The travel industry is facing many of the challenges currently occupying the retail industry, especially around improving the customer experience, engendering loyalty and the merging of digital and physical channels.

Retailers often cite the travel industry – in particularly, the airlines – as somewhere they look to for inspiration, and there is regularly a crossover of systems and hardware used in the two sectors, alongside the mirrored approaches to customer strategy.

Essential Retail has picked out a few ways the organisations at the heart of the travel sector are deploying new technology to boost the way they serve their customers. Some of the examples may be familiar to retailers, while others may provide some fresh inspiration.

Duty free delivery

It was announced last week that Thomas Cook Airlines has completed its implementation of Manhattan Associates' software for its pre-flight seat delivery service, which caters for duty-free items that have been ordered online.

Using the Manhattan Scale platform and conducted in association with the technology company's Nordic partner, Idnet, Thomas Cook has a new-found confidence in its fulfilment operations and is effectively providing its customers with a click & collect option that sees products delivered directly to passengers' seats.

Thomas Cook works with Manhattan Associates to get duty free orders to customers' airline seats

Monika Krol, production coordinator at Thomas Cook Airlines' distribution centre in Lund, Sweden, said the technology helps with supply chain accuracy and efficiency.

“One of our highest priorities is to provide value and flexibility to our customers all year round,” she explained.

Touchscreen tech

Interactive airport desks (I-AID) have now been placed in Frankfurt Airport, as part of the airport operator Fraport's digitisation strategy of providing personalised services and information for the travelling process.

The installation provides several advantages for travellers, retailers and the airport authority. Travellers can scan their paper flight ticket or the ticket QR code displayed on their smartphone to receive travel information regarding itinerary changes, flight delays and gate changes, in addition to direct guidance to their departure gate. Passengers are automatically greeted and receive relevant information in their own language.

Each 46-inch interactive display also creates opportunities for digital signage and retail advertising, while the nearby shops within the terminal are set to benefit from more traffic thanks to special offers displayed on the machines.

The interactive machines in operation at Frankfurt Airport (image courtesy of Cosalux)

The desks are based on the Polytouch solution from Pyramid Computer, while the guidance system and information terminal, complete with integrated computer and scanning unit, was installed by Cosalux. The software embedded in the solution was made by Infsoft.

Alexander Coelius, CEO of Cosalux, says that the I-AID is much more than a way-finding system, offering as its does localised information and offers/promotions from restaurants and shops which are updated daily.

“In using the Interactive Airport Desks, travellers benefit from information, offers and promotions relevant to them,” he added.

“Users can also type in any search terms they wish, such as ‘coffee’ or ‘newspapers’, offering maximum convenience and efficiency in the unknown transient location that is the airport terminal.”

Over the coming months, more developments are expected to take place at Frankfurt Airport. When the pilot operation is completed, a double-digit number of additional interactive airport desks are set to be installed at central points, while Cosalux is working on getting the system to interface with an airport mobile app that provides coupons, among other things, and is linked to points/awards schemes by referencing passengers' scanned-in personal data.

Ultimately, there is an aim to help retailers in the airport deliver highly targeted advertising to specific audiences, whether through the app or digital signage attached to the interactive desks.

Content and commerce

Gary Morrison, head of retail at online travel company Expedia, recently explained to this publication that it is placing a focus on generating travel content.

Like retailers such as Net-a-Porter and Asos, Expedia is looking to hire professional writers to produce content that it hopes will strike a chord with its customers. Although it's too early to say what direction this might take the company, such a move could be a precursor to a more substantial publishing arm of the business.

"What we see here is people – at least millennials – will make decisions based on what their peer networks think," Morrison commented.

"And the reality is the world is a phenomenally large place, and the extent we can generate neutral, but very factual, rich content about the latest place you'd never even thought of, helps to make people even more informed."

It is a case of "baby steps" for now, he added, but it appears to be a move towards becoming an authoritative source on global destinations, and that has the potential to result in the development of various travel-related digital platforms and/or online communities.

Virtual reality

While Virgin Holidays has been utilising Google Cardboard in a selection of its stores to give customers a chance to experience a 3D video view of what their potential holiday booking might look like, the most significant virtual reality roll-out in travel retail would seem to be to be at Thomas Cook.

The use of Samsung Gear VR equipment in its stores has led to a 'look before you book' or 'try before you fly' style service for customers.

Thomas Cook is investing in technology to improve the customer experience

A number of premium retailers are trialling the use of this type of technology, but Thomas Cook has already reported that the format has helped upsell rooms or packages by virtually putting holidaymakers in their destination before they make their purchase. Tech firm Visualise also worked on the project, producing an app to help promote Thomas Cook's Egyptian getaways, alongside other relevant content.

Interactive features

TUI Group – the parent company of travel agent, Thomson – has digitally revamped a number of its stores over the last few years to capitalise on modern retailing trends.

Doug Glenwright, general manager of retail transformation at TUI, has acknowledged that travel agents were one of the first groups of retailers to be negatively hit by the advent of the internet, but he believes the sector has been one of the first to reap the benefits of combining both physical and digital platforms.

Like a number of retailers, Thomson has used its flagship store in Kent shopping centre, Bluewater, to test out a number of new ideas. One of those ideas was the installation of an interactive map on the wall to be used by customers as a searching tool, which the company has said inspires other shoppers to engage with the brand.

"We wanted to solve a problem for customers and we needed the tech to be usable so anyone could interact without having a degree in IT," Glenwright explained to delegates at last year's eCommerce Expo.