The international nature of travel and hospitality just might make it the “ultimate” localization industry. Either way, it’s one of the most fiercely competitive spaces in the world of eCommerce because a staggering number and variety of parties sell the same products for similar — or even identical — prices. In their quest to win and serve the same customers, traditional and online travel agencies, bed banks, hotel aggregators, metasearch sites and other intermediaries collaborate (but also compete) with hoteliers, hotel operators, airlines, online marketplaces and countless other providers and operators in the hospitality space.
In such a competitive environment, advantages other than price can make a significant difference in performance and sales, which is one of the reasons why we see so much innovation and so many initiatives in a space whose sole purpose is to attract travelers. There are new ways of using emerging technologies and multilingual content to gain a competitive advantage in the hospitality business-to-consumer sales channel — and in many others, too.
goes beyond SEO
Selling hotels and travel has always been one of the most cross-border, cross-language businesses in the retail space. Travelers come from anywhere and can go anywhere, literally. So to reach their customers, travel and hospitality brands need to make effective use of search engines internationally, not just locally.
It’s a maxim that a website with relevant, original content in one local language should lead to a healthy search ranking and therefore deliver traffic and bookings in the domestic market. But it will not help get business from other territories. This is where high-quality localization steps in to optimize organic search for foreign target markets by giving content the credibility and authority that search engines demand in their complex ranking algorithms.
It’s perhaps worth noting that global search engine optimization (SEO) is not based around languages. Google’s search offering is too local these days for that sort of broad-brush approach. Instead, localization should be thought of in country — and even better, regional — terms; a site’s search ranking in South American countries will not be helped much by European Spanish content, for example.
But communication preferences are changing rapidly, and the general trend is away from the web, toward social media, apps and especially messaging apps. Normally only big brands can rely on the success of their standalone apps, which are great for regular users and travelers; however, there are only a limited number of apps that everyone uses on a regular basis, and brand-specific apps are not normally among them.
Travel and hospitality companies thrive on the heavy use of social media and especially globally popular messaging platforms. The communication is shifting from public interfaces, such as Facebook walls and Twitter, to messaging platforms that enable private, real-time communication. On Facebook alone, the number of private messages is now five times the volume of wall posts. This is a giant private-messaging iceberg of social customer care underneath brand walls, hidden from the public. Private messages also have a higher response rate, and the conversations there are on the average longer than those on walls. Messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, WeChat, KakaoTalk and WhatsApp increasingly find commercial use, and not just in travel and hospitality. The mobile-first approach is giving way to mobile-only, and social media are increasingly the actual entry point for new customers or customer interactions rather than the web.
Booking.com is a good example of this trend. Its communication services enable direct multilingual communication between travelers and hotels. Travelers can ask hosts questions directly from within their Booking.com accounts online or via their app. A chat can also be initiated by hosts, with notification sent to the traveler’s phone, triggering a conversation within the Booking.com messaging service.
This complements chat options provided by, say, Facebook Messenger, and enables communication between Booking.com and travelers, but not with hotels. The beauty of this solution is that Booking.com offers direct communication between travelers and accommodation providers, while strengthening its role of a large-scale intermediary.
Booking.com takes this one step further with its Booking Messages interface, which directly supports multilingual communication between customers and accommodation providers. It offers automatically pre-translated templates for certain frequent requests in over 40 languages, with a range of responses to choose from. This includes inquiries about check-in and check-out times, parking, and so on, all in real time, with complete translation support for open-text conversations directly in the app as the next step. So, if you expect to check in later, or are not quite sure your pet is allowed and don’t speak the same language as the hotel staff, you can agree on the details using these templates.
Integrating artificial intelligence into online search and booking platforms is one of the main trends in travel and hospitality these days. Even where travel and hospitality companies choose to develop their own communication interfaces, massively popular messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, with its more than one billion monthly active users, or the workplace-chat app Slack, are part of the communication mix, especially after Facebook enabled official business accounts in April 2016. It’s simply where travelers are.
One added benefit of these messaging interfaces is their ability to readily link bots and create chatbots for automating communication through conversation. These travel bots deploy artificial intelligence and use instant messaging as their application interface.
It’s still an emerging solution and communicating with such travel chatbots often leaves much to be desired. Complex interactions are still better handled outside chat contexts (in a web browser, for example). But travel bots are getting smarter and quickly growing from experiments into essential communication channels for engaging travelers. Companies such as CheapFlights, Expedia, KAYAK or Skyskanner launched their own bots that can be used to search for and book hotels or flights—and even give recommendations about destinations.
Given this early stage of adoption, most travel bots are currently fluent only in English, but other languages are being added. The Dutch carrier KLM is an example of a company that has gone quickly multilingual with its messaging platform. Currently it can operate in some 13 languages and is supported by a multilingual team that operates 24/7 across a wide range of social media platforms.
In this sense, the casual medium of messaging allows increased context and connection. It provides the opportunity to integrate elements of automation to easily provide reminders and travel updates to travelers on the go. It can send reminders about when check-in opens, send your boarding pass, or provide flight-status updates. It is also integrating with other functions such as payment, so as much as possible can be achieved within the app, rather than sending travelers to a website or to other app solutions.
KLM’s approach is to build a communication interface that mixes human interaction with AI-powered automation to offer much more accuracy, personalization and ease of use than travel bots can currently achieve.
One of the goals of deploying multilingual chatbots is to dramatically reduce response times from an hour (or hours) to an almost instantaneous message when it’s needed. If your plane is taking off in 30 minutes, there is no time to lose waiting for an answer.
It will not be too long before every step in a customer’s journey can be mapped out in a conversational thread — from their first research on the destination, to prebooking, to booking and eventually their stay. In many ways, this is where Chinese platforms such as WeChat are currently ahead. Travelers can manage all their interactions — from discovery to booking to payment — within this closed environment, effectively skipping the traditional web completely.
Voice-based interfaces are beginning to see some traction, although their actual application still lags behind message-based interfaces. Most voice interfaces today are built into devices at the operating-system level, such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana. They rely on natural language processing to understand a person’s words and intention to actually provide a relevant response.
Expedia.com is perhaps at the forefront of this trend, and has launched a travel updates skill for the Amazon Alexa service. This Expedia skill gives travelers the ability to interact with Alexa-enabled devices (such as the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot) via voice to get travel updates and hear details on upcoming trips purchased on Expedia.com. It also allows the ability to ask for specifics regarding hotel bookings and flight status, booking their car rental and so on. This skill is currently available in English only, but is set to embrace other languages in line with the gradual international roll-out of the Amazon Alexa service.
But Expedia is not alone. Currently, there are some 150 travel and transportation skills available on Alexa, including for KAYAK, which allows you to use your voice to track and research flights, hotels and rental cars.
Conversions to action
Paying for a holiday or hotel stay is often the biggest leisure expenditure consumers will make during the year. It’s what they dream of and save for. At the same time, travel products are almost uniquely difficult to sample in advance; consumers can’t visit a shop or showroom to feel what’s offered, nor see them on the street. These factors combine to put a huge onus on content to ensure that consumers know and feel comfortable with what they’re buying.
Localization plays an important role in building this consumer trust. Good-quality localized content lends authority to the site and the travel products it sells. Errors or poorly presented content introduce doubt in the consumer’s mind. If this isn’t right, what else about this service is poorly designed? Can I trust the facts contained in this description?
This is another area where new technologies are stepping in to help immerse travelers in the virtual reality of a given space or service. Virtual reality offers new opportunities for brick and mortar agencies to inspire travelers and make a wide range of locations and experiences feel authentic before actual purchase. Just imagine touring your hotel before making an actual booking, and having the opportunity to chat real-time with a virtual reality concierge who would show you around.
But the use of virtual and augmented reality is still something for the future. Most applications in travel and hospitality are still experiments, and in the absence of any “killer app” or a widely-adopted platform in this space, VR and AR still have a long way to go.
In general terms, the farther a visitor travels to reach a destination, the longer they will stay. Attracting more foreign travelers can therefore become a key strategy aimed at increasing average length of stay, and in turn improving average booking values and margin. And one of the most fundamental means to reach consumers from further afield is through the use of localization on digital sales channels.
In addition to longer stays, foreign travelers are also more likely to add extra services to their booking; anything from car hire and airport shuttles to meals in the hotel restaurant and in-destination activities. As many hoteliers are finding, these ancillary revenues can make the difference between earning a profit or a loss. Changing the profile of the booker to one more likely to spend extra through the intelligent use of localized experience is sure to have a positive impact on any travel provider’s bottom line (notably the total revenue per available room metric, TRevPAR, for hotels).
Once the consumer has booked, traveled and returned home, there is one huge challenge remaining to eCommerce channels — keeping the consumer engaged with the brand. It’s no surprise that engagement with travel and hospitality brands drops off significantly when the consumer checks out. Travel simply isn’t a frequent activity for most people, no matter how much the consumer enjoys it.
These days, the task of keeping a brand experience fresh in consumers’ minds, so they might choose that brand again in six months or a year’s time, falls increasingly to social media. It is here that the conversation can continue. And conversation is just that — it needs to take place in the familiar, colloquial, friendly language of the social network to have any impact at all. Intelligent localization, combined with opportunities for travelers to share their experience in an environment they can comfortably navigate, is the means to making the conversation relevant across borders. This can be measured by the traffic directed to the booking channels from social media users in different territories.
All such conversation is made so much easier when communication with travelers is opened via a messaging platform early in the planning process. This enables businesses to initiate post-booking engagement directly with the traveler.
Travel and hospitality has evolved enormously over the past 20 years. Powered by big data and supported by the recent advances in natural language processing, artificial intelligence and a host of other technologies, this industry is entering a new phase of transformation that will affect the whole customer journey. Whatever the form and shape, it is safe to assume one thing: the destination will continue being multilingual.