No missed connections: How travel companies are joining forces to improve customer experience

8 min read
Artwork by Mantraste

I love traveling more than anything in the world.

I realize this isn’t a very unusual statement, but I couldn’t possibly start this blogpost any other way. Any friends or colleagues of mine who are reading this will probably nod in agreement. Whether it’s staying with a local family in West Papua or trying to ski away unscathed from a winter resort, there’s always something fascinating about every trip you take. Even business trips can be fun — really! So, naturally, when my manager asked me which industry I’d like to focus on, I instantly replied, “Travel and Tourism.”

One of the world’s largest and fastest growing industries, valued at over 7 trillion US dollars, Travel and Tourism is becoming increasingly digital. When was the last time you booked something through your local travel agency? Suddenly airlines, online travel agencies (OTAs), airports, and hotels are dealing with the explosion of user-generated information.

In addition, travelers’ expectations are always increasing and evolving. This has forced the industry to become more customer centric. Companies are spending small fortunes on state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, data mining technology, and projects to digitize the customer journey.

A few weeks ago, we went to CX Travel in London to catch up with some clients; to gain new insights into the industry; and to understand current challenges as well as how companies are collaborating to improve their travelers’ experiences.

So how can companies join forces to deliver a better experience?

Getting by with a little help from AI

To create a seamless customer journey, travel companies need to know their customers better. A great way to do so is by looking at data to understand how travelers behave and what they value the most.

The data is out there: 72% of travelers are willing to share location or personal data with travel providers. This is building the AI that helps airlines, airports, hotels and all other travel companies better understand customers’ behavior and preferences.

This technology helps to quickly identify patterns and trends, answering myriad questions — How long before their flight do travelers arrive? How do they get to/from the airport? When do they pay for premium lounge access? Brands can use this information to optimize the traveler journey and deliver highly personalized, seamless travel experiences.

Connecting the dots

Do not reinvent the wheel. Partner with experts who have a competitive edge — a team effort across industry is necessary.

Aireen Omar, Chief Executive Officer, AirAsia, Malaysia

While all travel companies gather a lot of data on their customers, it’s usually limited to a portion of the traveler’s journey. Take airlines and airports, for instance. Airlines know exactly who their customers are, where they come from, when and where they like to travel, etc., but that’s about it. Airports, on the other hand, have millions of people passing through their facilities and yet don’t know who they are. Working alone, neither can connect the dots.

It’s only by forging new collaborations and expanding existing ones that the travel industry can use data to understand customer preferences and tailor their services to travelers’ needs.

There are also opportunities for established brands to partner with technology providers, startups, and innovation labs. For instance, in 2017, Ethiopian Air joined forces with Sabre to design a system for their digitally-savvy customer base that provides personalized messaging, mobile booking, payments, as well as a “concierge” service that offers airline employees all the information they need to address passenger issues.

So companies are blurring the boundaries in the travel ecosystem, partnering up to know travelers better and find ways to make our traveling experience more pleasant. They are looking at the entire traveler journey, from pre-boarding, to inflight and post-landing, in order to identify what their most significant pain points are and how they can be improved.

Imagine if easyJet knew that most people take an Uber from the Lisbon airport and would partner up with them to arrange rides and offer discounts for their travelers? Wouldn’t you be more eager to travel with easyJet? I know I would!

Mastering the art of customer feedback

Customer centricity is the latest industry buzzword — and for good reason, too.

Blogs, keynotes, consulting practices, technology platforms and toolkits on customer-centricity are sprouting by the minute — because it matters. Most travel companies are aware they need to improve their customers’ experience and in order to do that they need to find out what their passengers or guests value more.

They need to master the task of asking for customers’ feedback and interpreting the results. But it’s not as easy as it seems. Companies tend to force customers into their processes instead of adapting to theirs, which usually translates into very long, boring surveys that only become another pain point.

Take the British hotel chain Premier Inn. After analyzing a well-designed survey, they realized that what their guests valued most was a comfortable room, quiet facilities, and helpful employees. They learned that business travelers — their bread and butter — stay at Premier Inn hotels for short periods of time, usually for a business meeting, trip or event. The survey also showed that they were investing in things that didn’t matter to their guests, namely the decor in reception and the check-in counter. Most of their guests wanted to go to their rooms as quickly as humanly possible, and so they had to focus on making the check-in process as fast and simple as possible.

Talk the talk

With a great number of online travel agencies selling near-identical products at similar price points, a good customer experience and personalized service are what truly differentiate brands and make the difference to customers. Speaking your customers’ native language is a crucial element in this equation.

Common Sense Advisory certainly backs it up. According to their Can’t Read, Won’t Buy report, 84% of your potential customers are more inclined to purchase products online when related information is presented in their own language. And try this on for size: of the 3000 people surveyed, 30% never buy at English language sites and another 30% rarely do.

Not only does it unlock a global audience, but it also boosts conversions. As travel is a product that can’t possibly be sampled or demoed before it happens, turbulent experiences send them running towards the competition. Speaking the traveler’s language helps them trust you and smooths over any issues before they become more serious.

But if you’re in it for the long haul, and you should be, perhaps the best thing about localization is that it allows you to keep the conversation going between trips, which are usually far apart, whether it’s through social media, newsletters, or just plain old how-do-you-dos.

Aligning staff with your brand’s mission

At CX Travel, the discussion about how to identify the value drivers for customers was followed by another discussion about how to act on them. It’s not enough to know what guests value the most, you need to then transmit the message to the staff, ensuring they’re aligned with the company.

When Premier Inn surveyed their staff to evaluate how aligned they were with the brand’s strategy, they were pleasantly surprised. Over 95% of the staff gave the same answer: “guaranteeing a good night’s sleep to guests.” However, more often than not, that’s not the case; inflight crews and hotel staff end up delivering very inconsistent customer experiences. This tends to happen due to a lack of communication between corporate level and staff, making them feel disconnected to the brand’s mission.

This should never happen. Management may be calling the shots, but the face of the company is the staff. They’re the ones responsible for delivering a consistently outstanding experience to customers, so they should always be involved and empowered to do a good job.

Finnair is doing this really well. The VP of Inflight experience, Eveliina Huure, is on a mission to improve passengers’ experiences through their staff. She manages a team of 2400 inflight staff members and is working to get closer to them and involve them in the company’s vision. The airline is trying to cut down on formalities and get closer to their staff by sending them an informal, monthly video with company updates, results achieved, targets and business focus.

Best Western has a different approach. The whole concept of their hotel chain, in fact, is based on diversity — anybody with a hotel can join Best Western for marketing support, which means all hotels have their own personality, one of their biggest value drivers. So they involve the staff in the hotel’s unique history, and encourage them to share it with their guests.

All clear for takeoff

As the bar continues to rise for travelers’ experience, customer centricity is no longer merely “nice to have.” It’s the companies who make an effort to consistently deliver on those expectations and offer meaningful experiences that will be leading the way.

I believe I speak for all the avid travelers out there when I say that those companies are the ones we’ll remain loyal to.

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