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IRC 2014 INTERVIEW John Straw of Thomas Cook on how holiday shopping is changing

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Ahead of this year’s Internet Retailing Conference (IRC 2014), we’re running a series of interviews in which we hear from some of the industry leaders taking part in this year’s event. Today we talk to John Straw, chairman of the digital advisory board at Thomas Cook .

Internet Retailing: At IRC 2014, you’ll be speaking on innovation in an omnichannel travel business. What, in your opinion, is the most interesting innovation that the digital advisory board has helped to launch at Thomas Cook – and what results has it had?

John Straw, chairman of the digital advisory board at Thomas Cook: I think probably our first omnichannel innovation, Dreamcatcher, which launched in stores about a year ago. We have 700 branches with an amazing depth of staff knowledge. I’ll walk into a store with 120 years’ of experience. We wanted to take some of that knowledge and put it into people’s phones. Five or six years ago, mum would walk into store, have a conversation with an agent, make a booking and then tell their family where they were going. It was a completely autocratic decision.

Now we have a lot of evidence of the rise of the smart device in that process – there’s evidence from Dreamcatcher that everyone in the family is involved in the decision about where to go on holiday. Dreamcatcher allows us to take the conversation in the store and put it into people’s phones. The agent will talk through four or five options and send those to the home via email, where the family can look at it. We have very specific evidence that people are opening emails and coming back to the Thomas Cook website – it’s been very effective.

The job of the Digital Advisory Board in this is to look at the problems and opportunities flagged up by Harriet [Green, Thomas Cook chief executive] and to advise, brainstorm, and, specifically, innovate. The implementation comes back to product management within Thomas Cook.

Internet Retailing: How do you see Thomas Cook customers’ behaviour changing – and how do they respond to the new ways they can now buy a holiday?

John Straw: We see a change in the fact that multiple device are being used to make a decision on where to go. We can see that through analytics – people jump from desktop to smartphone to tablets. We can see an ever-increasing amount of bookings being made on a device away from the desktop.

The travel industry is one of the few industries in the world where you can’t try before you buy. You can test drive a car or look inside a book on Amazon, but we ask people to drop a fairly large amount of family money almost speculatively. We need to manage people’s expectations before they go on holiday, give them a view of what they have to experience.

The way it will happen is through Oculus, a virtual reality headset launching before Christmas, through which customers can see a virtual walking tour around a hotel, resort or an airliner. On a recent trip to New York we filmed a 360 degree helicopter tour of the city – when you put the headset on you can look around, up and down. We tested one Oculus headset in one store for 24 hours – in that time we saw at least one upgrade when a customer decided they didn’t like the economy seats and moved to premium seating instead. We’ll develop a library of tours that customers can see, and we aim to have a headset in every store eventually. Before Christmas it will be trialled in some stores.

It was quite a revelation in the way that customers shop and will book holidays moving forward. We’re going to take the leap of faith out of the equation. I’ll be showing a video of people using it at the conference.

Internet Retailing: Name one key thing you think we will do differently in the future (say, in five to 10 years time) when it comes to booking a holiday – and what must change for that to become a reality?

John Straw: To me it feels like Oculus, and the chance to experience a holiday before going on it. It fundamentally changes the way people consume products.

But I also see that iBeacon is going to change retail as well, in a way that’s very relevant to products. It’s going to be everywhere and everyone will find a use for it.

Internet Retailing: What are you most looking forward to at IRC 2014, beyond your own presentation?

John Straw: I’m looking forward to learning from other retailers what they see as being innovative. I expect to share Thomas Cook experiences and learn from others as well. We’ll cross-inspire.

John Straw is speaking in the Tide track (track one) at IRC 2014. His closing keynote, The Considered Journey, takes place at 16.30 on October 14 at the Novotel, Hammersmith, London.

John Straw’s book, iDisrupted, is out in November.

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