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Big data, big overstatement?

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In the run up to EyeforTravel’s Smart Analytics Travel Show next week, we look at some of the biggest data and analytics challenges for travel businesses in 2013.

In the run up to EyeforTravel’s Smart Analytics Travel Show next week, we look at some of the biggest data and analytics challenges for travel businesses in 2013.
In the past year, the term “big data” has become synonymous with “big buzz” and “big hype.” This year will be crunch time for travel brands as the business world becomes even more reliant on data and analytics for answers. By the end of 2012, most successful travel brands had begun to understand the “big data” opportunity, alongside a growing realization, too, that “big data” needs high performance analytics.

As our Smart Analytics Travel Show in New York (January 17 and 18) in New York fast approaches next week, EyeforTravel’s Director of Events & Industry Analysis, Rosie Akenhead, has this to say: “There is no exception. Travel businesses must adapt their data strategies now if they want to stay ahead of the curve and stave off the competition.”

So, what are the challenges going forward?

It is not that data in travel is new. Travel companies are notorious for storing anything and everything: pricing models, ancillary fees, markets, flight paths, competitive offerings, distribution channels, transactions, CRM, and so on. But today, the focus of online travel has honed in on individual relationships with individual customers. The challenges across the industry remain: integrating the growing number of data sources into a coherent whole, and creatively cutting the data to ensure premium results. Gone are the days of, “try this advert,” or “test this promotion,” said Rosie Akenhead of EyeforTravel. She continued, “In the future landscape we see a growing number of solely fact-led decisions based on both historical and real-time data.”

Pascal Moyon, Director Digital and Brand Marketing at Hertz – who is speaking next week in New York – agrees that the big challenges for 2013 include improving the effectiveness of marketing to serve customers relevantly. This involves getting the data basics right first and then stepping into analytics driven personalization. “What is changing is that there is an increased professionalism required in the field, led by innovative newcomers.” He said, and with this comes a highly-skilled analytical personnel.

Building the right team:

One of the biggest challenges facing the industry will be the talent squeeze. “These specialist skills are still not that prevalent, especially for big data analytics,” said William Beckler, Director of Innovation, Travelocity International, who is speaking in New York next week also.

However, he believes it is possible to make the most of “big data” if you can get the right kind of teams on board. That includes having the right mix of listening skills, scripting, and highly-advanced maths. On top of this, the travel firms leading the big data race are increasingly aware that there also needs to be a member of the team that has some softer skills, plus a deep understanding of the business. As William El Kaim, Marketing Technology Director, Global Product Innovation Team at Carlson Wagonlit Travel told EyeforTravel.com last year, his innovation team comprises both a highly skilled data scientist and others, like himself, who are tech savvy but also have a sound understanding of all aspects of the business (Delivering on Data: build it and they will come, EyeforTravel, November 13, 2012).

Some organizations, which were built around data, such as big data search company Hopper Travel, may be a step ahead. These companies generally started with a strong core of data and algorithms, and can now afford to sell cloud services or even design their own hardware, said Moyon of Hertz.

For others, the key stumbling block is about developing an appropriate corporate culture within an organization. “Here, the tools are generally the last thing to worry about,” he stressed, putting the emphasis on people power first and foremost. Firms should primarily be addressing company culture, management support and drive, and investing primarily in skilled analytical people to drive change.

Choosing the right technology supplier:

While some companies talk up their successes with big data, the reality is isn’t quite so easy. On the Christmas wish list of one senior travel executive was that Santa would work out how to use big data for him. “If he can do it, maybe someday the rest of us will figure it out, too,” he told EyeforTravel.com during a separate interview. Perhaps his own present delivery system will also be upgraded to better personalization in real-time, too.

Travelocity’s Beckler agreed: “There are more ways to do it wrong than to do it right, and if it’s hard to do it right, it’s also hard to know if someone else is doing it right.”

When it comes to the risks facing the industry he said firms really need to be careful when choosing the right solutions provider. “The big data hype machine has hatched a corresponding industry of solutions providers, only some of which add value,” he said, “ and everyone will have a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Still, as Tom Bacon, former VP at Frontier Airlines, pointed out, “The risks of trying something are much less than the risks of maintaining the status quo.”

For Martin Stolfa,Vice President, Revenue Management Analysis at Hilton Hotels, the biggest needs from a solutions supplier are to:

1. Build effective reporting data models using big data and analytics across multiple data sources.

2. Provide capabilities to capture and respond to consumers in real-time.

Remember all data is not equal; just because you have a lot of it doesn’t mean it is useful. So firms should be aiming to analyze the right data, and to do this they have to know what the objective is. “Focus on a pressing business issue – maybe reducing attrition, or increasing conversion rates, or whatever your challenge is – and concentrate resources on collecting the appropriate data and applying analytics to that particular issue,” said Keith Collins, Senior Vice President and CTO at SAS, a technology firm. He also recommended partnering with IT in ‘”big data” efforts. “Technology helps shape the customer experience: from managing multiple data sources, to aggregating analytics and insights, to engaging with the customer,” he said, adding that, “maximum success will result from marketing and IT working together on strategy and tactics.”

For Travelocity’s Beckler, however, one thing is clear: 2013 will be the year that everybody attempts to harvest the “big data” opportunity.

Those who survive will need to act now.

Don’t waste any time. Join EyeforTravel’s Smart Analytics Travel Show in New York (January 17 and 18) next week when we will be cutting through the buzzwords and the hype to help you make the most of your data and analytics efforts in 2013.