EyeforTravel’s Digital Strategy Summit

May 2019, London

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Yes or No: Is a global guest profile the future of travel?

Privacy, security and unwanted competition are among the challenges and ultimately consumers must decide but questions remain. Pamela Whitby reports

If anybody is in favour of a global guest profile it is Mihai Bote, Director of Technology at Swire Hotels US, a firm that owns and manages ‘soulfully individual hotels,’ in Hong Kong, Mainland China and the USA. In a recent report from IHG and Amadeus titled Drivers of Change in Hospitality, Bote, a certified technology hospitality professional (CHTP), is quoted saying: “Creating and then sharing a guest profile around the industry is a matter of priority since everybody will benefit.”

EyeforTravel.com, which touches on some of the IHG-Amadeus report’s findings in a recent white paper on loyalty, was curious to find out more. Speaking in his capacity as an industry expert this week, Bote admitted that a global guest profile is something he has been thinking about for at least a year.

“If you consider that a frequent traveller in the US can travel up to 200 times a year, the potential for a global guest profile that can be shared between travel companies starts to look a little like a no-brainer,” he says.

If you consider that a frequent traveller in the US can travel up to 200 times a year, the potential for a global guest profile that can be shared between travel companies starts to look a little like a no-brainer

Mihai Bote, CHTP, Director of Technology, Swire Hotels US

According to Bote, his first lesson came from the airline industry when he became increasingly intrigued by how One World, the foremost alliance of airlines for frequent travellers, was seamlessly sharing information to enable a common login. Of course, the usual data and privacy rules applied but in practice this enabled those who chose to enroll to, for example, cancel a flight on one airline and book another on the fly, and all within the same application.

What could be shared?

Technology firm Amadeus is also exploring the possibility of a Global Digital Traveler ID, which it outlined this year at HT-Next, a meeting place for hoteliers and technology solution providers. The idea is that this could store everything from passport and payment details to meal preferences, which the customer would have complete control over sharing.

Anybody who travels, and especially those who travel frequently, understands that it can be an incredibly cumbersome and complex process. From leaving the house to checking in, boarding, catching a taxi and arriving at a hotel, the travel journey is anything but ‘seamless’, ‘personalised’, or ‘relevant’ which is what many travel brands claim to be striving for.

Achieving this, says David Rosen, who is in charge of strategy, customer value and digital transformation in the office of the COO, at tech integrator TIBCO Software, “requires something much more layered and nuanced than just better segmentation”.

Travel is, after all, he adds, “literally an end-to-end journey, and so personalisation in travel as well as relevance in travel really has to take into account each stage of the journey.”

Which technology?

A global guest profile could enable travel companies to become far more personal and relevant but what is the best technology for it?

Although this is not yet clear, one viable possibility is blockchain. Blockchain, as the World Economic Forum simply puts it, uses cryptography to keep exchanges secure; it provides a decentralised database, or ‘digital ledger’, of transactions, which everyone on the network is privy to. In essence, the network is a chain of computers that must approve an exchange before it can be verified and recorded.

Joerg Esser, a former group director of Thomas Cook and now consultant to Roland Berger, believes that “blockchain is certainly the right technology to handle such a profile, since it can mitigate the risk of data leaks, exposure and does not need a trusted intermediary.” But he warns: “It should not, however, be viewed as a miracle database technology through which the issues of data protection and privacy are resolved 100%”.

That is a major challenge but Bote believes, that“if you solve the security and the GDPR piece of it, then convenience will follow”.

Chris Anderson, Director, Cornell Center of Hospitality Research, who contributed to the IHG-Amadeus report as well as EyeforTravel’s loyalty white paper, has had a number of discussions about the pros and cons of such a profile, and it's not simple.  

There is some upside to this but there are also huge barriers

Chris Anderson, Director, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research

Those barriers are likely to rise when direct competition is involved. Yes, it would be great for lodging firms to share information with say air travel, rental cars and so on, but it becomes trickier, he explains,  when it’s data flowing from one lodging firm to another lodging firm or from one airline to another airline; in other words between the competition.

While it’s not impossible, the devil will be in the detail, in how brands maintain competitiveness and address security and privacy issues. As Anderson points out, “it is not going to work if only a subset are willing to share”.

Get it right, however, and it would be useful for travel companies, and not just limited to those in hospitality. Among those that could stand to benefit are:

  • Small to mid-sized travel and hospitality firms
  •  Leisure hotels in the package business that are often only visited once or twice in a life time
  • Chains interested in improving customer service because a global guest profile would mean more standardised, easy-to-analyse data

But, and this is a big but, the chains with already powerful loyalty programmes might, for reasons of competition, be reluctant to jump on this particular bandwagon.

Find out more about what the chains are saying about loyalty in EyeforTravel’s recent white paper – Loyalty: Cutting through Clutter in the Age of Experience – which includes insights from Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Hilton, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research, and more.

 Who decides?

It is worth noting, explains Esser, that the two most important issues required for the acceptance of a global guest profile will not be decided by travel or hospitality companies. They are:

  1. Customer approval: If customers approve of it, or even demand such a guest profile to receive better, more individualised services, then sooner or later, even the hotel chains will have to participate. However, if the customers reject the idea because they are reluctant to share personal data, then hotel chains and even SMEs should be far more cautious about when, how, and even if they implement it.
  2. Legal acceptance: Data security and/or privacy protection laws differ widely between countries and will have a major impact on whether a global guest profile is even possible and/or contains relevant data.

Still, Matt Baer, CEO and founder of KeyOcoin, a start up building a blockchain-based hospitality marketplace for, in the first instance, small to mid-sized chains and independents, believes that a profile of guest preferences would be a huge opportunity to improve marketing and deliver more personalised experiences. And, while it is understandable that large hotel chains might be unwilling to share the profiles they have built, all this could change in the post GDPR era. “Control of consumer data is quite rightly moving back to the consumers themselves, and it will probably become more difficult for chains to track guest behaviour if an initiative rolls out worldwide,” Baer says.

Of course, like everything that is new, and involves customer data, challenges remain but Bote believes that the companies that get in front of this idea will be very successful because "a unified guest profile just makes perfect sense”.

Download EyeforTravel’s latest white paper – Loyalty: Cutting through Clutter in the Age of Experience – which includes insights from Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Hilton, JetBlue Technology Ventures, The Cornell Center for Hospitality Research, KeyOcoin and more

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