CTN Investigates: How is technology changing cruise?

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As the pandemic has shown, technology is critical for communication and adapting to consumer demands. But how might digital solutions change the cruise business, marketing and the customer experience? Gary Peters investigates.

When lockdown hit and cruise lines announced sailing suspensions, a whole industry ground to a halt. The unthinkable had happened and ships appeared anchored off coasts and in ports – a very visual expression of just how devastating this pandemic has been.

But then something happened – instead of sitting still and stagnating, lines and travel agencies upped their digital games, providing virtual experiences and tours of ships through the power of technology.

For travel agents, relationships with clients have transformed. As businesses across the country shut their doors, the decades-old system of people walking to into their local travel agent branch stopped and digital communication suddenly became essential as consumers were forced to use online alternatives.

Many agencies have supported their clients with regular emails, social media posts, communication via apps, and video calls, providing their expert knowledge in the most testing of circumstances.

That this support has come at a time when many agencies have furloughed staff and are subsequently working with a skeleton team is yet another demonstration that agencies really do value relationships with clients.

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But what other technology considerations are at play? Social media has often been touted as an ideal way to sell destinations, and there’s no doubt that many travel brands use platforms such as Instagram to reach a wider clientele base. A potential new player on the block is TikTok, the video-sharing service, that has garnered much press attention of late, albeit not all of it positive.

Travel creators Michelle Gonzalez and Carmen Sognonvi have created a white paper, TikTok for Travel Brands, to demonstrate how the platform can help travel companies connect with travellers. They argue that TikTok has evolved into a “dynamic ecosystem where you can find content on just about any topic imaginable”.

“TikTok as a platform is very much emphasising informational content, which makes it the perfect place for travel agents to showcase their in-depth knowledge about ships, routes, excursions and ports,” Sognonvi tells CTN.

“Creating a series of videos on a specific topic is another great strategy on TikTok, as it gets people to click on your account and follow for more, for example, cruise packing tips or the most luxurious cabins.”

However, during a time when resources are stretched how easy is it for a company to dedicate the time needed to produce engaging digital content? Gonzalez and Sognonvi advocate repurposing existing, evergreen content from past projects, potentially in “Q&As or top five lists that make it easy to incorporate existing footage”.

How easy a transition this is, however, is debatable, particularly when travel brands may decide to focus on existing social channels to boost their digital output rather than take the risk – and learning curve needed – on a new platform. Food for thought.

Don’t forget the human touch

The future customer experience incorporates far more than just social media, however, and it is in other areas that the most dramatic transformation will take place.

Sitel Group, a customer experience management company, stated in its latest white paper – COVID-19: the CX Impact – that when consumers were asked what technology travel and hospitality firms could implement to improve customer experiences, chatbots, voice automation and virtual reality (VR) took the top three spots.

The report continued: “It is easy to imagine how immersive experiences could be built, enabling customers to “try before they buy”. Consumers also saw the opportunity for the travel and hospitality industry to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver personalised recommendations.”

It’s important to add, however, that the report also explicitly says that the human touch will remain a valued part of any customer experience – partly for emotional intelligence and empathy reasons. Note the following from the white paper: “87 per cent of consumers still feel connecting with a live customer representative is the best way of resolving a critical issue.”

 

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Immersion sells

David Ripert is the CEO & co-founder of Poplar, a platform that helps clients build AR experiences. He believes that AR “holds the perfect solution” while travellers remain cautious of travelling or are prevented from doing so by government restrictions ­– “whether it’s by transporting consumers to a virtual beach or providing different and unique ‘on-board’ experiences”, he tells CTN.

“AR has the potential to revolutionise all aspects of travelling,” Ripert adds. “For example, it has been used by companies for their advertising, social media and printed brochures to engage consumers in their story through ‘world effects’ and lenses, mini-games, portals and face filters.

“This type of experience can provide additional information about a brand’s services and direct links to their website, so consumers can immediately book the holidays shown through company effects.”

Ripert believes that the interactivity of such methods will help boost sales in the coming months, adding: “Being able to interact with holiday destinations, rather than just imagine them, is the next best thing for those looking to plan their next adventure and will certainly encourage bookings and sales in the difficult months ahead.”

A similar argument can be applied to VR experiences, the difference being that VR is complete immersion and the removal of surroundings, often through headsets, and so is more suited to use on-board ships or in-store at travel agencies.

To the future

When it comes to biometrics and AI, much evidence points to these being used for personalised and touchless travel.

AI, for example, is best placed to simplify customer recommendations based on their needs, rather than using an outdated catch-all methodology, while biometrics are the next stage in touchless travel – even more important in an age of social distancing.

Travel technology company Amadeus has undertaken much research analysing trends that will shape the future of travel as part of its From Human Touch to Human Tech series. One key finding is that many travel agencies view AI as a core part of their future strategy – and no, this is not about super intelligent robots, but more using machine learning to provide personalised content to travellers and the latest information.

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Customers also expect a certain level of digital solutions to form part of their experience. Apadmi, a mobile-first digital agency, has worked with clients from across multiple sectors. The company’s chief strategy officer Marcus Hadfield explains to CTN that “the pandemic has driven shifts in behaviour that won’t be reversed”.

“Swathes of customers who weren’t always digital have adopted new ways of communication and learnt to trust digital solutions,” he says. “At the same time, uncertainty has ruled – last minute changes, quarantines, cancellations – all these things mean that travellers are looking for fast information.”

How the customer experience will change is the “golden question”, adds Hadfield. “It’s impossible to predict the next 12 months.” What will remain true, though, is that “[travellers] really are mobile”, he says.

“There is a huge opportunity for travel brands to be so much more than booking partners – they have the potential to make trips even better for their customers. If the travel brands don’t do it, then customers will find that information elsewhere.”

Success will come, however, from a combination of human interaction and technology ­– clients want and expect both. The evolution continues.

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