Director visited the Booking.com headquarters in Amsterdam to find out how the world leader in online accommodation booking sees the future of travel
The way the world goes about booking a holiday has fundamentally changed with the growth of the internet. For many, booking a trip begins and ends there, with almost every aspect of the holiday being planned, arranged and paid for online and in advance. The disruption to the travel industry that came in the wake of the digital revolution has seen physical travel agents replaced by the likes of AirBnB, Travel Supermarket, and of course Booking.com as the go-to providers of hotels and experiences.
When Booking.com was founded in 1996 it was primarily focused on selling hotel rooms, but in recent years the company has widened its offering to customers and radically altered its approach to innovation. Advances in technology are both the cause and effect of this shift.
“When I joined we just launched our first app on iOS, and we almost thought of it as a kind of side-project,” says Stuart Frisby, director of design at Booking.com. “No one really put great faith in the fact that this platform was going to fundamentally change the way people travel.”
The ability to coordinate one’s trip and make decisions in situ is one such unexpected change: travellers have a whole wealth of information at their fingertips as a result of smartphones. “You see that customers have gone from sitting at a desk making a booking to sitting on a tram figuring out where to go, being in a destination and trying to decide what restaurant they want to eat at,” continues Frisby.
But it’s not just Booking.com that struggles to predict consumer trends and expectations – it’s the industry as a whole. “Our industry is pretty young and there isn’t hundreds of years of scientific research for us to fall back on to understand customer behaviour,” says Frisby. “So when it comes to us predicting whether our ideas are going to work or not we’re normally wrong about it. Most of the time your instincts are not correct.”
Despite this, the team at Booking.com have their own ideas of what they’d like to see happen with travel in the future, and how they hope Booking.com will be a part of it.
“I like to think of Europe as potentially like a [theme] park,” says Adrienne Enggist, director of product at Booking.com. “We can help people find the right time to visit so that they don’t have to stand in hour-long queues and they’re not inundated with tourists and not [having] the real experience of the destination and I think there are big data challenges and machine-learning challenges there.”
Having a ‘real experience’ in a destination is a big concern for the future it seems: “Travel is now so accessible to so many people which is an awesome thing, but at the same time we’re in this selfie-stick era, [where] everything is mass travel and ticking off the main sights,” says Sophie Parker, director of product. “I really hope that we see a return to authentic travel and people being able to find new places, new things and new experiences that really match them.
“I think the rise in user-generated content, with reviews, with AI, with all the data we have about people’s preferences and all of the extremely rich information that we have about destinations and why people travel and when, we can really help people have unique experiences, and that’s what I hope.”
With the introduction of their new messaging system back in May, Booking.com have gone some way to alleviating pain-points that travellers often experience in the post-booking phase where liaising with foreign hotels can involve excruciating exchanges in broken English.
But the return of authentic, once-in-a-lifetime travel is seemingly at the forefront of Booking.com’s agenda. “[If] it’s a trip that they’re only going to make once and they’re entrusting it to us, this huge moment in their life and a memory that they’re going to treasure forever, how do we honour the commitment that they’re making?” asks Frisby.