May 2019, London
Europe's biggest event for commercial and digital travel execs
Finnair: ‘no business today can maintain the status quo’
Having overhauled its website and e-commerce strategy, the Finnish carrier is going global and has sights set on Asia
In the airline business today, you cannot stand still. Esamatti Vuolle, who goes by the somewhat unusual title of ‘product owner’ at Finnair, knows all about that. He joined Finland’s national carrier six months ago and has been responsible for leading the global digital experience and strategy on Finnair.com. The Finnish carrier's dot.com is currently responsible for approximately 25% of ticket sales and 56% of ancillary sales.
“In practical terms, our digital experience caters for sales and servicing, building loyalty and engagement with our customers, and enabling us to introduce new services and ideas for market adaptation,” says Esamatti Vuolle, who will be speaking at the EyeforTravel Digital Strategy Summit in London later this month.
In the six months he has been with the carrier, in which the Finnish government holds a 55.8% stake, Vuolle has been busy. Bringing experience from the travel and retail industries, he has been responsible for the overhaul and relaunch of Finnair.com, which is now positioned to deliver a global digital experience.
The number of Chinese tourists who booked trips to Nordic countries rocketed by 82% compared to the previous year – Ctrip
A major focus for Nordic nations is capturing some of the fast-growing Asian market. In 2018, according to Ctrip, China’s largest OTA, the number of Chinese tourists who booked trips to Nordic countries rocketed by 82% compared to the previous year. Captivated by Santa’s glass igloos and tree houses, Finland was the most visited Nordic country by Chinese tourists last year thanks, arguably, to great connections to and from Helsinki.
While this presents a huge opportunity, it is complicated. “In Asia people are very careful with services that they aren’t familiar with. They want to use what they are used to, for example, WeChat. On the other hand they trust also local travel offices and tour operators,” says Vuolle.
EyeforTravel research finds that a major challenge for expansion into Asia is need for international brands to develop a local payment strategy for applications like Union Pay, the major banking player on the mainland. To complicate matters, Chinese regulations also require that any developments take place in China. While this might slow things down it bit, getting the local payment strategy right is a key enabler to doing business in a growing market.
The payment landscape, as Sally White reported earlier this year, is evolving rapidly. The drivers are many, she writes, citing Aleksander Popovich, IATA’s Senior Vice President of Financial and Distribution Services, who said at a press conference: “Today’s consumers, and especially millennials, have expectations of multiple payment options including mobile and peer-to-peer. IATA Pay responds to these expectations. At the same time, airlines are trying to manage significant card payment costs - $8 billion per year and rising. A large part of this cost is incurred in direct purchases from airline websites. One of IATA’s strategic objectives is to support airlines’ financial sustainability including controlling costs.” Pilot airlines include Cathay Pacific Airways, Scandinavian Airlines and Emirates.
People are hungry for detail and want to be able to trust their service provider and feel in control of their trip
With the growth in e-commerce, something Finnair is also talking about internally is the willingness to pay. Making relevant recommendations is a big part of this, but customers also seem to be looking for the most basic information.
One of the biggest trends Esamatti is seeing is that people want to feel safe. “They want to know all the details of when the plane is leaving and when it is landing, what kind of payment methods can be used, and the level of service to expect. People are hungry for detail and want to be able to trust their service provider and feel in control of their trip,” he says.
Getting it done, looking ahead
In Finnair’s case, the team has used an agile development methodology and is moving in the direction of development by experimentation. “What this means is that we are experimentally testing everything we are doing with our customers using AI, starting with design and ending with development. We are trying to fail as fast as possible and get things implemented rapidly,” says Vuolle.
Finnair is not alone among airlines that are experimenting with AI. A recent white paper from EyeforTravel featuring Air Canada outlines some of the ways that airlines are looking to harness AI technology. One example is to enhance forecasting techniques and decision processes across the company. Rather than using manual processes, airlines are also using AI to capture people’s emotions while searching and to understand what they are looking for based on past behaviour, and then make recommendations. In some instances airlines have seen conversions double as a result.
We are trying to fail as fast as possible and get things implemented rapidly
Chatbots are another AI application, which airlines have embraced with varying degrees of success. In 2017, Finnair launched its first artificially intelligent chatbot. Named Finn, the bot is still a work in progress. However, it can already help users with flight status for any Finn Air flight, book future flights within the chat, engage with customer service via Finn or human support, and answer frequently asked questions.
According to Vuolle, Finnair.com’s strategy involves a hybrid technology implementation model, which includes an extensive in house team of developers, as well as external partners.
And, so the journey continues.
Esamatti Vuolle, Product Owner, Finnair, is speaking at the EyeforTravel Digital Strategy Summit alongside other leading travel brands including Virgin Atlantic, AccorHotels, Ryanair, Best Western and more