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How Traditional Travel Companies Can Start to Think Like Uber and Airbnb


Simplicity is the name of the game when it comes to travel planning. As travelers, we want convenient, easy-to-access trip and service options at our fingertips. Enter Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and other industry disruptors that deliver sophisticated, cutting-edge customer service to users in a simple package.

As demand grows for digitally native apps, add-on apps and websites created by legacy hotel, airline and rental car brands are falling out of favor, according to the 2019 U.S. Travel App Satisfaction Study.

Digitally native apps almost instantly bridge supply and demand, delivering helpful information at the right times. Meanwhile, older companies are slowed down by legacy systems — some have been in use since the Internet boom in the 90’s, when while they may have been fierce competitors then, their website technology hasn’t aged well. Yet, some companies are still reluctant to replace them.

Companies that don’t adapt to the digital transformation imperative will continue to fall behind in customer satisfaction and revenue, ultimately failing entirely. So, how can airlines, online travel agencies, hotels and rental car companies remain competitive?

Five strategies for playing catch up

This problem isn’t unique to the travel industry — startups across industries are disrupting the status quo, forcing traditional companies to adapt to new technology and customer expectations. But travel companies seem to be responding more slowly than organizations in other industries.

Of course, not all traditional travel agencies are doomed. Brands that take initiative early, and create compelling products and services to stay within reach of the digital disruptors can set themselves apart from other travel companies.

  • Understand your customer. Improving the customer experience requires an understanding of your customer’s pain points. Many digital-first apps were conceived in response to specific industry challenges — Uber was founded from a desire to “push a button and get a ride” — positioning them ahead of older sites when it comes to understanding the needs of the modern traveler. As a legacy travel organization, spend time talking to the right people about the strengths and weaknesses of your current platform, then make the necessary adjustments. Tailoring your platform to the needs of your customers is critical for both keeping current business and landing new customers.
  • Consider the broader experience. Travel businesses perform best when they don’t view themselves as just travel apps. Your app should further the goal of making people happy, not just getting a user from point A to point B. This is especially true for millennials, the largest segment of travel’s target market, who are always looking for improved experiences. (For further proof, check out the hugely successful app, which asks for basic information to plan an entirely customized trip for its client, without the client knowing where they’re going.) Make sure your customers have fun, meaningful and memorable experiences to ensure they keep coming back.
  • Start internally. Legacy companies often worry about the financial implications of failed innovation, preventing them from testing out new tech. But big plans don’t always require big budgets. Start testing new innovations in internal systems. If success happens on a small scale, you’re ready to roll out these ideas into the broader experience. This allows room for you to experiment, cautiously. In the Netherlands, insurance company Unive used this approach to completely transform their thinking and business model over time.
  • Look to other companies for ideas. Even traditional travel agencies on the cutting edge of creativity and innovation have been beaten to the punch by travel app disruptors. This is a good thing: It’s much better to replicate a creative solution than to try (and often fail) to create one from scratch. Instead, use another company’s work as a launching point and personalize it to your own brand. Hopper, a Canadian booking site, took an unusually long time to launch in order to build a large database of travel information and offer a better customer experience.
  • Get employees onboard with change. Giving employees an opportunity to problem solve and improve your brand supports innovative thinking. With no-code platforms, citizen developers — end users at your company — can develop tools based on their experience. When employees lead the charge, you can test and bring new ideas to market much more quickly.

Traditional brands cannot continue to operate with the mindset that a brand name will keep their businesses in the black. The reality is that businesses cannot survive without moving forward. That means companies need to create a culture of innovation that gives employees the right tools to develop solutions themselves

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