Big Interview: Expedia's post-COVID focus on investment in smart shopping

Big Interview: Expedia's post-COVID focus on investment in smart shopping

The OTA group's vice president for global air partnerships Julie Kyse says future success revolves around making the shopping experience more flexible, transparent and relevant for travellers

Amid all the signs of a travel demand making a return to normal, one trend that came to prominence during COVID that looks sure to remain is demand for flexibility.

For Expedia flexibility means different things to different people, but what the global OTA says it is striving to do is provide users with smarter ways to shop.

New features like air fare price tracking have been developed and launched in the US to give the consumer reassurance that the deal they have chosen is the right one for them.

Aligned with initiatives like a Price Match Promise, that refunds any difference if the price on Expedia sites drops prior to travel, this is all about bolstering consumer confidence.

Having been introduced in the US these and other smart shopping services will soon be rolled to other markets including Europe and the UK and verticals like hotels and packages.

Responding to demand for greater flexibility 

Julie Kyse, Expedia Group vice president, global air partnerships, said smart shopping enhancements are designed to remove friction and drive up relevancy for users.

“One of the reasons we are building smart shopping technologies is so that we can be more responsive to customers desires as they are building their trip,” Kyse said.

“Every traveller is different, every travellers’ needs are different. I always buy a flexible ticket but I’m not as price sensitive as some people and am willing to pay the premium.

“There are other travellers for whom it’s not worth it. Our goal is to make sure, no matter what, they know what they are getting and there are no surprises.

“It’s important for the traveller because they are demanding a lot more in terms of understanding what they are buying.

“They are looking for flexibility and when they purchase the cheapest fares they are not always the ones with the most flexibility.

“We are investing in smart shopping tools so travellers will be able to choose the things that are the most important to them.

“There’s so much complexity around air fares these days and when people use price comparison sites they see the cheapest but not necessarily what matches their needs.

“When you mix lowcost and legacy in the same search it may look like the same thing but it’s not. It’s difficult and complex and creates friction for the traveller.

“Being able to filter out what’s not important helps them understand better what the all-in price is for their trip.”

One specific use-case directly linked to the pandemic has been tech to help Expedia customers search and buy flights using voucher credits from cancelled flights. 

Kyse said this in itself created a “whole new industry” in which travellers expected to be able to seamlessly cash in their credits as they would using an Amazon gift card.

Since the start of the pandemic Expedia has enabled $1 billion worth of re-bookings using airline credits.

Investing in the traveller experience 

Many airlines have reported seeing a surge in .com traffic and bookings during COVID as the disruption the pandemic caused forced travellers to deal direct with airlines.

And with carriers seeking greater control over pricing and offers through Iata’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) data standard, the third-party channel has had to react.

For Kyse, there is nothing new in having close airline partners with whom Expedia also competes, and this is why investment in technology is critical to ensure the OTA adds value.

“There are different ways for us to co-exist. There’s room for all in this market,” she says. “NDC is definitely something we are actively involved in and were prior to the pandemic.

“We are a global participant in all Iata working groups. We have a pretty robust NDC programme, but also a pretty robust GDS programme as well.

“It’s not just about access to content and fares, it’s about how to improve the traveller experience. We should always be looking towards the future and innovation.”

Kyse says some airlines are not as advanced in terms of NDC roll out than others that are pressing ahead with plans to retire traditional GDS EDIFACT technology.

And she warned against rushing out NDC applications before they are ready to ensure customers can search and shop and be properly serviced post booking.

“It cannot just be about wanting to change because you want to make costs of distribution lower, it has to be about wanting to make an investment in the entire value chain.

“If it’s just about getting rid of costs of distribution and not how to enhance the traveller experience then it’s not going to be successful,” said Kyse.

She adds: “It’s important we do the right things for our partners, but we will always err on the side of consumer benefits.

“Airlines have not raised any objections; they see what we’re doing as something that drives conversion. It helps the traveller.

“At Expedia, we are constantly in that mode of test of learn, but we are very happy with what our investment in smart shopping technology provides for travellers.

“It’s something we are going to invest further in going forward and it’s a feature we are going to be introducing throughout our sites.”