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The future of transport

What can three very different brands tell us about where digital is taking travel?

Dominik Dancs, Unsplash

We’re just a few short weeks away from Canvas 2019, our annual conference bringing together the brightest industry minds to share insights behind some truly game-changing products and services.

This year’s line-up includes three travel-related talks from product leaders at National Express, Citymapper and Virgin Atlantic. Whilst each talk will have a different focus on product design and customer experience, for me the really fascinating bit will be seeing how their ideas overlap and give us an insight into the future of travel.

All three brands are attempting to navigate a quickly evolving sector, itself just one part of the rapidly changing ecosystem of digital innovation that is transforming our everyday lives. In my role as a Strategist here at 383, I’m seeing a number of elements converging that will have a profound impact on how people seek to navigate their physical world.

These not only include the usual suspects, such as autonomous vehicles, EVs and the gig-economy, but also developments in smart city infrastructure, energy management and fintech that are all contributing to changing consumer attitudes around travel.

Have subscription, will travel

One significant trend that has emerged is our shifting attitudes towards ownership. With our DVD and CD collections already relegated to eBay in favour of streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify, we’re becoming more and more comfortable with notions of access over possession.

This is something that is filtering down towards our approach to car ownership too. In a world where mass transport has never been more flexible, convenient and reliable, how long will we continue to feel the need to spend huge sums purchasing our own vehicles? Not only does it make little economic sense to invest in a quickly depreciating commodity, but it also restricts our ability to select the right tool for the right job.

In a world where mass transport has never been more flexible, convenient and reliable, how long will we continue to feel the need to spend huge sums purchasing our own vehicles?

Instead, we’re moving towards a far more adaptable model of transport access, driven, in part, by our increasing familiarity with subscription models and the financial flexibility offered by a new wave of automotive fintechs, such as pay-by-the-hour car insurance apps. Instead of being tied down to a single mode of transport, we’ll soon be looking to change our travel options as regularly as our wardrobes.

Heading off on a road trip with the kids? Grab an MPV for the week to get some extra boot space. Heading back to work? Ditch the car and hop on and e-scooter to the bus stop. Sunny weekend on the horizon? Nab yourself a convertible and stock up on the factor 30. And the best bit? This could all part and parcel of a single transport subscription.

This is a future that is rapidly getting closer, not least with the introduction of products such as the Citymapper Pass, a contactless card and smartphone app that gives you access to a range of public and private options for a single monthly fee. Of course, whilst the subscription element is attractive, what really enables a service like this is being able to make smart, dependable choices about your transport options that mean you don’t have to rely on owning a car.

Making cities usable through product design is a space that Citymapper understand intrinsically, designing features that take the friction out of everyday travel planning. By tapping into transport data and leveraging sophisticated APIs and algorithms, they’re turning travel and navigation into fluid experiences that help their users to adapt to the changing cities around them.

Putting passengers first

Where Citymapper are nailing multi-modal transport planning, National Express are innovating on the coal-face, delivering the journeys themselves.

Through their international network of coach services and their vast local bus service infrastructure, National Express are the undisputed experts in shifting millions of people to where they need to be. Despite being on top of their game through five decades of operation, even this transport behemoth can’t afford to stand still in our increasingly Uber-fied world.

With customer service expectations being set ever higher by tech giants who can deliver on-demand value at the tap of an app, modern consumers expect services to adapt to fit their lives, not the other way round.

By embracing customer-first approaches and rapidly getting MVPs out into the wild, National Express are putting themselves in a strong position to deliver solutions that truly reflect the way that consumers want to travel and shop. Whether it’s introducing on-demand coach services that make it easier than ever for passengers to get where they want to go, or embracing voice interaction as a path to purchase, they’re a legacy brand that is embracing innovation rather than resisting it.

Journeys as experiences

Of course, the best transport experiences aren’t always about speed. Whilst consumers place immense value on time, this isn’t just about reducing how long it takes to get from A to B. It’s about making the journey itself a meaningful experience.

As one of the most admired brands within the travel sector, Virgin Atlantic isn’t just in the business of delivering a transport service; they’re striving to create great travel experiences. Here, the flight isn’t just a practical means to an end, but an extension of your vacation, or an essential part of your business trip. It can ease you into the holiday mindset, help you relax into a special occasion, or become a crucial extension of your working environment.

This not only requires smoothing out the classic frictions of air travel and the airport experience, it also means taking every opportunity to surprise and delight your passengers.

It isn’t just about reducing how long it takes to get from A to B. It’s about making the journey itself a meaningful experience.

Increasingly, this involves serving up solutions for ‘the connected traveller’, leveraging digital innovations and smart devices to take the hassle out of booking and boarding whilst better serving and entertaining passengers during transit.

This also means extending that high-quality experience beyond the moment of travel itself, whether that’s helping users in the ‘dreaming and planning’ phase for their perfect trip or ensuring their journeys to and from the airport are as smooth as possible. For many brands, this means shifting out of their traditional comfort zone and into a world where they may not have control over the complete end-to-end experience.

A convergent future

This is where we’ll really see the convergence of all of these travel and transportation services in the near future.

Users will expect to be able to plan a journey from their front door to their holiday villa as easily as popping into town. They’ll expect their outbound travel solutions to flex to allow for traffic jams and missed connections, without ever jeopardising their pre-booked flight. And they’ll want their journey to be as stress-free, comfortable and inspiring as the dream vacation they booked.

Increasingly, I predict that services like this will no longer be working in isolation but in tandem – if not through formal partnerships, then as part of a dynamic ecosystem of sensors, data streams, APIs and algorithms. And, as AI steps in to help consumers find the best prices or the fastest routes, the future of travel sees more and more emphasis placed on travel brands to win our custom through exemplary customer service and truly distinctive experiences.

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