How digital transformation is changing the travel sector

26 Jan 2024

Tom Kershaw. Image: Nick Morrish

Travelport’s Tom Kershaw discusses the ways that emerging tech is affecting the travel sector and how the company is addressing sustainability in this space.

Tom Kershaw is the chief product and technology officer at global traveltech company Travelport. Kershaw has more than two decades of experience leading innovation, technical strategy and execution within global technology and internet organisations, and has worked on mobile application development, advertising, data science and large-scale data processing.

Prior to joining Travelport in 2021, he served as chief technology officer at advertising platform Magnite, and he has also held various leadership positions at companies such as Google, Ericsson and VeriSign.

In his current role at Travelport, Kershaw is responsible for the company’s global technology and product teams while overseeing the development and delivery of products and solutions.

“Since joining Travelport, I’ve expanded our engineering and product development team in order to accelerate the delivery of tools that help our agency customers seamlessly search, shop and service travel across a broad array of content types,” he says.

“My team and I are responsible for continually building new tools and enhancing features that agents need to operate as modern retailers and provide better, faster, more personalised online travel retailing experiences for both leisure and business.”

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in the current IT landscape and how are you addressing them?

Traditionally, the travel sector hasn’t been known for having a super easy, intuitive retailing experience, but technology and modern applications are helping to overcome challenges within the travel ecosystem that will simplify and improve the experience going forward.

For example, AI and automation are crucial pieces of the puzzle to work smarter and more efficiently, and this shift has been propelled by one key factor: customers. Customers demand a more modern travel retail experience and agencies that can respond to search requests the fastest or proactively recommend trip options that travellers really want are going to thrive.

At Travelport, we’re using AI to not only help agents automate routine tasks like refunds and exchanges, but to personalise offers and gain more control with ever-changing pricing and itinerary options for travellers.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation in a broad sense within your industry? How are you addressing it in your company?

The way that travel is searched, booked and serviced is transforming. The industry is fast to adapt and travel distribution is becoming more modern, as the complexity of the travel ecosystem and the ever-changing pricing and itinerary options for travellers continues to grow.

At Travelport, we’re seeing search volumes increase daily as airlines and other suppliers are creating more options and decoupling ancillaries to tailor an offer. That is why it was imperative for us to restructure our search and ordering systems to create a fully predictive and intuitive search infrastructure.

The way we’re now using AI and machine-learning to improve the speed and accuracy of data-driven search responses is really exciting to see, because it means travel is finally catching up with other modern retailers. With this level of intuitiveness, agencies will be able to easily understand what their travellers need, make accurate predictions and recommend the best trip options. It is this level of personalisation, driven by rich, robust datasets and AI-based search that will continue transforming booking processes and business travel management into a seamless internet-like retailing and servicing experience.

‘One of the biggest challenges facing the travel industry are the risks with using personal data’

Sustainability has become a key objective for businesses in recent years. What are your thoughts on how this can be addressed from an IT perspective?

When it comes to sustainability in travel, it can be difficult for agents and travellers to identify which flights, routes and accommodations are the greenest. Our travel retailing marketplace, Travelport+, is continuing to evolve and we’re delivering the tools to help travel retailers understand, communicate and promote the most environmentally sustainable or ‘carbon-conscious’ options.

One way we are empowering travel agents is by giving them the ability to access consistent carbon emissions data for flights using the travel impact model (TIM). The TIM framework has been developed by an open-source, industry-collaborative coalition, and administered by Travelyst, an independent non-profit organisation of which Travelport is a member. The TIM takes a variety of attributes into account, for example: aircraft type, cabin class and seat configuration. This model also incorporates upstream emissions, which are emissions produced during production, delivery and use of fuels. Including upstream emissions will be beneficial as sustainable aviation fuels become more common in aviation.

We are also exploring solutions that will help travel retailers offer carbon compensation and nature regeneration to their customers, as well as tools and capabilities to support corporate travel managers with emissions reporting requirements for business travel.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

Travel is much like the rest of the retail world, in that the personalisation and automation of the internet is really the most important mission we have in front of us. And yes, the much-hyped AI trend will help in that regard by automating routine tasks and making agents smarter and more agile.

But those are things that everyone talks about. For me, what excites me most is the data-sharing technologies that were born out of cloud computing – the ability to share data in a secure, anonymised way between a wide range of different entities. Think about the different knowledge and perspectives held by airlines, hotels, travel agents and technology providers like Travelport. Each of those silos can be limited on their own, but if shared and leveraged into a common set of insights, we can truly be transformational.

What are your thoughts on how we can address the security challenges currently facing your industry?

One of the biggest challenges facing the travel industry as generative AI has become more of a priority are the risks with using personal data. I am worried about privacy because the type of data we deal with in our industry is extremely sensitive. For example, Amazon knows my shoe size and that’s not a huge concern (what are they going to do with that information?) But in travel, we consume personal data such as passport numbers and other kinds of very important, sensitive information.

The challenge that exists now is making sure that information is protected but still allows for travellers to experience seamless check-in and other personalised service eligibility, and being able to accomplish both is a very difficult balance. Beyond AI, I think the main challenge for travel is adopting best-in-class security technologies around identity and authentication, including older things like two-factor authentication as well as standards like single sign-on and OAuth [open authorisation]. While this may seem easy, with so many agents distributed in so many places and using so many different types of systems, getting it all into a single framework can always be a challenge.

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