IBM: How cloud and emerging technologies will take travel and tourism to new heightsBy Ryan Noik 19 March 2021 | Categories: feature articles
In an exclusive interview, Ryan Noik (RN) speaks to IBM’s Mohamed Emad El-Din (ME), the Business Unit Head for IBM Cloud Platform in Middle East, Africa and Turkey to discuss technology’s role in a pandemic recovery, what a cloud-empowered travel and tourism industry may look like, and to unpack what new innovations the company is implementing.
RN: With vaccines rolling out, it seems like there is light at the end of the tunnel for a pandemic recovery. What role do you think technology companies such as IBM will have to play in the recovery of industries such as travel and tourism?
ME: As vaccines are being distributed as part of our exit from lockdown, the validation of health credentials – for example, an individual’s recent COVID-19 testing or vaccination status – will play an important role in helping bring people back to the workplace, travel and leisure activities.
IBM and Salesforce recently announced that they are collaborating to help organizations as they strive to safely reopen public places and provide individuals with a verifiable and privacy-preserving way to manage and share their vaccination and health status in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this offering, IBM Digital Health Pass will integrate with the Salesforce Work.com platform.
Digital Health Pass is one of a number of solutions that IBM offers to address client needs as vaccine availability scales. Many of these solutions combine hybrid cloud, blockchain, AI and are hardwired with security, to enable governments and businesses to collaborate across complex global networks. For example, IBM’s Vaccine Accountability Network is designed to strengthen trust and accountability at each point of the vaccine supply chain.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed several aviation clients looking for new technologies to reinvent their services and unlock an array of new experiences for their customers. To give you some examples, we are modernizing existing applications and co-creating new solutions on an open, highly-scalable hybrid cloud, partnering with Etihad Airways and Delta Airlines. We are reimagining customer care by using IBM’s AI and cloud-based Watson Assistant for engaging customers virtually, tackling the surge in volume and eliminating waiting time.
IBM has been providing technology and industry knowledge to several aviation firms since over 70 years now, helping them enhance their digital services and transform operations. 10 of the 10 top global airlines rely on IBM and 80% of the world’s travel reservations are processed on IBM Systems. In 2018 and 2019, IBM was recognized as the World’s Leading AI Travel Technology Provider and in 2020, as the World’s Leading Airport Travel Technology Provider.
RN: If there is one positive thing that the pandemic has accelerated, it is digitalization within industries. What potential do you see for the travel and tourism industry to leverage digitalization to better effect as travel opens up again?
ME: Before the pandemic brought the economy to a screeching halt, airlines had already begun gathering insights from passenger data; but due to the legacy IT infrastructure, their capabilities were limited. Now, with demand down by as much as 66% according to the International Air Transport Association, airlines have a unique opportunity to modernize — breaking down longstanding IT siloes to deliver a safer, more personalized travel experience, while also shoring up the bottom line.
The travel industry’s next normal will be defined by companies that effectively rebuild traveler trust, as they introduce more elasticity into their operations and business models. We are already seeing aviation firms transitioning from crisis management to effective recovery planning by prioritizing deep customer engagement. Several airlines are looking to lower operational costs with a mix of technologies, and implementing strategies that increase business elasticity and cost variability.
RN: How is IBM helping companies like EgyptAir in that regard?
ME: We recently announced our collaboration with Egypt Air, scaling and modernizing their back-end operations and improving travelers’ retail experiences at their Duty Free outlet. We are utilizing IBM Cloud and AI capabilities to help EgyptAir:
1) Improve time-to-market while responding to new changes or new requirements in days instead of weeks or months;
2) Lower total cost of the service while managing their infrastructure spend and aligning it with the real customers’ needs, and
3) Offer a rich spectrum of over 200 services on the IBM Cloud catalogue and the ability to add new services in just a few days, while only paying for the real consumption.
RN: How will EgyptAir be able to leverage IBM’s Watson Assistant, and IBM Cloud, to offer a better shopping experience to its customers?
ME: With IBM Watson Assistant, we are empowering EgyptAir customers to enjoy online shopping on the Duty-Free website including order placement, payment and delivery inside the plane, thus providing a smooth retail experience. AI offers us the ability to advise customers on what to buy, nurture an ongoing communication with them even after they make the purchase, and offer other added services at the airport and on the flight itself. We are also looking at an AI Virtual Assistant in the near future, to better support their online channel operation.
Apart from this, EgyptAir will be using a host of SAP solutions on IBM Cloud, giving them the flexibility to run the right workload in the right environment. Plus, with IBM Cloud, they can leverage industry-leading security capabilities, which include confidential computing and encryption capabilities, backed by the highest level of security certification.
RN: Can you elaborate on operational agility and flexibility – why are those being prioritized by CEOs?
ME: A recent survey by IBM examined how CEOs plan to thrive in a post-pandemic reality and found the top action they’ll pursue over the next two to three years is operational agility and flexibility –74% will turn to cloud to help them deliver these results.
Clearly, technology is becoming ubiquitous in everything we do. It not only enables agility—it is central to driving a hybrid workforce, as well as both operational efficiency and customer engagement. In the era of COVID, new digital capabilities like hybrid cloud and AI are empowering aviation companies tackle finicky reservation systems, inefficient check-in processes, dreaded delays and cancellations.
RN: Do you anticipate that innovation, such as using emerging technologies like AI, will be a large differentiating factor for airlines as they transform themselves and seek competitive advantage?
ME: Certainly! The airlines that begin leveraging their data first will enjoy first-mover advantage as the global economy opens back up for business. Through technologies like AI, hybrid cloud and containerization, innovative airlines will take data modeling to the next level, surfacing distinct new trends and consumer behaviors that can rapidly be translated into actionable tactics to rebuild trust with travelers and ensuring safety, comfort and operational efficiency.
Imagine, an agile and flexible digital platform ensures that I need not queue up at a physical gate for a seat upgrade or change. Or, a smartphone notification that reminds me that it is time to board. Or, the fact that my seat booking automatically meets social distancing parameters. As a passenger, I would totally enjoy such a safe, convenient and seamless experience!
RN: Do you think there will be a dividing line between companies that adopt emerging technologies to more effectively serve their customers in new ways, versus those that try to do business in the same way as they did prior to the pandemic?
ME: As we speak, enterprises of all kinds are in various stages of moving away from product or service-centric to customer-centric orientation. They are thinking about digital transformation, how to become a cognitive enterprise, an agile organization that is fueled by data, guided by AI insight and built for change on a hybrid cloud. When COVID-19 shutdowns caused bookings to drop by 95%, cloud-hosted airline applications saw infrastructure costs drop automatically.
In my opinion, companies that are willing to digitally transform the culture, processes, systems and applications, design different business models, reskill the workforce to align with the trends, will be strong contenders versus those who try to do business the pre-pandemic way.
RN: What is IBM’s answer to the debate about whether we will “get back to normal”, or whether the pre-pandemic normal is gone forever, and to be replaced with a new normal and a higher level of innovation?
ME: Although the pandemic is a powerful force of disruption and an unprecedented tragedy, it has been a critical turning point. Transformation journeys that were going to last a few years are now being compacted into months. Executives have become more trusting of what technology can do, and they are pushing ahead with digital transformation.
So, to answer your question, in the next few years, I believe we will not go back to the pre-pandemic normal, and the new normal will be driven by a high level of innovation where we will see a lot of the organizations turning to technology and accelerating their move to the cloud. Organizations that make the best use of data resources will emerge with a strong advantage over less savvy competitors.
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