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Boldly going into the future of travel tech

Travel tech may often be associated with boring acronyms like GDS, but something much more exciting is bubbling under the surface at global tech giant Sabre. ANNE MAJUMDAR reports.

SABRE HAS long been known as a link between travel suppliers and the agent community. But did you know that for the last 20 years, the industry veteran’s Sabre Labs team has actually been encouraging innovation and spearheading change across the travel industry?


The dedicated group is tasked with exploring how emerging technologies will impact the future of travel.


'We’ve got quite a long history of working on new technology and innovating on products that we have already and those we will have,' Mark McSpadden, Sabre Labs Director, told Traveltalk.



First, the team researches emerging technologies, connecting the information with the company’s extensive knowledge of the travel industry and then creating a prototype in order to see it in action.


'We believe you learn a lot about a technology when you get your hands dirty with it – making the theoretical real is very important for us. Last year, we had a working prototype of what facial recognition inside an airport kiosk would look like and how that could work.'


Right now, Sabre Labs is looking at messaging bots and has developed a prototype which can create travel itineraries through Facebook Messenger, responding to enquiries about flight times, hotel locations and more. The next phase is sharing its learnings.  


'We do that internally first and foremost with our product owners and leadership so we can make sure we have got alignment on how technologies can impact our roadmap and our offerings to our customers,' McSpadden explained.


The company also attends many of the major conferences and industry events, where it discusses new trends and introduces the prototypes to its customers and industry members, gaining valuable feedback.


'We’re not just communicating the message out, we’re listening to what the market is saying and what our customers are saying about those technologies and how they can impact their businesses.'


So how does this innovative 'two pizza' team fit into the Sabre organisation as a whole?


'Organisationally, we’re very autonomous and separate from the business and even the tech organisation – that helps us to move very quickly on some of these ideas,' McSpadden said.


Despite this independence, it is 'imperative' that its work remains aligned with what’s going on within the business and its wider corporate strategy. According to McSpadden, being part of such a large organisation can also be a major benefit.



'We have the resources of a well-funded company behind us so when it comes to buying a 3D printer or a virtual reality headset, it’s something we can easily do and easily experiment with.'


But it can also pose challenges, for example how to incorporate ground-breaking new concepts into the existing business model. Nonetheless, even concepts that don’t fit cleanly within one of Sabre’s products are often still taken to market – trip management app Tripcase is one such example with others currently in 'incubation mode'.


McSpadden is clearly a man with his finger on the travel tech pulse, so what does the future hold?


He identifies messaging bots as a huge opportunity with mobile to play a significant role. A recent survey of 300 Generation Z people found that more than 26 per cent of them had already engaged with a brand on one of the messaging platforms.


However, McSpadden says the technology’s full potential has yet to be realised, warning that companies using bots to replicate the functions of a webpage, or to allow customers to ask one question at a time, are missing the chance to deliver a 'great experience'.


Virtual Reality, too, is one to watch, with immense potential for travel agencies to provide a way for consumers to access increasingly abundant VR content without having to invest in a costly headset. Even further ahead, Augmented Reality (AR) is set to become increasingly interesting for the world of travel, putting a digital layer on top of the physical world, easily accessible through the lens of a mobile. Tech geek or not, this is tech talk everyone can get excited about.


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Written by: Anne Majumdar
Published: 4 April 2017

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