The Travel Industry Awaits Smart Local Apps


Information technology is radically changing everything, and this includes the travel industry. Penang will do well to catch up and innovate.

Technology has enabled the discovery of previously hidden places, as Lionel Yeo of Trip Advisor pointed out during his talk at Echelon Malaysia’s Travel Tech Track earlier this year. From hardware to IoT, fintech and travel, entrepreneurs find the relatively low-cost base of Penang attractive for starting new businesses. The state has become one of the world’s top-rated places for digital nomads, just as it was the place in the 1970s and 1980s for soul-searching hippies.

During Travel Tech Track run by WIT, a community for those passionate about travel technology, distribution and marketing, travel entrepreneurs as well as hoteliers trying to find a foothold in the complex distribution and marketing landscape met to share their stories.

The Restore-prenuer

Chris Ong, a sixth-generation Penang-Peranakan, returned home to build up George Town Heritage & Hotels, a collection of shophouse hotels and residences. It is his mission to make shophouses as closely linked to travel in Penang as ryokans are in Japan and farmhouses in Tuscany.

Ong’s focus is on building a brand based on the core values of compassion, integrity and fairness – and through it, he hopes to grow his hotels, which include Seven Terraces, Muntri Mews and Jawi Peranakan Mansion.

For Ong, buying dilapidated buildings and restoring them with love and respect is a matter of destiny. The buildings call out to him, he says, and the former investment analyst is not doing it for profit but rather with deep purpose; according to Ong, entrepreneurs must have purpose that go beyond the financials.

He is also keen to invest in an app that will help tourists discover street art more easily and tell the stories behind each piece.

How about an app for street food, or where to find the best laksa?

Investing in Data

When asked about what they wish for in new technological innovations, hoteliers say that they seek solutions to their data problems. Chis Cheong of Berjaya Hotels & Resorts says that right now, while hotels have a lot of data, these are sorted in silos and “we are not able to integrate them to give us a big picture view.”

Albert Lafuente of Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort also says he would invest in data, but also shares that Shangri-La Cebu was the first hotel in the Philippines to use virtual reality at trade shows and “we were a hit because of the novelty.” Hoteliers should keep experimenting with new technology to get themselves noticed in a crowded market, says Lafuente.

Christine Tan of FASTBOOKING says the company which specialises in helping hotels increase direct bookings is piloting an AI tool that will help hotels with conversions on their website.

Airlines also face similar problems with their data. Nikunj Shanti, chief data and digital officer of AirAsia, told the start-ups in the audience that the biggest predicament they could help solve is to help airlines integrate the disparate data.

AirAsia is on a mission to transform itself into a digital airline and is using technology to create a customised experience. Shanti, formerly with Expedia, has been in the role for over a year. He says the airline is not selling its data to third party companies because it wants to own and sell the data itself to other travel suppliers; however, its presence on Google Flights means it is still subservient to the world’s biggest search engine.

Start-up Roles

In the online travel agency (OTA) market, it is interesting to note that unlike Indonesia's Traveloka, which has already expanded abroad, Malaysia does not yet have a strong local OTA; instead, its hotel market is dominated by the likes of, Expedia, Agoda and, increasingly, Traveloka.

With so many murals in the state, perhaps it is time to come up with an app that can serve as a locational guide.

The market is open for a strong local OTA – but is it big enough? With a population of 30 million and a shrinking ringgit, Malaysia has seen a boom in domestic tourism, as Expedia’s Clive Ellul Hawthorn shared in his talk: “Malaysians are discovering their own country due to the ‘shringgit’,” he said, and Expedia was enjoying growth in domestic bookings as well as inbound traffic.

As the travel market in Malaysia evolves and mobile usage changes the behaviour of locals, the landscape should be ripe for more start-ups. At the moment, travel start up activity in Malaysia is not as active as, say in Indonesia or Singapore, but things are changing. Start-ups like Tripfez, specialising in halal-friendly travel; Softinn, a solutions provider to independent hotels; and Singapore-based BeMyGuest, which facilitates tours, are clearly finding their niche in the travel ecosystem.

Dahmakan, a two-year-old service out of Malaysia offering a new kind of food delivery service (it cooks and delivers its own meals) recently closed a US$1.3mil seed funding round from backers that include NFQ Capital, East Ventures, Asia Venture Group and Grupara.

Meanwhile in Penang, cooking schools and food tours have mushroomed.

So how about a hawker food delivery app, you say? There’s no reason why food and tech shouldn’t go hand in hand.

Penang-born Yeoh Siew Hoon is the founder of WIT, a media and events company specialising in online travel. She loves to write and she loves to travel. And oh yes, she loves gadgets.

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