driven, it’s likely that every person in a company has little to no idea of what the concept of ‘culture’ actually means in a company, let alone what a data-driven culture looks or feels like.

And that’s why the process of transforming a culture to be data driven must begin with the end in mind. That, of course, begs the question: What is a data-driven culture? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer as every business is different and will have different culture parameters. However, it is relatively safe to say that, irrespective of how businesses look or work, their data-driven cultures will have a few things in common.

For one, a data-driven culture will be built on the broad recognition of data as a vital, strategically essential business asset; one that allows the business to make well-considered decisions based on facts and figures rather than on intuition or past experience. Having a data-driven culture will also mean that the business fully recognises and embraces the ability of data and its application to empower all employees to perform their functions much more effectively. And lastly, a business will know that it has completed its transformation to a data-driven culture when it is able to identify and align its technical and business challenges and leverage data to solve both together.

When you consider these factors as characteristics of a data-driven culture, it becomes obvious that being data-driven is not solely a technical strategy. So, while it is important to recruit skilled and talented data scientists and technology professionals to give physical effect to the data-driven vision, trying to become data-driven in isolation from the business and all its other employees is almost certainly a recipe for failure. Which brings me to the second obvious question that will, or at least should, be asked by every business that wants to be able to unlock the full potential of data as a transformative, business building asset. And that is: How do we do it?

This, too, is a simple question without a simple answer. Most of the global organisations that are considered to have succeeded in becoming data driven still admit to being in the learning phase when it comes to embedding a data-driven culture. FNB is no exception. But we remain committed to the process and, I believe, have gained some valuable insights into the steps that businesses, and especially financial services organisations, need to take to move closer towards achieving a data-driven culture.

The first of these is to start by transforming thinking. You need to get the entire leadership body to commit to supporting and promoting a data-driven culture. Even if very few of them understand what that means, a good first step is to simply get board and executive management agreement to being willing to embrace a culture of openness and collaboration.

Then, with that leadership support, start to communicate with the entire organisation to create an understanding of the meaning and value of being data driven, both for the company and its employees and customers. Ultimately, any shift in culture is only possible when culture is mainstreamed. It cannot be the domain or responsibility of HR. So, an organised and strategic education campaign is essential to explain the benefits that embracing a data-driven culture will provide.

The next step is to commit to democratising data. When employees have access to data, its impact becomes obvious. Break down silos and protectionism. Make data, and its analyses, readily available, understandable, and transparent across the organization.

Obviously, it’s dangerous to just give everyone in the organisation unfettered access to all its data, since they probably don’t have the skills or tools to make use of that data. And that’s where the real culture shift happens, or must happen. Businesses need to focus on building collaborative, multi-functional teams. While tech experts may understand the technology and systems, data is first and foremost a business asset. So a data-driven culture has to be driven by the business. And since it’s unlikely that you’re going to find too many employees with a balanced combination of business and data skills, you need to build your data-driven culture on collaborative teams in which every team member is willing to acknowledge what he or she doesn’t know, and work closely with teammates that do. This approach should also inform all future recruitment decisions. In a data-driven culture, you don’t recruit just for a vacancy, you recruit to make teams stronger.

Finally, be patient. Changing a company’s culture takes time, effort and commitment. Even when the leadership sets the example, the shift only happens through organic growth and evolution.

Realise that there are legacies that have to be changed. The technology legacy systems are actually the easy part because you can throw money at those. But human legacies around how things have always been done in the past are much more difficult to shift. But it must be done, because it is impossible to change to a data-driven culture if all your people are not willing to recognise and embrace data as a key success facilitator.

While the need to build these types of data-driven cultures is becoming increasingly obvious, the unexpected, and valuable, side effect of achieving such a culture is that it has the potential to massively enhance employee morale and productivity. That’s not just because data-based decisions are infinitely more effective than those based on hunches. It’s also because employees grow as people when the work they do has meaning.

Data has the ability to quantify the impact that each employee is having on the customers and the business. And when staff see the tangible value of the contributions they are making, they become far more connected to the company values and their own professional goals, and the result is incremental improvements in personal performance and, of course, bottom-line results.

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