Propelling Travel and Hospitality Forward with a Hybrid Workforce
Sourcing skilled talent has become the foremost challenge for travel and hospitality companies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the hotel industry had 400,000 fewer workers in October 2021 than it had in October 2018. While the travel sector was compelled to employ measures such as forced furloughs at the height of the pandemic, many workers decided to change paths when the pandemic exposed them to the inherent risks of a career in this sector.
As the sector bounces back, enterprises are finding it difficult to rehire adequate staff to manage the volume surge and related issues of seasonal fluctuations, refunds and cancellations, ticket exchanges and more. Even as these transactions drain company resources, stiff competition for skilled talent has resulted in higher wages, further impacting profitability. This is forcing businesses to re-evaluate how they manage daily operations and turbo-charging interest in digital and hybrid solutions powered by intelligent automation.
Leveraging AI-led Automation for Rapid Transactions and Resolutions
Recently, Frontier Airlines went full tilt on digital, deploying chatbots and virtual assistants for all customer interactions. Will this prove successful in the long run? It is too early to say. However, it marks a growing trend among organizations to find cost-effective artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)-powered alternatives to traditional contact centers.
Post-COVID customer service models integrate live and AI-driven agents to seamlessly address queries and problems across channels. Many travel brands will leverage chatbots and digital assistants to meet demands across the travel and hospitality spectrum – from planning and booking to pre-travel, day of travel, post-travel and irregular operations (IROPS).
Travel and airline bookings made today are largely similar for travelers – whether solo or in groups; a young couple or families with kids; a student or professional; on vacation or business, and irrespective of destination. With AI and ML, travel companies can leverage customer profiles and hyper-personalize their offerings. While enhancing customer experience, these measures also create additional revenue with curated packages and bundled services.
Empowering Customers to Minimize the Impact of Volume Fluctuations
The travel industry’s fight against the day-to-day vagaries of the environment and economy entails unexpected booking surges and the risks of natural disasters, inclement weather and operational glitches. Allowing the customer to take immediate charge of their situation through digital channels can instill confidence in the traveler while lowering the burden on the business.
Imagine an AI-powered ’travel buddy” – an empathetic, low-touch, omnichannel engagement system – that shares the details of sudden disruptions and changes and provides options to rebook or relocate according to the traveler’s preferences.
Travel and hospitality providers are increasingly positioned to offer such omnichannel service. When Virgin Atlantic was faced with an exponential surge in refund requests during the pandemic, the carrier adopted intelligent automation to automate refund processing, improve efficiencies and reduce the turnaround time for closing claims. Ninety percent of Virgin’s “refund-carding” process is now managed through bots that complete three times as many transactions as human agents.
Taking this a step further, self-service via biometrics can allow customers to escape long queues, unexpected rushing and last-minute inconveniences for contactless, frictionless passage at check-ins, passport and border control, and boarding and baggage management.
Since the day of travel is often considered the most sensitive aspect of the travel experience, such smoothly executed operations can significantly contribute to brand loyalty.
AI and Hybrid Systems for a Future-ready Enterprise
There are multiple scenarios where travel and hospitality brands can extract value from intelligent automation to build business resilience.
Data science is now being leveraged to help disentangle revenue and yield management, which has long been a tricky issue for the airline sector. Other operational areas that would benefit from intelligent automation include crew scheduling (recall the Southwest Airlines meltdown at the beginning of January); maintenance, repair and operations (MRO); fuel optimization and even mapping routes and destinations. Next-generation talent platforms and ecosystems that leverage cloud, AI and big data analytics can smartly connect enterprises with a specialized, globally accessible workforce.
The key to being future-ready is to adopt an agile, scalable business model that, when executed, enhances customer experience and can weather major crises.
The talent shortage problem will not go away quickly. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), 87 percent of hotels are experiencing staffing shortages. With inflation triggering cost constraints, these numbers are unlikely to improve soon.
Facing talent constraints, companies must put their faith in technology. Third-party modular solutions and digital accelerators are proving to be incredibly helpful. These on-demand solutions ensure quick implementation and value realization without exhaustive and expensive revamps. Such solutions also enable businesses to address their most urgent needs while freeing up human bandwidth for strategic purposes and future readiness. Furthermore, ML-driven automation is continuously improving and is expected to build on the efficiencies driven by traditional robotic process automation in the medium and long term.
Companies deep into their digital journey can leverage advanced analytics to ensure brand loyalty and revenue growth during normal and disrupted times. Collaborating with tech and talent partners with an in-depth industry understanding can help identify the right goals and create a roadmap. A unique combination of a digital and human workforce could ultimately be the game-changing model that powers future growth in travel and hospitality.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Pratibha Salwan is based in Atlanta and leads the Travel, Transportation, Hospitality and Logistics (TTHL) sector for ISG. With more than 28 years of experience working across the globe, she has spent the past 20 years in the U.S. incubating, growing and expanding her work with digital technologies across the industry, working with clients in the Airline, Travel, Transportation, Hospitality, Logistics and Retail industries, and has been responsible for leading the digital charge for multiple organizations, providing domain-led technology solutions.
Karandeep Ahluwalia is the Head of Capability and Strategy across Customer Experience Services at WNS. He is responsible for building a relevant strategy around services, technologies and analytics-led solutions for all the industry verticals, thus enabling Digital CX business for WNS. He has 30 years of experience handling various assignments across Airlines Sales & Operations, BPM Operations and BPM/IT multi-supplier interface as a client.