Session preview

The human touch

Nov 1, 2019

Jeremy Clark, APOT’s CEO, reflects on the tech revolution transforming hospitality in Asia. Hear more from him in the Inflight Catering Innovation session on the EXPO stage at the Onboard Hospitality Forum – Asia.

Asia’s tech startup scene is getting hotter by the minute. Investment is soaring as businesses rush to be a part of the region’s huge, youthful market which is experiencing rapid growth from ever-more mobile-savvy consumers.

From Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City, leading hubs are competing to become the next Silicon Valley – keen to host successful startups as well as the many investors and institutions that support them.

Technology, as a result, is making its mark everywhere in Asia and hopefully helped ensure you had a seamless and trouble free journey to FTE this year. Or maybe you were in fact held up by a ‘systems failure’, as has plagued KLIA in Malaysia as well as Air Asia, Cathay Pacific and others.

Technology it seems, has not yet turned out to be the Utopia we were promised when it comes to travel but clearly momentum towards ever-more complex and sophisticated technology, that manages the travel experience for us, is gathering pace.

Earlier this year our Asia Pacific Onboard Travel (APOT) annual gathering was held in China’s techno-tropolis, Shanghai, and the evidence of this change was clearly prevalent. Everything ran through the tech from frequent flier accounts, reservations, baggage handling and, most aggressively, up-selling – for everything from seats to onboard food. There were Apps for everything and it is clear that in emerging markets like China, businesses often rely completely on these, forgetting altogether that in their absence, or failure, there are other ways.

The revolution is certainly underway but let’s not pretend it is all about ‘customer satisfaction’. It isn’t. The drive towards technology came originally from the West and was primarily about saving costs. What works in the West however, may not work in Asia, and vice versa. The travel industry is still on a learning curve with issues to address.

Asia certainly leads the world in new airport construction and growth but these are mainly at major cities. Regionally, Asia still struggles with older, smaller airports and patchy technological and physical infrastructure. So as airlines invest in new systems they have to be sure to reach the farthest corners of their network. If not, the weakest link can slow down the entire operation and dramatically damage reputations.

Airlines like Air Asia are growing quickly and specialising in non-hub and remote destinations, some of which struggle to keep up. Implementing complex technology into remote places is proving harder than advertised. Penang, although far from remote, is an example of this with constant overcrowding and delays at check-in. Airlines blame governments for their slow reaction to change and lack of investment. Governments in turn say airlines should pay more for the changes. Stuck in the middle, the hapless passengers suffer!

Employing check-in staff, bag handlers and caterers costs less in Asia. The cost of technology however is the same worldwide so the cost/benefit ratio is much finer to balance. Nonetheless airlines see this as the future so invest in passenger-driven technological support where they can. In time, it will equalise, but in the meantime, the conundrum of technology vs cost, and when to invest, will perpetuate.

At the FTE in Singapore we see technology and hospitality come together. While the innovations brought to the show are exciting and clever, as you wander around the Onboard Hospitality Forum Asia area and enjoy the APOT-supported Street Food Festival, ask yourself which elements of the passenger experience have most impact and greatest appeal.

Whilst we may struggle to remember a faceless robotic check-in or fancy pre-ordering app, we generally don’t forget a great meal or drink served onboard with a genuine smile. If you are among those committed to bringing ever-more automation into the travel experience, just don’t forget to maintain a balance: it is not only cost over benefit that ultimately matters but the human experience you offer, that’s what will count for the most in the long term.