Leading technologists have warned travel companies that fail to innovate so they can react to an unpredictable market will struggle to survive the Covid-19 pandemic.

A Travel Weekly Future of Travel Week panel discussion on digital transformation and innovation heard how the pandemic has left what was once highly-valued historic consumer data worthless.

Technology experts, including Andy Owen-Jones, founder and chief executive of data analytics specialist bd4travel, said the pandemic has changed the context for what is considered innovative.

“One of my favourite expressions at the moment is ‘data is the new oil’ and what’s most interesting for me is when there’s no demand for oil the price of reserves plummet,” said Owen-Jones.

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“And so when there’s no demand in the travel industry and your data reserves that you have built up over the last five years you’ve got this incredible detailed history of people [and] the value of that goes to zero, or even negative.

“So, you’ve got to focus on the immediate, what is actually happening now, and the Customer Relationship Management [CRM] history and all the systems you’ve established to deal with that are just costs.”

Owen-Jones added: “A nice illustration of this would be if you had designed the best widget to analyse the last five years of business travel for every individual and you could work out what they were going to do next that would have been a fantastic innovation 12 months ago.

“Now it’s useless because no one’s going on business travel. However, if you invented something that predicted what someone would do out of the data they’re using now, and you could predict who’s going to start buying holidays, then that would be really useful, but it might have been useless 12 months ago.”

Mark Jordan, managing director at Babble Contact, which supplies call centre and communications technology to travel firms, agreed that innovation must be judged against the context of the Covid pandemic.

“Context is critically important to this, and data,” he said. “What was a good idea 12 months ago potentially doesn’t have the same value today and vice versa.

“What we’re seeing is clients wanting to understand what trends they’re seeing within their organisations, what their customers are telling them as quickly as possible and writing off data from years ago and only really being interested in what happened today, yesterday and last week.

“Years and years of information is suddenly not as valuable or usable as it was previously. Innovation for us, at the moment, is focused around linking systems, sharing information and the concept of a single pane of glass view into what the customers are looking to do.”

Ben Stirling, managing director of Webloyalty and Incentive Networks, said travel firms must find ways of engaging with consumers outside of their travel needs.

“Some of the interesting things we have seen are those firms who are starting to think differently about how they’ve always interacted with consumers and becoming a part of that every day has suddenly become increasingly relevant for a lot of businesses,” he said.

“When you lose your voice with your consumer to talk about travel what else can you talk to them about? That’s where I think we’ve seen a lot innovation and some organisations reacting faster than others.

“If you lose that voice, you’ve almost lost everything because you have nothing to say to the consumer when they’re not buying what you’re selling.”

Stirling said there has been a decade’s worth of growth in online activity in just eight weeks due to the pandemic and 75% of consumers are saying that will continue after the Covid-19 crisis ends.

He said firms must react to these behavioural changes. “You can either do something big and blue sky, or you can seek to consistently innovate what you’re doing,” Stirling said.

“We’re all responsible as leaders to manage the businesses we’re in and the businesses we’re becoming because if you don’t you will become obsolete.

“There are a number of major crises that can happen that can cause you to go out of business from technology changes, legislation changes, industry changes, people changes. They can all happen at any moment.

“You’ve got to be adapting and evolving in order to be staying relevant and maintaining what you do today but also what you’re going to be doing tomorrow.”

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