As one of the early movers in rail e-commerce, Voyages-sncf.com now faces more competition than ever. Here the firm’s chief operating officer shares some moves and insights from the past year
Voyages-sncf.com, the e-commerce arm of one of Europe’s largest rail operators, may be 17-years-old this May but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entrepreneurial. “The company was started to be entirely digital and to embody that ‘start-up’ ethos,” says Arnaud Masson, the company’s chief operating officer, who will be speaking at EyeforTravel’s European Summit next month.
Having said that, the landscape the company operates in today is a very different one to the one it started doing business in. For one, there is growing competition, not least from major players like Expedia recently climbing aboard to stake its claim in a $300-bn global market and one where just 20% of tickets are booked online. Expedia has also linked up with another new kid on the block, SilverRail, a tech firm that connects rail company inventories to the OTAs.
We welcome competition; it is inevitable
But Masson is not afraid. “We welcome competition; it is inevitable. Competition breeds development and encourages companies to keep introducing new features and products to make them stand out from others in their field,” he says.
From digital beginnings at the start of the millennium, Masson says the company has continued to innovate, develop and create a connected travel experience. However, with an ever-demanding consumer expecting instant updates, service and purchasing options using their fingertips or voice, there is no time for Voyages-sncf.com to rest on its laurels.
Here are some of the ways that Voyages-sncf.com is innovating in a market where there is much to play for.
Pushing digital frontiers
Recognising the shift to digital, the firm is focused on pushing the technological frontier under the umbrella name of Smart Tourism, which officially launched in 2016. In the past year, the company has spent over €10m in R&D and dedicated 160,000 working days to 80 different projects.
Among these is its work with chatbots. As one of the first European companies to embrace Facebook Messenger, Voyages-sncf.com’s so-called V.Bot provides real-time updates, customer service and even digital travel tickets, and has already issued 85,000 order confirmations.
But the work in the field of AI and VR continues, and engineering teams are currently looking into possible use cases for Amazon Echo and ‘Alexa’ to communicate with Voyages-sncf.com’s own digital travel companion – Lea.
“Over the next 12 months, we’ll be looking at rolling out our innovations to wider markets and continuing to pursue our advancements in VR and AI to a market-ready stage,” says Masson.
Another digital innovation is the firms My Travel app, a digital companion allowing customers to manage their entire journey in one place. The app hosts all relevant travel information, while reacting in real-time to factors such as location and any changes to the journey along the way. As an example, if you are running late, the app might suggest you book a car. Or alternatively, offer activities on arrival, based on the traveller’s individual profile.
As an online ticket distributor selling passes and point-to-point tickets for rail travel around Europe, Voyages-sncf.com has to take a collaborative approach and today works in partnership with 15 European rail operators and many more travel organisations across around 100 countries globally.
From experience those businesses that realise that working in partnership…achieve far more by working together
“From experience those businesses that realise that working in partnership with other businesses, and organisations, including even governments, achieve far more by working together than attempting to go it alone,” he says.
Start up and small business significance
Voyages-sncf.com may be a big player in today’s European landscape but it understands the value of collaboration with new start-ups and small local businesses, as well as the tourist destinations themselves. According to Masson, this helps to improve CRM and customer service. Some examples of this include working with:
Alcmeon to monitor our social media customer service,
Helpbox from Do You Dream Up to automatically respond to customer queries
Usabilla to collect customer feedback on our website and areas that we specifically want to analyse.
In 2016, a busy year by all accounts, the firm also launched ACT574 – an accelerator programme designed to boost new start-ups by sharing Voyages-sncf.com’s experience and expertise in specialised sectors – technical development, marketing, user experience etc. Metigate, an innovative company specialising in business climate intelligence to help companies perform regardless of the weather, was the first in the programme. This year, Rendezvouscheznous, will be participating to develop their booking service for authentic and unique activities to allow visitors to really discover the regions of France.
Unsurprisingly Voyages-sncf.com believes rail travel trumps all. But it also sees potential partnership opportunities with other forms of transport to reach additional audiences with different travel priorities, and to further develop the customer offering. In the past year, it launched sales of international bus services through Voyages-sncf.com’s OuiBus to allow customers to travel onto further destinations in one booking.
Big data technologies
From the 90TB of data generated each month, Voyage-sncf.com is using big data technologies to better to understand how people travel. Used well, this allows the firm to anticipate their needs, attitudes and patterns. Segmenting audiences is part of it this of the solution, and through it’s V.Pro business platform, for example, it knows that passengers will want to get from A to B as quickly as possible. They may even be willing to pay a higher fare for that direct journey. Student travellers, on the other hand, who are possibly on a tighter budget and less worried about time, may want to take the scenic route.
“Using our ‘smart tourism’ philosophy we can ensure we offer the right products to the right customers at the right time,” Masson says.
Data, is as we all know, a sensitive issue and on this score it adhere to three clear rules:
Never share or sell data to 3rd parties
Use data shared by clients to help improve the user experience, never to develop new or alternative activities or business
Always comply 100% with data protection rules.
Arnaud Masson will be speaking at the European Summit (May 3-4). Watch out for our exclusive interview next week with another speaker - Brenda van Leeuwen, who is chief executive of Eurail
May 2017, London