We spoke with Vasiliki Mavrokefalou, Director Market Management Greece, Cyprus & East Adriatic at Expedia Group, one of our panellists at Best Stay 2019.

1. The hospitality industry is ever-growing and increasingly competitive. In your opinion, what are the latest trends in hospitality, what can we expect in a few years? Talking about the latest trends from an OTA perspective, I would mainly focus on technology. Technology is a huge asset in adapting to the industry and consumers’ needs that constantly change and evolve. Predictive modelling, machine learning and high-powered recommendation engines will improve the consumer experience, increase efficiency and better target consumers with relevant information. Through our scale, we have access to better travel data than anyone in the industry, and we make our data work hard to create a better, personalized, consumer experience. But we also want to give travellers the most relevant data for them, which is why we use pattern recognition from data across Expedia Group’s brands and deliver those insights in a way that consumers find it useful. We do the product and tech work and invest in marketing in ways that greatly benefit hotels. We focus on what we’re good at – our tech and marketing engines – so that hotels can focus on what they are good at – creating great customer experiences.

If I had to categorize the technological advancements that are and expected to transform the industry, I would call out big data, machine learning and voice.

Data / Big data – moving into NLP/Chatbots

The way customers are interacting with us has changed. If the first revolution in travel was the notion of OTAs “turning the screen around to customers,” and the second was mobile, the third is going to be interaction via natural language processing tools. For the past few years, we’ve been experimenting with Natural Language Processing (NLP): the task of turning travellers’ common questions into searchable content. Messaging or chatbots, voice-activated search queries, and similar platforms are growing in prominence across tech industries. We have some of the most talented engineers and designers in the world, who are drawing from the deep insights and market info at our fingertips to solve huge travel problems and create some incredible new technologies to better serve our customers – in a way that feels like natural and not like a robot. We test, learn and innovate rapidly giving our travellers the power of now in the palm of their hand. Building on that, we keep travellers informed by pushing relevant and personalized information to them across devices rather than waiting for them to come to ask us for it.

Machine Learning

“AI is not some future state; AI is embedded within Expedia Group’s operations today, but we are still only scratching the surface and moving from machine learning to machine intelligence. When you think of the travel industry – machine learning is a powerful and positive disruptor. It enables personalization like we’ve never seen, which can ultimately impact your bottom line. Whether it’s personalization to the traveller or personalization to your specific property. With revenue management, for example, possible predictions include what a hotel should charge based on competition, compression, other market dynamics. Also, suggesting the best travel products is still a very complex matching problem that we are constantly striving to improve. As of 2016, we did over 15 billion flight searches a year. This is why Expedia Group makes a strong investment in tech and uses data science to suggest the best flights based on price, the number of stops and level of convenience. Within these results travellers are able to find options from many carriers, low-cost airlines included. We like to say that the first 20 years of online travel was all about putting the power of booking in the hands of customers. But the next 20 years will be about using technology to fulfil the full “travel agent promise.” Travel agents would get to know their customers’ preferences and really personalize solutions for them. They’ll be able to predict customer pain points like weather delays or price changes before they occur or if not, quickly remedy them live. That’s where we are going, more personalization using AI, better customer service using AI. AI is going to be the driving force behind our desire to put the “A back in OTA.”

Voice

Voice is a new channel and a new way to interface with your guests. Clearly Google and Alexa are here to stay, so if you solve for reaching your customers here, you’ll drive revenue. Voice is raising the bar for what consumers will expect from all technology in the future. Any brand, in any industry, needs to think about how they are prepared to meet those expectations. There’s less room for error in voice. Having the third-best or the fifth-best answer isn’t good enough, because consumers don’t visually scan through a page of results anymore. Because there isn’t one single “best” answer that fits everyone, personalization is mandatory in this channel. In travel, we don’t have strong signal yet on where consumer adoption will be fastest: dreaming and discovery; shopping and booking; or post-booking logistics.

2. Which concrete online marketing tools should hoteliers use to promote themselves in the global marketplace? I cannot stress enough how important it is for all of us to offer a high level of service and unique experiences to our guests. This is the first and most important step towards a sustainable growth. The customer experience at a property starts well before the customers actually arrive at the door. Building that positive experience from the very first touchpoint through the entire trip is the key to happy travellers who revisit and set the foundation for future travellers. And regardless of how technology develops or how customer demographics might shift year to year, travellers will go through a number of phases in their journey; from discovery to shopping, booking to experiencing, reflecting and finally back to dreaming about their next trip. This is why having a strong online presence matters.

Moving to online distribution, in this global marketplace there are consumers and hotels. Everyone else is service providers. And as service providers, our goal is to connect the hotel owners to the customers. We do that through our investments in technology and marketing. And our partners can leverage Expedia group both as a transactional platform as well as a marketing channel. Out multi-channel, a multiplatform structure can complement any strategy. If they want to sell rooms early in advance or need last-minute bookings if they want to expand international clientele, target specific markets etc. Expedia Group can help. Our easy-to-use tools help our partners optimize their strategy to fill their rooms and increase revenue. We have a very experienced market management team in place our partners can work with, take advantage of our knowledge and experience, use tools such as Rev+ – a free revenue management tool that will help them make well-informed pricing decisions -, Travel Ads direct that will allow them to send traffic to their own website or advanced analytics we offer in Partner Central. All these tools will help position their business better not only in our global marketplace but also in the online world.

3. What will the future bring for OTAs – What are the strategies to remain relevant? Amidst global market volatility and geopolitical unrest, we are entering an economic time where the only thing to expect is the unexpected. Rising labour costs, shrinking margins, and aging infrastructure are only a few of the obstacles standing in the way of growth for the hospitality industry in 2019. 

Strong partnerships are more important than ever. That is why Expedia Group is putting its platform to work to unleash the strategic initiatives that help our partners build resilience. To face down the unexpected, together.

We are much more than just distribution – we provide our lodging partners with actionable insights, resources and tools that help them optimize their occupancy and revenue and improve their guest experience, driving overall business health.

At Expedia Group, we follow a real scientific approach to our business we call ‘test & learn’ where we ask a simple question, collect the observation, construct a hypothesis, test that out as quickly as possible, then analyze the learning and repeat on that. We let the customers and partners tell us what they like/don’t like through their actions/usage. Our innovation is in-line with customer preferences vs. trying to predict. Innovations: Scratchpad, RTF, Sell Tonight, Marketwatch.

Test & Learn changed the way we think about innovation. We believe in an incremental approach to product innovation that involves making many small investments to see which get the best signal before we place a big bet on something.

Analytics impact every efficiency we make to improve the booking process and drive higher occupancy, ADR and RevPAR for our lodging partners. We use behavioural data to drive product development with A/B testing, which is designed to improve conversation on an ongoing basis. The analytics drive tests and tells us which tests perform better.

For example, we all know by now the importance of content. Photos are critical for comparison, confidence and value for money. More than half of users on mobile and desktop engage with property photos. It’s double the usage of the next highest engagement feature (availability wizard). We’ve launched 11 tests, and completed 8, on photos – from mobile-first to sorting, to interaction, to smart cropping. Users look at anywhere between 30-35 photos on mobile; Guest rooms are the most popular photos. All those areas – mobile-first, sort, how users can interact with photos, and how we crop them – play into traveller engagement. It is obvious to us that in order to remain relevant we need to keep listening to our partners’ and customers’ needs and preferences. This is what makes us successful today and will keep making us successful in the future.

4. This is your first-year joining Best Stay as a panellist. What are your expectations from speaking at Best Stay event, what are you most looking forward to?

I believe these events are a great opportunity for key stakeholders in the industry to interact, exchange knowledge and ideas. And this is also my expectation since I strongly believe we will all be more successful if we work closer together than trying to tackle the same challenges separately.

The industry is changing, and we all need to embrace this change. New technologies and trends like Artificial Intelligence, Voice technology such as Amazon Echo, Chatbots and many more are changing the way people travel today. In Expedia Group with 1,3bn spend in technology, we are investing in the future, making sure we stay relevant in an evolving industry. Although the complexity of navigating into this new travel world is constantly increasing, working together we can tackle these challenges more efficiently. We want to understand the unique goals of the industry’s stakeholders and how we can partner together so that we all succeed. Based on the feedback we heard from our partners all over the world, we rolled out a series of test and learns to continuously innovate and evolve. Products such as Rev+, Travel Ads Direct, our Group meetings solution software and many more were created and launched because they asked for them.

I believe these events are a great opportunity for us to interact, exchange knowledge and ideas, share challenges. And this is what I expect us to do this year as well. Together we can certainly achieve more.

Get a chance to hear Vasiliki speak at Best Stay 2019, grab your ticket today – register here.