We’ve been here before. A major announcement from Apple, foretelling the arrival of a “category-defining product”. In September last year, Apple chief executive Tim Cook announced: “Once again Apple is poised to captivate the world with a revolutionary product that can enrich people’s lives. It’s the most personal product we’ve ever made.”
After the Apple Watch (pictured) went on sale just a few months ago, a host of travel brands unveiled new smartwatch apps: Qantas, Singapore Airlines, KLM, Expedia, Concur, Easyjet, Thetrainline.com, Starwood, American Airlines, Marriott, Uber... The list goes on.
Will these apps have a “revolutionary” impact on the way we travel? Eddie Bent, managing director at E-Strategy, believes so. “There’s an increased buzz for wearable technology,” he says. “Various brands have built apps specifically for the Apple Watch, all to increase the ease of travel for consumers.”
For Charlotte Lamp Davies, vice-president of travel and hospitality for Europe at developers Data Art, the Apple Watch launch is not as significant as that of the iPhone – but it will ramp up people’s acceptance of wearables. “Within the areas of sports and activities, we are already seeing a huge take-up in wearables,” she says. “Travel is following closely.”
And Click Travel managing director Simon McLean believes the smartwatch is the first wearable device that has some chance of succeeding. “Watches are subtle and have a ‘cool’ factor, he says. “I can also see a multitude of uses for them. For example, a hotel booking reference and details pop up as you walk into the hotel; or your train ticket collection reference pops up when you arrive at the station. The convenience of having this type of information on your wrist wins over fumbling around in your bag or jacket for your smartphone. It’s exciting now Apple has arrived in this space, because, just like the tablet market before, the wearables market needed someone as innovative as Apple to get in on the game.”
E-Strategy’s Bent says: “Many companies have created apps to increase the ease of travelling, particularly when it’s for business. The American Airlines app will inform you when it’s time to leave for the airport, get flight information and check-in, all through the watch.”
Rob Golledge is head of marketing communication at Amadeus UK and Ireland. He argues that ‘frictionless’ travel will arrive through a more bespoke approach. “For example, if there was an airport app that could tell me the best machine to use for bag drop, or the current waiting time for security, that will drive uptake,” he says.
Data Art’s Lamp Davies also believes this type of ‘machine-to-machine’ technology – so-called because a smartwatch is mainly dependent on an accompanying smartphone – gives travel companies the chance to differentiate themselves from the competition. Starwood is one such company, and associated itself with Apple Watch at its launch. Its SPG Keyless tool allows the watch to act as a key to a hotel room, for example.
Smartwatches are also prompting calls for more investment to be made in the use of beacons (tiny transmitters that use Bluetooth low energy proximity-sensing to send a signal that can be picked up by a compatible app and operating system). “The infrastructure and availability [of beacons], and the creativity of developers designing for the Apple Watch and similar devices, will be needed to help convince the majority of business travellers that this is an essential piece of kit,” says Amadeus’s Golledge.
(Geo) Location is everything
Samsung vice-president Graham Long predicts a duty-of-care benefit: “The safety and security of travelling employees can be enhanced by wearables: using geolocation and independent communication – without the need for a paired smartphone – to enable calling for assistance, even hands-free, can help travel managers look after their workforce on the road.” The Samsung Gear S can be operated – including texts, emails and phone calls – without a separate handset.
This security factor looks likely to extend into expense management, too. “Payments and wearables – are we mixing oil and water?” asks Steve Waldron, CFO and CIO at Grange Hotels. “But, and it sounds perverse, there is actually an extra layer of security there: linked to a mobile app, it could improve security, with the watch used to verify the payment.”
Paul Richer, senior partner at consultancy Genesys, agrees, although he says smartwatches would need to include a PIN or biometric fingerprint – the same way a fingerprint-reader operates on a smartphone – when making a payment.
However, while Apple Pay works in the US (220,000 outlets and counting, since its launch in October last year), it has not yet arrived in the UK. Reports suggest the move is imminent, though.
It’s early days. Qantas’s Apple Watch app, for example, has so far seen just 1,000 downloads. “We’re always looking at how new technology can improve the customer’s airport experience,” a spokesperson told BBT.
It appears travel brands are now willing to invest, and experiment, more in wearable technology – particularly since Apple joined the party. And as the current generation of employees expects mobile technology in the workplace, so the next generation will expect wearables to be the norm.
Whether this is the year Apple opens the doors to another revolution in travel, or, well, just helps travellers open doors in hotels, remains to be seen. Watch this space.
Click here to read BBT's top 4 wearable tech trends