By Caroline Bullock Technology of Business reporter
Imagine watching a film or TV show featuring breathtaking scenery. You don’t know where the place is but you’d love to visit it one day.
Now imagine being able to stop the action, ask your smart TV for the location, then have it work out how to get there, including flight and accommodation details.
It may sound far-fetched, but this kind of “joined-up” travel tech is closer than you think.
It’s all part of an effort by airlines and other transport providers to broaden their appeal and compete with the new app-based travel companies, such as Airbnb and Booking.com.
They want to give us the tools to turn our wanderlust into reality.
And travel inspiration can come from anywhere – even episodes of the seminal TV series, Sex and the City.
Madrid-based travel technology company Amadeus noticed that during one episode in which the lead characters went to Jamaica for the weekend, there was “an interesting spike in search activity for destination during the programme’s ad break”, says Rob Sinclair Barnes, strategic marketing director for the firm’s IT Group.
“This started us thinking about how we could implement the technology to build on it.”
Amadeus was then approached by US carrier United Airlines to develop a product that could exploit emerging technology from the likes of Apple TV and others.
The prototype makes use of GPS location tracking embedded in the filming process. By integrating airline data into the coding, the viewer can be given information on the best flight options and travel deals.
This level of personalisation may not be mainstream reality yet, but it’s an indication of where we’re heading. And with the data analytics and machine learning capabilities we have these days, we may soon find ourselves booking holidays to destinations we didn’t even realise we wanted to go to.
“Personalised technology will become so sophisticated that travellers will be offered what they want, when they want it, before they even need to ask,” says Mr Sinclair Barnes.
“We’re seeing massive growth and spending in this area over and above others and that’s healthy for the travel industry as a whole as it will stimulate continual technology advancements and improve the experiences for everyone.”
‘Worst case scenario’
In another example, German airline Lufthansa has opened up its huge passenger and flight status databases to about 400 third-party app developers, allowing them to access the data through an open API (application programming interface) and integrate it into a new range of travel apps.
This is a first for the airline industry.
Lufthansa’s Reinhard Lanegger says that these days for an airline to be known only for operating passenger planes is “the very worst case scenario”.
“We looked at how Amazon uses its data and it really made us think about how we interact with start-ups. You can fence yourself off from them or become an active partner to achieve the level of customer service that is now expected,” he says.
Planning a trip is not just about getting from A to B. There are recommendations to read on social media and travel review sites; bookings to be made, often for multiple forms of transport and different types of accommodation; routes and itineraries to be planned; insurance to be bought; pets to be fed and walked when you’re away.
All these elements are coming closer to being integrated to create a near-seamless travel experience.
Mr Lanegger envisages apps that “heat up your house based on the estimated time of arrival” or “alert your car to rebook the flight when you are too far away to reach the airport in time”.
He says such services will enable the airline “to transform our offering and better reach the younger demographic that now lives online”.
Smart automated assistants will use all this data to make a lot of the routine travel planning decisions for you.
“For example, if you live in New York and schedule a meeting in London… you won’t have to worry about booking your trip,” says Mr Lanegger.
“Your calendar will automatically research flight options based on your travel preferences and send them to you so you can book the best flight with one click.”
If you “like” a photo of some idyllic sandy cove posted by your friends on Facebook or Instagram, it may seem relatively straightforward for a clever app to pick up on this and provide you with the cost options for getting there.
But Andy Hayler from IT research company Bloor, points out that achieving this kind of integrated, personalised marketing is not that easy.
“Getting a clear picture of a single customer, never mind anticipating their future possible needs, requires well-integrated, accurate and easily accessible customer data,” he says.
“Few airlines today have their customer data in such an ideal state. And integrating this customer loyalty data with the new data that is appearing from social media is also a non-trivial task.”
And do we even want this type of intrusive “push” marketing?
The key to success for Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at tech consultancy Quocirca, is for this kind of “contextual” marketing to be integrated with smartphones and tablets so that the main action on TV isn’t disrupted.
The travel companies also need to be pretty sure who they’re targeting.
After all, he says: “What’s most likely to appeal to a 20-year-old watching a Bond movie action scene set on boats in the Norwegian fjords probably won’t be a cruise holiday.”
But travel firms are undoubtedly getting better at knowing who we are and where we’d like to go.