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AI is the future.

Last month, Expedia Group held its annual partner event at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas. 4,500 of its partners and exclusive media came together for the two-day Explore '18 event, which looked at how technology will change the industry in 2019 and beyond.

President and CEO of Expedia Group, Mark Okerstrom, kickstarted the event in a general assembly that included keynote speeches from Randi Zuckerberg, founder and CEO Zuckerberg Media, and John Kim, president, HomeAway.

The overall message from all the speakers was clear: technology will continue to be the way of the future, with a distinct focus on artificial intelligence.

In his keynote, Okerstrom mentioned that while the US economy is very strong, China is showing signs of slowing down, the Euro zone is giving mixed signals and Latin America is volatile. Despite the roller coaster, travel grows faster than the gross domestic product (GDP) and is projected to grow +3.5 per cent in 2019.

Expedia's total gross bookings for the last 12 months (Q3 2018) totalled $97.5 bn, an increase of 13 per cent year on year. Okerstrom's mentioned that Expedia remains optimistic about the future, but cleared eyed.

"One thing is undeniable: with the pace of technology and the rise of digital superpower, partnership is more important than ever before," said Okerstrom.

Streaming real time data, AI and automation are the buzz words today, but in the wider context of human creativity.

"Last year, Expedia had said that voice was the next big thing in travel. Increasingly we are understanding voice as a subset to a larger theme - artificial intelligence. The computing world now has the capability to process a vast amount of data in real time and write software to be able to instruct our code base to do different things based on the data that we see. The application of this is taking voice and translating that into data that we ultimately understand then programme our applications to respond.

"For example, if someone has a question around a particular property, like how far it is from the beach, you can actually speak into your phone or type the text and we are training algorithms to respond to these questions.

"If you ask me five or ten years from now, we may have a conversation service that we provide for our hotel partners that they can integrate into their applications to answer all those questions in an automated way - it's very possible."

Okerstrom rose to the position of president and CEO in August 2017, and among the initial changes he brought along was the change of the logo. "Every new CEO should start by changing the logo," he joked. "All jokes aside, we changed our logo to change the mindset of our employees, we had to make it clear to ourselves and to the world about who we have become and what we aspire to be. And who we have become is through a series of acquisitions and a number of technical integrations - essentially the largest travel platform that exist in the world.

"No other player is operating in over 75 different countries, in all segments of travel - whether corporate, offline leisure, online or whether its travel by tapping into other travel websites, like the airlines for example. We are sitting in the centre and empowering all of that."

In late 2017, Expedia Group had planned to increase its property portfolio by two times in 2018 and Okerstrom confirms that it will manage to do so. "The strategy is the same for 2019. We think that ultimately having the assortment that our customers are craving and having that all in one place is critical for us and part of our strategy. We focused on a handful of countries this year, we acquired Asia, we acquired the Middle East, but we are moving on to a new set of focused markets, we haven't said where these are, but that will be the focus again."

Expedia Group has a lot of travel brands under its umbrella:, CheapTickets,, HomeAway,,, Orbitz, Travelocity, trivago and is a very distinctive offering; stay 10 nights get one free, which is popular with the business traveller and travel arrangers understand the award proposition. Expedia's vacation rental company VRBO gets more than two-thirds of its business for groups of more than four travellers. "Our brands are very much focused now, more than ever, on the concept of customer statistics. It is not about traffic and transactions any more, its recognition that of customers' behaviour."

Expedia Group has more than 100 branded offline stores: in Canada and in the US. "We power over 150,000 travel agents now with our technology using our platform. I think over time, not unlike what Amazon has, we will look at using these fiscal experiences/shops to actually access more of the market. It's no coincidence that we have the cruise product in offline shops as cruise is a complicated purchase. Luxury is another market, so there will be other pockets where fiscal stores still make sense. Whether we own these stores or franchise these - that's a question. Expedia Cruise Ship Centres is a franchise model for instance."

According to Okerstrom artificial intelligence is the game changer of travel. "Personalisation historically used to be a dream, AI makes personalisation an absolute reality. We are actually doing it now with our hotel partners by using real time activity and using AI to make recommendations around things that they might be able to change. Whether it be content, photos, rates, etc, we can make suggestions for them to be more successful on our platforms and this data is getting more and more in real time."

Jennifer Andre, senior director, American's Expedia Group solutions, said in one of the breakout sessions, "The new younger generation of travellers have up to $143 billion in buying power, they are just entering the workforce or early in their professional career. They are constantly connected - more than half use their smartphone 5+ hours per day. Social media is an important communication platform - more than 50 per cent use Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube. They are taking just as many trips as millennials.

"Two-thirds are destination indecisive, so there's a good opportunity to capture them, however, they are less inspired by advertising than the millennials but are influenced by inspiration pieces. About 59 per cent are traveling domestically, but this number changes depending on the country and 41 per cent are going international.

"Their biggest reason for travel is relaxing, but they do crave activities and adventure. They are budget conscious, as they may not earn much yet, and they grew up on an economic downturn. They spend 22 per cent on hotels and 20 per cent on flights. What is important - best deals.

"The Gen Z will soon be the bleisure traveller," says Andre.

A survey conducted by Expedia of 2,500 business travellers from UK, US, Germany, India and China found that bleisure travel is up 40 per cent since 2016. On average 60 per cent of last year's business trips turned into bleisure and with travellers taking more than six business trips per year, on average, there's a profound opportunity to reach and entice this valuable audience.

"There is nearly equal likelihood of bleisure travel for both domestic and international business trips, and travelers are willing to travel away from the business destination for leisure. Most bleisure travellers spend less time on research than they would on a leisure trip, so marketers have a shorter window to strategically target and influence behaviour and purchases with call to action messaging.

"With nearly 70 per cent of business trips being for conferences, there is an opportunity for destinations to encourage extending for leisure by highlighting activities and experiences to drive repeat visitation. Bleisure travellers may not book everything in advance, highlighting opportunities for marketers to reach and convert travellers in-trip - especially for ancillary products like dining, tours and activities, entertainment and transportation."

* With inputs from Kim Thomson, publishing director, TTN "

Expedia launches exchange programme

At Explore '18, Expedia announced an executive exchange programme, which will put its executives front-and-centre at hotel, car, airline and activity partners, and partner executives within the technology, product and marketing functions at Expedia to deepen learnings on both sides.

With Expedia Executive Partner Exchange programme, executives will for two- to four-week periods work at the front desks of partner locations, greeting and serving customers and working with the partner's teams and technologies. In turn, partner executives will sit within Expedia's product, technology or marketing team focused on solving real partner and customer needs that exist today.

"Partnership is about constantly deepening our understanding of each other," said Aman Bhutani, president of Brand Expedia. "What better way to learn than through one of the oldest ways of learning, apprenticeship. By understanding the daily workflow and needs of partners, and the needs of our shared customer, we can do things better and create new value for both."

Expedia Executive Partner Exchange will kick off in Q1 2019, with a global scope.

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Publication:Travel & Tourism News
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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