When it comes to the opportunity for customer engagement, the travel industry already has a head-start – because who doesn’t get excited at the prospect of going on holiday?

But while travel consumers might naturally be more inclined to engage, this also means there is greater opportunity for brands to get it wrong. Delays and disruptions might mar a travel experience, but how a brand deals with it can make or break a customer relationship.

I recently attended an event held by the DMA, where the topic of the day was how to increase levels of engagement and loyalty in the travel industry. Drawing on DMA’s research, here’s a summary of some key points to consider.

The gap between expectation and delivery

The DMA’s new report is based on a survey of over 2,000 UK consumers, with questions relating to the categories of travel accommodation, airlines, and price comparison sites.

The first major finding cited by the event’s chairman, Scott Logie, was that consumers are more demanding. This is hardly surprising (and certainly not specific to travel), but he went on to suggest that there is still a huge gap between customer expectation and delivery.

Essentially, travel brands are meeting customer demands to an extent, but with expectations of service and value rising so rapidly – it is difficult to keep up. Scott used the ‘razor blade’ metaphor to explain this, highlighting how consumers don’t necessarily need or expect multiple blades on a razor, but once one brand adds another, the only option for competitors is to beat it.

That being said, the DMA found that functional features are the most important to consumers when choosing travel brands – 59% want value for money, 58% want convenience, and 58% want good customer service.

Ultimately, this shows that operating honestly is a default expectation for consumers, not something they view as a selling point.

Brands offering greater value 

So, which travel brands are delivering value? Here are a few examples of customer-centric brands and how they’re engaging consumers.

US hotel chain Aloft has launched the world’s first emoji-powered room service. Called TiGi (which stands for ‘text it, get it’), it allows guests to choose between six packages, including ones specifically designed for a hangover or a day of sightseeing. Taking service to another level, it’s a good example of a brand meeting customer needs in a seamless and personalised way.

SeatFrog aims to increase visibility around the upgrade process, allowing customers to bid in an auction for a seat upgrade.

As well as using technology to enhance the travel experience, it also takes away the sometimes random nature of the airline experience. 

Another brand to use transparency is Delta, which was the first airline to visibly map out luggage journeys. The Fly Delta mobile app now allows travellers to see their bag’s last scanned location, helping to dispel a common source of travel stress – the dreaded lost luggage.

These examples show how brands can make the shift from meeting purely functional needs to creating long-lasting and deeper relationships with consumers. 

Of course, there is still a long way to go, with one of the biggest barriers to achieving this being trust. Scott suggested that highly transactional, tech-driven services can take away much-need warmth from travel brands. The DMA's research mirrors this, with around 50% of consumers saying they have some level of trust in brands. However, this falls to just 12% of people who say they trust a brand ‘very much’.

Brands driving loyalty

53% of consumers said that good service would keep them loyal to a hotel brand, even if they could get a cheaper deal elsewhere. Meanwhile, 40% said good deals and 39% said a rewards scheme would result in greater loyalty.

This shows that long-term loyalty is possible for travel brands, but the key to achieving it is delivering a service that takes into account the individual’s needs. So while personalisation is somewhat of a buzzword at the moment, it’s certainly something that consumers value.

This is reflected in the reasons certain brands are favoured by consumers. The second-most favourite, Booking.com, was chosen because of its ability to personalise and tailor offers based on previous behaviour. Similarly, the biggest factor cited for British Airways was its superior rewards scheme.

Outside of these, there are a few standout examples of brands succeeding when it comes to loyalty.

Hilton and its Hilton Honours Program is particularly good, mainly because it allows consumers to make use of points in situations unrelated to the brand. Members can use them in restaurants and in shops, and even pool points to share with family and friends.

Marriott is another hotel chain that is similarly innovative, this time using a beacon-driven loyalty scheme to allow people to earn rewards based on where they are. 

New channels and technologies

Another way for travel brands to increase customer engagement is by meeting real-time demands based on various points in the customer’s journey.

When it comes to the inspiration stage, where travellers are researching where to go and what to see, virtual reality offers huge potential. The DMA found that 50% of consumers are interested in using a VR headset to see what a destination might look like in advance. Unsurprisingly, interest in VR is even higher among younger consumers. 

Moving on to the booking process, and this is where chatbots can help make the experience much more seamless. 52% of consumers say they’d use a chatbot to ask flight-related queries, while 38% say they’d be open to booking flights via a chatbot. This shows the demand for services that can be accessed in a native social environment, where consumers are already spending much of their time.

The travel-phase is where data-sharing comes into play once again. However, this is an area which still poses a big barrier for brands. While 51% of consumers say they’d be happy to share their data in exchange for alerts, this is only once they realise what they'll get in return.

In his summary of the research, Scott emphasised the importance of showing consumers the value of data-sharing. This is because while the appetite for personalisation is certainly there, concerns about privacy and misuse of data can often outweigh desire.  

Finally, augmented reality presents a big opportunity for brands during the holiday phase. 45% of consumers say they’d be interested in using AR to find out informative facts about sites of interest.

Carnival Cruises is already using this type of in-the-moment personalisation. Its cruise wristbands send tailored offers and recommendations to guests both on-board and off, based on where they are and what they’re interacting with during their trip.

Key takeaways

So, let’s sum up some key takeaways.

  1. Consumers prioritise pragmatic needs, such as honesty, authenticity, value, and good service. Brands that do not meet these expectations (or view them as standard) run the risk of losing trust.
  2. Customer-centric brands create deeper relationships. Offering something of value (on top of the expected) can be the key to generating longer-term loyalty. 
  3. Transparency is key when it comes to data-sharing. Personalisation can help to improve the customer experience, so it is important to communicate this value-exchange clearly with consumers.
  4. In-the-moment technology can take brands to the next level. VR, AR, and chatbots can enhance and improve the travel journey, engaging consumers when it matters most.   

Related reading:

Nikki Gilliland

Published 13 September, 2017 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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