Q&A: Technology and travel in the Middle East
Business Review Middle East talks to Stewart Smith, Sojern’s Senior Director of Sales for the MEA region, about the fast-growing travel sector in the Middle East.
Tell us a little about Sojern
It is travel’s leading data-driven performance marketing engine serving over 1,000 travel brands worldwide. Its Sojern Traveller Platform, including 350 million user profiles and billions of traveller intent signals, along with custom data science and campaign optimisation algorithms designed to reach and convert travellers, delivered over $3 billion in bookings in 2015. Recognised by Deloitte as one of the fastest growing companies in tech, Sojern’s mission is to help every travel business reach, engage, and convert current and future travellers across channels. Sojern is headquartered in San Francisco and has an office in Dubai.
Why was opening an office in Dubai a priority for your business?
The Middle East is home to three of the world’s leading international airlines and a fast-growing hotel and tourism sector. In fact, the Middle East is the fastest-growing region for travel with the UAE being the dominant market. Not only that but with a young population, one in six customers in the Middle East is using the Internet as the booking platform of choice. The Sojern Traveller Platform will help travel brands connect with a young and tech-savvy audience that is looking to travel within - and outside of - the MEA region.
What were some of the challenges you faced in opening an office in the Middle East?
Understand who your customers are: One of the key challenges in opening an office in a new region is understanding who your customers are and reflecting their needs. It became clear early on that the UK for example, is ahead in terms of understanding and adoption of programmatic advertising and therefore it was vital for us to tailor our messages and the way we discuss our business with potential clients.
Tailor everything! Tailor your marketing messages, your prices, your payment terms, your pitches and your service to suit your new client's’ needs. Just because it worked in the US doesn’t mean it will work in MEA.
Recruit a team - It’s also key to remember that you can never underestimate local knowledge! Soon after we opened I recruited an experienced team to support our business in this region. Josh Beckwith, our Sales Director has worked in digital marketing in the Middle East & Africa region for over 8 years. Having a team who is experienced in the cultural differences of doing business in a new region instantly makes opening up a new office easier.
Be compliant: Another challenge in opening an office is ensuring you are compliant and not breaking any legal requirements specific to the region.
Location, location location: Choose an office location that is not only accessible for staff and clients but is also professional enough that you can conduct meetings there and host clients.
Be social: Join local networking groups and industry associations so you can meet people and learn from them as well as increase your pipeline of potential clients!
Enjoy it! Opening up a new office in a new region is a fun experience. Enjoy all the challenges and successes!
What are some of the unique characteristics of this region?
Despite there being a young population with 44 percent of the ME population under 20 years old and some of the world’s most active and dedicated smartphone users, there is a hesitancy to transact online. Consumers within this region still have an affinity towards cash payments when it comes to travel. According to ThinkDigital, among UAE leisure travellers 39 percent use the internet to plan their trip, but only 12 percent book their travel online. We may find that like some other global trends there is a short lag in this region when it comes to fully going online for travel. Having said that, I’ve noticed that although there is a lag in the adoption of some technologies, what would usually take the rest of the globe three to five years to fully adopt, takes the ME region far shorter. Again, it seems that once the region decides to commit, it moves quickly.
How does the digital marketing industry in the Middle East compare to Asia, Europe and the US?
It is following very similar trends to the rest of the globe, it’s just taking a little longer to be fully adopted. The combination of technology and data is extremely powerful in marketing and beyond the wave of programmatic buying and RTB, we are now beginning to see digital marketing entering the mainstream in the Middle East. With the Middle East considered as the fastest-growing region in travel, we are seeing brands utilising real-time data in order to target consumers in-market for their service at precisely the right time with a highly personalised offering in order to drive ROI.
What areas of the digital marketing industry in the Middle East region are more advanced than other areas globally?
In terms of mobile adoption, the Middle East region is only second to Asia-Pacific. According to eMarketer, as of mid-2015, almost 30 percent of the population in the region were using mobile devices to access the internet, equivalent to almost 110 million people. The number is set to increase to 172 million by 2020, by which time 42 percent of the population will have mobile internet access.
Growing mobile broadband and smartphone usage is driving an explosion in mobile data in the region. In fact, Middle East smartphone users are regarded as some of the most active and dedicated worldwide. The rise of mobile is changing booking patterns, consumer behaviour and business models in travel. This generation of millennials have a notably shorter attention span in an environment where they have access to an abundance of information, options and channels all in the palm of their hand. To compete, brands now need to develop customer-centric experiences that are highly personalised, engaging and delivered at exactly the right point in the path to purchase across all available channels.
What are some of the key challenges travel brands based in the Middle East are facing when it comes to targeting their customers and driving revenue?
The region’s affinity to traditional travel agencies and cash payments is certainly a challenge when it comes to creating a complete online digital marketing strategy for travel brands. That being said, some of the major Online Travel Agents (OTAs) have tailored successful models for the region. For example, Booking.com has an Arabic-language website, and also accepts offline payments on arrival at the hotel, in addition to credit card transactions. This suits travellers who want the value and choice of online booking, but still prefer to pay in person.
Another challenge which this region is not alone in facing is the need for personalisation. From hi-tech dream to everyday reality, the way we research and book travel is almost unrecognisable to five years ago. Today’s consumer has an abundance of channels and information sources now available to them across multiple devices making the path to purchase increasingly long and complex. In fact, these are the savviest consumers that markets have ever known. People understand the value exchange between the data they provide and the services they get in return. These trends along with the sharing economy and last-minute booking have all had a huge impact on the way consumers now book travel.
Read the November 2016 issue of Business Review Middle East magazine
Automation of repetitive tasks leads to higher value work
Two-thirds of global office workers feel they are constantly doing the same tasks over and over again. That’s according to a new study (2021 Office Worker Survey) from automation software company UiPath.
Whether emailing, inputting data, or scheduling calls and meetings, the majority of those surveyed said they waste on average four and a half hours a week on time-consuming tasks that they think could be automated.
Not only is the undertaking of such repetitious and mundane tasks a waste of time for employees, and therefore for businesses, but it can also have a negative impact on employees’ motivation and productivity. And the research backs this up with more than half (58%) of those surveyed saying that undertaking such repetitive tasks doesn’t allow them to be as creative as they’d like to be.
“When repetitive, unrewarding tasks are handled by people, it takes time and this can cause delays and reduce both employee and customer satisfaction,” Gavin Mee, Managing Director of UiPath Northern Europe tells Business Chief. “Repetitive tasks can also be tedious, which often leads to stress and an increased likelihood to leave a job.”
And these tasks exist at all levels within an organisation, right up to executive level, where there are “small daily tasks that can be automated, such as scheduling, logging onto systems and creating reports”, adds Mee.
Automation can free employees to focus on higher value work
By automating some or all of these repetitive tasks, employees at whatever level of the organisation are freed up to focus on meaningful work that is creative, collaborative and strategic, something that will not only help them feel more engaged, but also benefit the organisation.
“Automation can free people to do more engaging, rewarding and higher value work,” says Mee, highlighting that 68% of global workers believe automation will make them more productive and 60% of executives agree that automation will enable people to focus on more strategic work. “Importantly, 57% of executives also say that automation increases employee engagement, all important factors to achieving business objectives.”
These aren’t the only benefits, however. One of the problems with employees doing some of these repetitive tasks manually is that “people are fallible and make mistakes”, says Mee, whereas automation boosts accuracy and reduces manual errors by 57%, according to Forrester Research. Compliance is also improved, according to 92% of global organisations.
Repetitive tasks that can be automated
Any repetitive process can be automated, Mee explains, from paying invoices to dealing with enquiries, or authorising documents and managing insurance claims. “The process will vary from business to business, but office workers have identified and created software robots to assist with thousands of common tasks they want automated.”
These include inputting data or creating data sets, a time-consuming task that 59% of those surveyed globally said was the task they would most like to automate, with scheduling of calls and meetings (57%) and sending template or reminder emails (60%) also top of the automation list. Far fewer believed, however, that tasks such as liaising with their team or customers could be automated, illustrating the higher value of such tasks.
“By employing software robots to undertake such tasks, they can be handled much more quickly,” adds Mee pointing to OTP Bank Romania, which during the pandemic used an automation to process requests to postpone bank loan instalments. “This reduced the processing time of a single request from 10 minutes to 20 seconds, allowing the bank to cope with a 125% increase in the number of calls received by call centre agents.”
Mee says: “Automation accelerates digital transformation, according to 63% of global executives. It also drives major cost savings and improves business metrics, and because software robots can ramp-up quickly to meet spikes in demand, it improves resilience.
Five business areas that can be automated
Mee outlines five business areas where automation can really make a difference.
- Contact centres Whether a customer seeks help online, in-store or with an agent, the entire customer service journey can be automated – from initial interaction to reaching a satisfying outcome
- Finance and accounting Automation enables firms to manage tasks such as invoice processing, ensuring accuracy and preventing mistakes
- Human resources Automations can be used across the HR team to manage things like payroll, assessing job candidates, and on-boarding
- IT IT teams are often swamped in daily activity like on-boarding or off-boarding employees. Deploying virtual machines, provisioning, configuring, and maintaining infrastructure. These tasks are ideal for automation
- Legal There are many important administrative tasks undertaken by legal teams that can be automated. Often, legal professionals are creating their own robots to help them manage this work. In legal and compliance processes, that means attorneys and paralegals can respond more quickly to increasing demands from clients and internal stakeholders. Robots don’t store data, and the data they use is encrypted in transit and at rest, which improves risk profiling and compliance.
“To embark on an automation journey, organisations need to create a Centre of Excellence in which technical expertise is fostered,” explains Mee. “This group of experts can begin automating processes quickly to show return on investment and gain buy-in. This effort leads to greater interest from within the organisation, which often kick-starts a strategic focus on embedding automation.”