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FEATURE SERIES: FOCUS

Travel by Numbers

Sophisticated mathematical algorithms are transforming the way consumers choose and use vacations – by allowing travel promoters to tap into the social pulse and subtler consumer preferences, and serve up increasingly personalized recommendations.

Sue Tabbitt
August 18 , 2014

The travel industry is currently alight with technology activity – particularly in the area of mobile apps, and even more so where these intersect with consumers' shown preferences and social commentary.

It reflects a shift in the way people choose and report back on holidays, which has largely moved online and gone mobile. In research conducted in advance of this year's Travel Technology Europe show  in February, 71 per cent of travel technology professionals said having a presence on sites such as Facebook and Twitter was ‘essential' to their business. Four in five ranked social media as the tool they had had the most success with when attracting new clients, second only to the company web site.

Across many industries, social media has become a first port of call in consumer decision-making – so any organization that isn't part of those early conversations and recommendations risks missing out on a sizeable chunk of business. Social media is also a great measure of public mood.

In the travel industry, the social-first trend is leading not only to a surge of new apps, but also an investment in sophisticated mathematical algorithms – ‘probability' calculations that allow travel providers to predict who future customers might be and the types of product or experience that will appeal to them. Old hands at this type of activity in other markets include TiVo with its TV show recommendations and Amazon with its personalized retail recommendations.

Much Better Adventures – bespoke ski offers without the premium price tag

Travel-specific developments were on show at June's London Technology Week in the UK. Here, local start-up, Much Better Adventures, showcased its ski-holiday aggregation platform, which reverses the way people choose ski destinations. Rather than having to scour accommodation lists for the best deals, customers decide all the required criteria for their location and accommodation, post details on the Much Better Adventures web site, and get on with their busy lives while sellers come back with bespoke offers.

The site brings together 285 independent companies which together represent more than 1,600 chalets across 17 European ski resorts – figures founder Sam Bruce expects to double in time for the next season. Behind the platform is a proprietary algorithm developed by the company. In much the same way that the Tinder meet-up app matches spontaneous daters, Much Better Adventures matches skiers with their ideal holiday. Once a ski group's best options have been identified, the top five or six are presented to the customer's private ‘Tripwall' where they can be easily compared, shared and booked. Last year 24,000 skiers used the facility and nine out of 10 said they'd return because of the time saved, Bruce says.

Much Better Adventures also provides customer insight back to the chalet owners, for example on emerging preferences – "so if having a hot tub in the chalet has become a deal-clincher we can pass this information on, allowing owners to make appropriate investments between seasons," Bruce explains. Last season the platform generated £1.3m in sales for accommodation providers. Next in the company's sights are trip matchmaking facilities for cyclists, walkers, surfers and divers.

Fiz – getting to know a place before you get there

Also using a proprietary algorithm to serve up the best options to customers is Fiz, a travel and leisure content aggregator and app developer based in Kent in England. Its platform is designed to help consumers get more out of their trips by highlighting the sights, experiences and local activities currently creating a positive buzz on social media.

Co-founder Sarah Hughes explains that, with the volume of information out there about a destination, it can be hard for tourists to distill the best things to see and do based on their particular circumstances and when they will be visiting. "You can find everything with a lot of effort, but it's not uncommon for a traveler to look at 15-20 different web sites to try to build a picture of what's going on outside the immediate resort," she notes.

Fiz blends official tourist information with details of nearby restaurants that are currently getting good reviews on social media, romantic views, and other tidbits of insight that official web sites don't capture, and which might get lost in the umpteen pages of TripAdvisor reviews. "The aim is to bring places to life – from the feel of the hotel, and its location relative to the things you want to do, to the local hotspots, best walks, monuments, top-rated scuba-diving courses and so on," Hughes says.

Twitter feeds, and reviews, tips and photos posted publicly on the likes of Facebook, Foursquare, Flickr and Panoramio are aggregated to let visitors ‘discover the heartbeat of a place'. Travelers can interact with the site too, saving content, adding notes, and voting and tagging.

Although at this point Fiz has only 15,000 users (achieved largely by word of mouth) this figure could soon multiply. The platform is about to be re-launched after attracting the interest of Apple at a recent networking event, resulting in an offer of development help to streamline the app and make it simpler to use.

Fiz was first developed for a mobile environment, but is now a platform that can be easily sliced and diced for different uses. A recently introduced business-to-business version can be repackaged by commercial partners, an opportunity already taken up by by Le Boat, a specialist in boating holidays, canal breaks & river cruising in the UK and Europe.

Again, the platform's real potential lies in a clever algorithm. In Fiz's case this is still a work in progress, but the aim is that this will learn to detect and filter ‘social sentiment' from consumers' everyday social media commentary. On the slopes of a ski resort this could help others establish where the best kind of snow is, for instance.

The final piece in the puzzle will be the spread of fast Internet access into more remote locations. "Key to this kind of platform taking off will be the cooperation of operators, the roll-out of 4G, and initiatives by the likes of Facebook and Google to extend Internet access into hard-to-reach areas," Hughes says.

YPlan - Taking the pain out of social organizing

Meanwhile, developers' work on refining their algorithms goes on. Richard Mapes, director of data science at YPlan, the British-designed ‘going out' platform, explains how critical this intellectual property is to each provider's proposition: "While  there are standard things you can do, our model is about understanding what drives a customer to book a particular event - which may be to do with what day of the week it is, who they're meeting up with, whether they've recently booked something similar, and so on.

"The key is to be able to predict the behavior of people we don't know: our technology lets us monitor individuals as they interact with our events and see where they diverge from general trends, so we can keep refining what we recommend to them. We're improving our techniques all the time – for example we're currently looking at what Facebook information people are happy to share, which would allow us to become even more accurate at predicting what new customers and combinations of friends will want to do on a given night of the week.

"Most companies keep their recommendation engines a closely guarded secret because it's what differentiates them," Mapes concludes. "We're no exception."

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The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and do not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.

We welcome the re-use, republication, and distribution of "The Network" content. Please credit us with the following information: Used with the permission of  http://thenetwork.cisco.com/.

 

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The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and do not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.

We welcome the re-use, republication, and distribution of "The Network" content. Please credit us with the following information: Used with the permission of  http://thenetwork.cisco.com/.

- See more at: http://social-tools.cisco.com/preview?cmd=preview&groupId=10157&articleId=&version=1.0&languageId=en_US&type=feature&structureId=NEW_FEATURE_STRUCTURE&templateId=HERO_FEATURE_TEMPLATE#sthash.K8FpnVOr.dpuf

#####

The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and do not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.

We welcome the re-use, republication, and distribution of "The Network" content. Please credit us with the following information: Used with the permission of  http://thenetwork.cisco.com/.

- See more at: http://social-tools.cisco.com/preview?cmd=preview&groupId=10157&articleId=&version=1.0&languageId=en_US&type=feature&structureId=NEW_FEATURE_STRUCTURE&templateId=HERO_FEATURE_TEMPLATE#sthash.K8FpnVOr.dpuf

 

Related Tags: Social Media , Mobility , Innovation , FOCUS , Connected Travel

 
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