4 Ways to Innovate in Online Travel in the Middle East

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The regional behemoth airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, continue to inspire us with their global dominance. Yet despite their determination to be leaders in everything from fleet to network to service, there is one area where these giants could develop further: digital innovation.

We Love Travel

Here in the Middle East, frequent business trips, regional holidays, and international tourists are a part of everyday life.  Personally, I take up to eight flights per month from Dubai, which is proud to have welcomed 8 Million visitors in 2011. Tourism is quickly becoming an important part of our economies; Dubai Duty Free alone earned $1.46 Billion in revenues. Emirates, Etihad and Qatar have all purchased state-of-the-art airplanes, and continue to invest in overseas lounges, on-board chefs, and other services.

Lack of Digital Innovation in Travel

Given all of the investment in travel and tourism, where is the innovation? Emirates, Etihad and Qatar all have a tremendous opportunity to showcase to the world some of the most innovative ideas incubating in the region, and an obligation not only to lead but to stimulate digital travel innovation. In the 60s, U.S. airlines realized the value of technology in travel, and thus innovated exciting new products such as Sabre for distribution, and later Orbitz.com – both whom were later spun off, and continue to operate as successful independent companies. 

In another example of travel innovation, KLM recently unveiled its exciting new service that allows passengers to select their seatmate on a flight through their social networks (e.g. Facebook or LinkedIn). Although seemingly intrusive to some, I welcome the ability to strategically sit next to a future client, employer, or potential future wife. It’s a new way of looking at social beyond fan pages, twitter accounts, and blogs. It brings travel to an entirely personal and exciting level.  

As pointed out in an earlier Wamda article, online travel is a huge, untapped opportunity in the region.  Although we see a number of exciting start-ups in the booking space such as Travel Sheikh or ClearTrip.ae, we still lack the innovative digital travel solutions that satisfy our growing thirst for social, mobile, and other digital trends.

Digital Innovation Ideas

Sitting on a flight as I type this, I see four preliminary areas where airlines, service providers, and entrepreneurs can digitally innovate to further establish our leading airlines as the global champions:

Mobile. With over 200% mobile phone penetration, mobile is ready for travel. Although the Apple store just recorded its 25th billionth downloaded app, finding a travel related app for this region is dispiriting.  A quick web search reveals a total of three mobile apps for Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar, whereas just one of the leading European competitors has 6 alone.

Opportunity: Develop mobile apps not only for check-in and loyalty points management, but for all aspects of travel including online booking, travel planning, airport guides, destination guides, and mobile payment services, just to name a few.

Customer Analytics: Airlines already know where you have been, where you want to go, what you like to eat, where you like to sit, what you want to watch, and how you pay.  To improve customer bonding across the complete trip lifecycle, travel needs to be offered at a personalized level. You see this trending in banking when you visit an ATM and see an option for “perform your usual transaction.”

Opportunity: Offer a truly customized experience from booking, to airport transfer, to check-in, and in-flight. For example, frequent business travellers have specific, predictable needs for flight times, transportation and seating that should be known to each airline, and perhaps even aggregated between them. Also, how great would it be to automatically resume watching a movie that you only partially finished on a previous flight, or have the recommendations option like on Amazon.com offer you suggestions that fit your profile?

Localization: The region has the fortunate competitive advantage of being centrally located with regards to global travel between Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Leveraging that opportunity, airlines can easily expand to create long-distance networks.  Yet each country has its own unique culture, customer habits, and level of customer sophistication that also need to be catered to.

Opportunity: Further localize service delivery to each region. For example, payment services can be customized for North American travellers who are comfortable with using credit cards or even mobile payments, whereas also providing for Middle Eastern users who prefer cash or bank payments. Tech-savvy travellers from Europe may also have different needs in travel search beyond a price and schedule-based search.

Social:  Social networks have yet to be effectively leveraged on any regional airline. A true application of social connections would go beyond ‘likes’ and ‘tweets’ and start connecting like-minded passengers in the offline world.

Opportunity:  Aside from the afore-mentioned KLM example, there are several examples of websites that allow users to share trips and journeys, and plan entire escapes by “friend-sourcing.” Sawty is one example of a regional player working in this space that others can look to.

Going Forward

There are undoubtedly a number of areas where the travel industry could benefit from digital innovation. The first step for airlines is to create an internal culture of innovation, an idea engine. Next, they need to leverage internal ideas, vendors, and entrepreneurs to source ideas from greenfield technology partners, crowd-sourced concepts, innovation tournaments, or travel technology vendors.  The maturity of the travel industry, and our regional competitive advantage, make the industry a prime source of regional innovation for global use.

The Middle East region should strive to set a new global standard in the digital travel space, and with it, deliver industry changing services and inspire entrepreneurs and innovators alike.

[Photo from Techcrates].

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