When the internet became mainstream in the late 1990s, one of the first victims to succumb to the winds of change were travel agents.
The ability to directly book flights, hotels, rental cars and insurance sounded the death knell for the steely grip travel agents had on the holiday-booking experience.
Irish consumers have embraced this change and an Irish-based airline called Ryanair was to spearhead the advance.
In recent months, TripAdvisor, a major online travel hub, established its engineering operations in Dublin. The company will employ 50 people in the city, with mobile and social technologies being a core focus.
More fickle customers
Ryanair has realised that because of mobile and social media, customers are more fickle and have more choice. In its latest efforts to charm customers, the airline has begun several initiatives to make it easier for them to book flights and other services. They include a more responsive website designed for tablets and smartphones.
It’s a timely step, because the smartphone, in particular, is becoming the consumer’s hub for booking and managing the entire holiday experience.
A recent study on the future of travel by Expedia found the Irish are in the vanguard of this major shift, with almost twice as many Irish booking trips with their mobile – at 5.36pc compared with the British at 2.76pc.
Expedia is a US-headquartered travel site that software giant Microsoft started in 1995 and spun out a year later. Expedia’s main web businesses include Expedia.com, Hotels.com, Hotwire.com and Egencia.com.
TripAdvisor spun off from Expedia in December 2011.
Travel planning on-the-go
Rochelle Read, senior e-commerce manager for Expedia UK and Ireland, who is driving the company’s Irish web and mobile strategy, said Irish holiday-makers, particularly those under the age of 35, are likely to edit their travel itineraries while on the move.
“There is an expectation among young people under 35 that they can re-arrange their bookings on the go.”
This desire to re-arrange on the go is offset by a trend whereby Irish mobile users tend to make travel bookings one to two weeks in advance of travel, whereas the EU average is one to three days before travel.
In terms of the breakdown of age groups using their mobiles to make travel bookings, 27pc of those 30 years and under use a smartphone and 14pc use a tablet. The breakdown for over 45s is 7pc use smartphones and 7pc use tablet devices.
In terms of business travel, 25pc of Expedia users under the age of 35 use their mobile devices to make work travel arrangements, while 11pc of over 35-year-olds do so. In terms of managing itineraries, 80pc of under 35s use their smartphones to keep tabs on their itineraries, while 69pc of over 35s use their smartphones to manage work trip itineraries.
“Even with all the information at our fingertips, life in general has become more hectic and the expectation for business travellers these days is one-tap itineraries that allow them to make changes on the fly,” Read said.
Digital travel agents
Despite all the choices consumers have to self-manage their getaways, travel hubs like Expedia and TripAdvisor have become the 21st-century version of the travel agent by enabling travellers to keep all their information in one place.
“The key for online travel hubs is to be able to serve customers at all stages of the journey,” said Read. “Being able to edit the experience while travelling is the key trend for the foreseeable future, with the smartphone at the heart of the experience.”
Social media is an increasing aspect of the travel experience and 39pc of under 35s regularly share their experiences with their Facebook and Twitter friends, while 28pc of over 35s do the same.
Expedia’s research has shown that the Irish are more likely to write reviews of their holiday experiences – good, bad or ugly – than the European average.
“While Expedia is a travel hub, we think of ourselves more as a technology business and so we are looking at big-data technologies to drill down into experiences at a local level and understand what consumers expect,” said Read.
“The obvious shift we are seeing is that the connected holidaymaker or business traveller wants to be able to edit and change their travel arrangements on the move.”
The key here is behavioural trends and being able to match the expectations people have in real-time, Read added. If there is a problem with a flight, for example, users will expect push notifications – anything that removes the stress of travelling.
And if there is a problem with a booking, like a room not being up to scratch, you can be sure consumers with smartphones will communicate their grievances by video and photos, as well as words.
“Travel is inherently mobile, and smartphones with all their abilities to organise and communicate on the go remove a lot of the barriers,” Read said. “Yet they also create fresh challenges that the travel industry needs to keep on top of.”
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 12 January