From holidays in the southern Balkans to AI-powered bookings, Tim Hentschel, CEO of HotelPlanner, speaks to Globetrender about the future of travel in 2023 and beyond.

What is HotelPlanner?

“Founded in 2003, HotelPlanner is one of the world’s top providers of individual, group and corporate travel bookings, specialising in unique ‘Closed User Group’ discount rates offered in unpublished private sale environments. The platform combines artificial intelligence capabilities, a 24/7 global gig economy-based reservations and customer service network, to serve all traveller hotel needs from a single platform.”

Who are your target markets?

“We’re a London-based company providing a direct booking service for a variety of travel purposes, from individuals and families looking to experience the holiday of a lifetime to sports teams, corporates and wedding parties looking to remove the hassle of booking multiple rooms for large groups. We serve a large customer base across several markets such as Europe, Asia and the US. HotelPlanner is a reliable, seamless and innovative platform to source the best possible rates and value across more than one million hotel properties and alternative accommodations globally.

“We also have long term partnerships with the world’s largest online travel agencies, well-known hotel chains, individual hotels, online wedding providers, ancillary lodging providers, corporations, sports franchises, universities, tourism boards and government agencies. There are more than 4,000 HotelPlanner affiliates actively using HotelPlanner’s patent-pending AI-enabled technology, and more than 100,000 hotels and meeting venues worldwide actively loading in room inventory within the HotelPlanner network on a daily basis.”

In what ways is it innovative?

“Our proprietary AI-based tech platform is one of the most customised and personalised ways to book hotels, giving us a substantial market cut-through and unique selling point. We believe in providing a personalised service for customers, as well as a flexible and convenient hybrid working model for our employees and remote agents using technology.

In 2020 HotelPlanner launched a first-of-its-kind gig-economy call centre, which now has more than 8,000 gig agents onboarded remotely, with a high-tech and high-touch concept in mind. This included an AI and voice over IP-enabled platform.

“We have also launched various AI inspired partnerships and adaptations such as an Alexa-enabled hotel booking feature that immediately connects customers to a global gig-based ‘Hotel Planner’ agent to book a discounted hotel stay – anywhere in the world – at any time.”

What booking patterns have you been observing for 2023?

“Some of the most popular searched destinations for 2023 include London, Cancun, Tokyo, Paris, Dubai, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Munich, Rome, Madrid, Manila and Mexico City.”

Which destinations do you think will be most popular in 2023?

“Asia-Pacific destinations will be quite popular in 2023 as China comes out of lockdown and the entire region welcomes more inbound Chinese travellers and others. Popular destinations include the Maldives, Bali, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Fiji, Tokyo, Australia and New Zealand.

“Destinations in the southern Balkans [Albania, Croatia, Montenegro] offer a refreshing and affordable option for those looking to get the best value for their travel whilst also experiencing a culture different to the traditional offerings of beach resorts in Western Europe. The favourable living costs in the southern Balkan region and the fact that many destination are accessible via affordable public transport is enough to suggest that guests can get more value for their stay.”

What does the reopening of China mean for international travel in 2023?

“We’re projecting that 2023 will be the ‘Year of the Asia-Pacific Comeback’ as China comes out of lockdown and allows unfettered inbound, outbound and domestic travel. HotelPlanner forecasts an approximate 8% average increase in hotel occupancy globally, largely due to China relaxing travel restrictions coupled with the ongoing return of group and corporate travel.

“We are confident that China is going to be the major catalyst this year in driving the Asia-Pacific recovery, but we must caution that it will likely take the entire year before the region is back to a pre-pandemic steady state, and future outbreaks could certainly delay a full recovery.”

What travel trends do you think will be most interesting in 2023?

“In the UK specifically we’re seeing pubs open up their upstairs rooms as a more affordable and convenient lodging option, broadening the accommodation choice for consumers. A comfortable yet affordable room right above a charming pub with great food and drink could be the perfect option for cost-conscious travellers compared to a more expensive hotel in the city centre.

“Another key trend is the use of travel as a wellness boosting technique, one of the biggest trends to emerge from the pandemic. This is not just during a January detox or ‘sober October’, but year-round. The options are endless and evolving – from fishing, hiking, skiing, open water swimming and camping trips – to spa, yoga or wellness retreats that incorporate CBD or vitamin treatments, massage, music, art and UV light therapy, digital and alcohol detox, spiritual retreats, and even psychedelic plant medicine such as ayahuasca.”

What are you observing in terms of consumers’ sensitivity to price in 2023?

“Naturally the onus is on value-for-money as consumers come to terms with the rising cost of living, but we are buoyed by the knowledge that travelling abroad next year remains a spending priority for the British public. Recent reports have pointed towards Brits looking to reduce other non-essential activities such as eating out and clothing shopping, before rethinking holiday budgets.

“Consumers are looking for more package holidays and value add-ons, such as all-inclusive access, free ‘upgrades’ or cost-cutting services such as shuttle transport. This is increasingly at the heart of booking behaviour, and as a result, more hotels are offering free half board dining deals and ‘children eat/stay free’ offers for example.”

How far ahead are users typically booking?

“Among the approximate 30,000 bookings made each month on HotelPlanner, as of early January 2023, only 14 of our customers have booked trips for 2024. No one has booked for 2025 yet so it’s a small number who are booking a year in advance. That said, we are seeing customers book more in advance this year compared to last year since travellers now have more confidence that countries are far less likely to suddenly go into lockdown or mandate quarantines.”

What are your goals and expectations for the year ahead as a company?

“We have aspirations to employ the latest artificial intelligence tech such as Chat GPT to enable customers to search and book hotels entirely through AI. That would be an industry game changer.”