The upcoming Soccer World Cup will unleash hundreds of thousands of tourists on South Africa, many of whom have become used to convenient electronic self-service channels as a standard part of their travel experiences. It will be a serious test for the maturity of Self-Service in the country's tourism industry.
That's according to Kevin Meltzer, business development director at Consology, who says that the international tourism and transport industries have been pioneers in the adoption of various forms of Self-Service, from ticketing kiosks through to Self-Service websites. The local travel industry, in particular airlines, has had to keep up.
"Rising costs and falling profit margins, especially in the airline industry, have forced companies over the years to look for ways to save money without compromising on customer service," says Meltzer. "Self-Service has enabled them to do so by cutting massive amounts of paper and human interaction from the travel business."
Self-service in the travel industry took off in 2001, after airlines around the world were pummelled by 9/11 and an economic downturn. It has gathered momentum over the years, and many travellers can no longer imagine life without self-service flight check-ins. Airlines couldn’t survive without the cost savings self-service brings.
But self-service now impacts the entire travel industry. Today, technology has touched every aspect of the travel experience, starting from using the Web to research and then book flights, accommodation and car rental ahead of a trip. And travellers can check-in for a flight online or using a kiosk rather than standing in a queue at the check-in counter.
"Consumers around the world have embraced self-service because it makes their lives so much easier," Meltzer says. "You can book online, pay online, check-in online or at a kiosk at the airport – all at your own convenience and without waiting in a queue."
South African airlines and airports have embraced self-service – however, other elements in the tourism industry have not yet automated as many of their processes as they possibly could. Meltzer points to the Citizen Mobile (also known as Citizen M) hotel chain in Europe as one example of a company that has taken Self-Service to its logical extreme. From checking in to checking out, guests at this low-cost hotel seldom need to interact with a human being.
"Citizen M illustrates how self-service supports the creation of entirely new business models, but in most hotels, assisted self-service will comfortably co-exist with self-service," says Meltzer. "Many hotels will simply adopt it as a means of freeing staff up to handle higher value customer interactions or as an alternative channel for guests who prefer to serve themselves."
South African hotels have lagged the international market in their adoption of self-service.
Southern Sun recently installed Africa's first hotel self check-in and check-out kiosks at its Garden Court hotel near Sandton City. The kiosks allow guests to check-in and out, pay bills and perform certain in-house functions through a touch-screen application.
Says Meltzer: "Self-service is a way to save money, but it's also a way to empower customers. It gives them the ability to carry out transactions in their own time, at a pace that suits them and without standing in long queues. Many World Cup travellers will expect this level of self-service when they land in South Africa.'
“Self-service in the travel industry has much to teach other sectors as they migrate to self-service models,” concludes Meltzer. “It demonstrates the importance of consistent service across multiple channels and how customers can be incentivised to use electronic channels. It also illustrates the importance of closing the loop from research and purchase of a service to paying for it and beyond."