Let’s go back to 1991, the year of the Gulf war. To make itself sustainable following the challenging period of the war, Marriott Corporation bifurcated itself into Marriott International and Host Hotels, thereby pioneering the asset-light franchise model in the hotel industry.

Ten years later, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) brought in public-private partnerships to introduce initiatives such as the TSA PreCheck in the area of transportation. When the 2008 financial crisis created economic uncertainty, the travel industry once again pioneered the sharing economy and gig working model with the advent of Uber and Airbnb.

As the travel industry recovers from the impact of COVID-19, it is this resilience through innovation that it can draw its confidence. Going by the Skift Recovery Index, a real-time health measure of the travel industry, it shows signs of once again demonstrating these attributes. As of August 2021, the global index stood at 60 points against the baseline figure of 100 in August 2019.

This is a reason for cautious cheer, as the pandemic perhaps dealt the travel industry the worst blow. Cautious because the reality is that the future cannot go back to its ‘business as usual’ past. New and disruptive dynamics have swept over this industry, which mandates greater data and insight-led decisions, a more seamless end-to-end customer engagement, higher agility to adapt to rapid changes, and do more with less to achieve efficiency and profitability.

A digital-first approach ticks the boxes on all these must-haves. The travel industry seems to have recognized this as evidenced by the 2021 global survey by WNS and Corinium Intelligence. Along with healthcare and retail, it stands at the forefront, with 60 percent of its client-facing business already digitized.

A Bifocal Lens for a New Normal

The two primary travel requirements in a post-pandemic scenario rest on passenger hygiene and safety, and providing a retail-quality experience to travelers. Health will need to be embedded into all aspects of travel to bring back the trust.

Digitization can maximize the shift to connected, touchless travel through contactless bookings and payments, airport curbside and remote check-in. It can achieve real-time outcomes in the monitoring of crowds and identification of infection hotspots. The World Economic Forum’s initiative, the Known Traveller Digital Identity (KTDI), aims to accomplish this through a first-of-its-kind global collaboration of governments, authorities and the travel industry.

While the travel industry stepped on the digital pedal long ago with online channels, it has not quite been able to address the issue of high cart abandonment rates and low conversion rates. An engaging and trust-driven digital experience will lead to better traction in online channels and improved return on investment.

Here is where data and insights play a crucial role. Context is incredibly important to predict customer needs and behaviors, and improve conversion rates. Customers leave strong digital footprints at every stage of their journey, leading to massive volumes of unstructured data. Companies can glean real insights to unlock personalization opportunities by applying artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics to this data.

Human Empowerment

Digital transformation is really about human empowerment. For example, automation does not equate to ‘zero human touch’; rather, it frees people to do what they are good at – interact, engage and make smart decisions. Digitally savvy customers see it as a means to experience impactful one-on-one interactions. Digital-first places the human at the center and leverages technology to scale human engagement — deliver value to the customer, motivation to employees, and collaborative relationships with partners.

The importance of collaborative partnerships stems from the massive investments required to become digital-first travel brands — in the areas of data, storage and security. Not many companies have deep pockets, and so partnerships with organizations that have the right capabilities and specialist talent in place make a lot of sense.

Travel is all about anticipation and excitement. The industry has a great opportunity to make sure that people look forward to safe travel again and be purposefully sustainable.

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