The (ongoing) trouble with travel distribution: Customer experience

The industry’s rapid evolution continues unabated. To profit through this turbulence, leaders must focus on what really matters—the customer.

The landscape of travel distribution has been shifting.

Until the mid-1990s, distribution was a straightforward mix of brand call centers, travel agencies, and in-person bookings at the hotel front desk, airline ticket counter, or car-rental outpost.

The launch of online booking gave companies a new way to engage with customers and also opened the door to new business models such as online travel agencies (OTAs). However, in the 2000s, most travel suppliers, aggregators, and service providers focused on managing transaction costs rather than improving the customer experience, with serious implications.

In 2012, we wrote about the “trouble” with travel distribution, noting, “The game is now about delivering a superior customer experience.” Since then, the pace of change has accelerated due to three factors.

First, the competitive bar continues to rise. Among OTAs, three leading players—Ctrip, Expedia, and Priceline—have achieved global scale and relevance. And suppliers are seeking a competitive edge through several levers, including loyalty partnerships; building on the foundation set by Delta and Starwood, today’s major travel partnerships include those between Starwood and Uber, United and Marriott, and Qantas and Airbnb, among others.

Second, travel technologies—especially mobile platforms—have continued to evolve as customers alter how they browse for and purchase travel. Expedia reports that 40 to 60 percent of its leisure-travel-brand traffic is through mobile devices, and about half of bookings on some brands comes from mobile.

Third, potential sources of disruption are on the horizon. For example, business travel currently accounts for 10 percent of Airbnb bookings—but that number is growing, thanks to the company’s integration into the platforms of several leading travel-management companies.

The shifting conditions make it more important than ever to put the customer at the center. But despite some examples of progress, we continue to see companies solve for business requirements over customer needs.

Many suppliers are falling short of their potential because they focus on transaction costs instead of lifetime value. And for many intermediaries, earnings expectations, contentious supplier relationships, and an onslaught of digital newcomers have eroded the ability to test, learn, and “fail fast” that helped them identify and solve unmet needs in the first place

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