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Can tech help the travel industry recover from the crisis?

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April 15, 2020 | Topic: Technology  
Can tech help the travel industry recover from the crisis?

One of the sectors most affected by COVID-19 is the travel and tourism industry. Countries closing borders and flights being canceled all around the world has already had a major impact on the global economy. According to the WTTC, typically 850,000 people travel each month from Europe to the US, with a contribution of US$3.4 billion to the US economy. The tourism industry represents 10% of global GDP.

Chinese airline passenger numbers dropped 84.5% last month. With Europe having the highest number of people infected and the US suspending all travel, the tourism industry faces a tremendous challenge. However, to see what might happen in the future, we can analyze what happened with the events that took place 17 years ago, as a result of SARS, and with the events of September 11, that the travel and tourism industry successfully recovered from. This means that even though coronavirus represents a threat, companies are working to mitigate damages and adjust to the current situation. Let’s examine what technology is doing to help the sector, and more broadly how it is helping countries contain the outbreak.

How are organizations in the travel and tourism sector responding to this crisis?

Today, a number of airlines are at the brink of collapse and companies such as EasyJet claim they will not survive the crisis without government support. This crisis hit Chinese airline companies first. By February, 70% of flights were canceled. However, now that most people are overcoming the virus where it first emerged, people are starting to travel inside China again and airlines are offering big discounts to get back on track.

GetYourGuide, TravelPerk, and Omio are three European travel startups that are addressing the crisis while trying to harness the situation to improve their services for the future. According to these companies, the number of people requesting customer service over the past months rose to unprecedented numbers. Cancellation rates worldwide increased up to 20% meaning companies needed to keep an eye on customer service practices to ensure they were giving customers what they want. During a time of crisis this doesn’t mean attractive tourism packages, but an optimal customer service to enable people to easily cancel or postpone their trips.

“If you look at a ten year timespan even this corona crisis will just be a small dip in a growth curve. When we come out of this crisis we come out with a better technology product and a much better supply base”

Johannes Reck, CEO and co-founder of GetYourGuide

This means that although facing low booking rates, companies can use the situation to, on the one hand, come up with strategies to assist their customers and help them cancel their reservation or postpone their trips and, on the other hand, improve their internal practices, create a powerful digital customer journey, and overall offerings.

“We’re cutting all variable costs, managing the costs better, taking precautions — using the crisis as an opportunity… fixing all the systems we could never invest in scale because every month there’s a metric to meet. And really then rearchitecting for scalability,”

Naren Sham, CEO, Omio

The role of tech in the middle of an outbreak

Many countries have looked to technologies, such as artificial intelligence, to try to find ways to help prevent the virus from spreading, treat patients, reinforce awareness in citizens, and protect the economy.

Airports have started using AI and machine learning to detect cases of coronavirus in airports and cities. For instance, Sense Time, a chinese AI startup, launched a facial recognition system with thermal imaging to detect when people’s body temperature is above normal. As a result, they can be monitored to prevent the virus from spreading. Technology such as this will enable the travel sector to re-open sooner than it might otherwise be able to.

The travel and tourism sectors will be highly dependent on the actions that countries take to control and prevent the spread of the virus. Fortunately, we’re already seeing examples of how they are achieving this. Sense Time’s system can also detect when people are not using facial masks when entering public places. So they are providing a fever-detecting system, and a “mask-wearing status”.

So far we have seen the vital role of data in mitigating the coronavirus. However, these methods to prevent COVID-19 from spreading involve the management of sensitive personal information, such as health status, travel history and even identity. The use of facial recognition already poses concerns regarding privacy, and with the wide use of technology to gather and process data, information might be used for different purposes than managing a public health crisis. Many democratic countries might face a challenge when having to use citizens’ personal information to address the current crisis.

The takeaway

Although the travel industry faces a very challenging situation, some organizations are harnessing the current events to improve their offerings and customer experience to provide better services once they get back on track.

Technology will be crucial in helping many industries recover from the crisis, as engineers across the globe use big data analysis and machine learning to detect new cases of coronavirus and understand how this disease is spreading around the world. However, governments will have to ensure they use this data properly and there are appropriate safeguards in place.

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