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Day 1 of EyeforTravel’s recently rebranded flagship US show proved that the customer experience is very much centre stage

If there was one thing to takeaway from Day 1 of EyeforTravel’s recently rebranded flagship US show it was that customer experience is more important than product.

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According to Mandeep Grewal, Managing Director, United Airlines, having the best product today is simply not enough; you also need to have the best service. At United this is put into practice internally by ensuring close collaboration between the commercial and customer experience teams; data is collected across all platforms - from social media to text messages – and used to deliver better services. Return on investment is, of course, important but the customer, said Grewal, must always be top of mind.

Sounding a similar note was Dan Christian, Chief Digital Officer, The Travel Corporation, who said a core message of the morning session was to listen carefully to your customers and leverage what they tell you. The big opportunity in digital was do this at scale, and in doing so drive more interest and consumer demand in the experiences on offer.  

…listen carefully to your customers and leverage what they tell you

Having the right data and analytics technology is considered a top priority for 61% who voted in a live online poll. However, on this score travel brands have a long way to go! Moderator Susan Black, an expert in the business of online travel, had a paltry show of three or four hands when she asked how many brands present are actually using data to deliver a great experience.

A data insight came from Christian who said his firm had benefited from having central analytics/reporting function which oversees all business units to provide insight and optimisation across websites, digital marketing and social media. This helped with better engagement and conversions.  As part of this it was important to be mobile first and optimise across devices. As Bill Keen, VP Mobile Solutions & Digital Guest Experience at IHG put it later in the morning: “Mobile is about building brand awareness.”

However, a word of advice came from Egencia SVP America’s Mark Hollyhead: “Don’t optimise mobile first. Optimise for experience first.” Hollyhead also stressed the importance of testing and learning. “When you are developing in a game of inches, clicks don’t lie,” he said.

Promise, partnerships and personalisation

Few would dispute the competitive and price driven nature of the travel business, which is also sensitive to events such as terrorist attacks. So much of the morning focused on how to differentiate and drive loyalty.

Interestingly, 67% of pollsters said loyalty was the biggest driver of the their distribution strategy. However, for 38% the biggest threat their inability to keep up with innovation! (More poll results here).

67% of pollsters said loyalty was the biggest driver of the their distribution strategy

Luckily for the delegates, strategic insight was the order of the day. Christian at The Travel Corp urged firms to focus on the power of partnerships, and deliver on promise not price. Dynamic packaging, he said, was the way to go and clever integration of services utilising APIs would unlock customer value and, of course, ROI.

Later in the morning, Priceline’s Todd Henrich, SVP Corporate Development, Priceline also wanted to make the point that their business is about building partnerships and pointed to their BookingSuite service to back up this point.

No travel conference would be would be complete without a mention of personalisation and getting to know your customers and putting offers in front of them based on past search or previous bookings behaviour is a must. As Christian put it: deliver tour experiences to fit the customer’s needs and exceed their expectations. How to do this is easier said than done, but asking customers to select their preferences and manage the detail of their own profile is one way to do so.

Transformational experiences

Two important messages of the morning were to sell on difference, and invest in smarter advertising. Great slogans that point to the transformational power of travel are the secret sauce for three firms under the Travel Corp umbrella: Trafalgar USA’s ‘Simply the Best’, Contiki’s ‘Travel with no Regrets’ and Uniworld’s ‘You Deserve the Best’. Later in the day, a case study presented by Alaska Airlines and agency partner Hornall Anderson made a further point: that all great brands generate an authentic, emotional reaction at every point of the journey (see Alaska Airlines aims high with a big and bold brand revamp)

Today brand integrity is much tougher to manage and social media and user-generated content can be blessing and a curse. Careful management of the good, bad and the ugly comments and reviews across all platforms is a crucial differentiator in the digital world. Sharing tips in one of the afternoon tracks was Two Roads Hospitality, a hospitality management firm. Among the recommendations from Isaac Gerstenzang, the firm’s AVP Corporate e-Commerce, were that responses shouldn’t come from PR or marketing but from the GM or similar and be personal and sincere. It’s also a good idea too is to adhere to TripAdvisor’s management response guidelines.

…the only way that social advocacy works is if you have operational excellence on the ground that exceeds all expectations

In the group travel space, which is also underfunded and presents a huge opportunity, Christian said encouraging people to be active on social channels was helping to overcome negative perceptions. Trafalgar’s ‘social army’ and ambassadors were helping to deliver high numbers of returning and new customers. However, the only way that social advocacy works is if you have operational excellence on the ground that exceeds all expectations.

Later in the day Christine Espinoza, Associate Director, Global Social & Digital Content Strategy, Starwood Hotels & Resorts told the audience that social is “too important to outsource”.

Invest in people

Charity starts at home and giving your own teams the right training and tools is paramount. United Airline’s Grewal stressed that the delivery of a great customer experience had to come from the top down. “We’re working with the leadership team to improve morale and ensure customer experience is a company wide priority,” he said.

Aligning all departments so the focus is on shared goals is a good first step. Other recommendations included a cloud-based working environment and the use products like Yammer to give teams a voice, to keep them informed and updated and able to contribute to best practice and innovative ideas. Another suggestion that has worked for The Travel Corporation is to establish individual teams, or centres of excellence, that work across all departments.

Customers are driving M&A

On the subject of merger & acquisitions, another morning panel on Day 1 with a topnotch cast, the focus again was the customer.  Todd Henrich, SVP Corporate Development, Priceline, said their acquisition strategy was driven by meeting the customers needs. However, their strategy is to allow newcomers brought into the Priceline stable to compete with each other.

On the other hand, TripAdvisor, another travel heavyweight, takes a different approach; its acquisition strategy, said Ed Lang, Director - Corporate & Business Development, is to focus on integration.

In a fast-changing environment, it is clear that all firms are carefully considering which path to travel. Group travel and rail were revealed as two underinvested and misunderstood areas where there was plenty of opportunity.  One little speculative tidbit was that Priceline could be moving into rail with the acquisition of SilverRail Technologies.

M&A in China should also be watched closely, as not only do Chinese firms have competitive advantage at home, they also have big global expectations. (See China and the tourism boom)  

Other areas that still need work include how to bring online travel and offline crowd into closer cooperation. Could firms like Lola, launched by Kayak co-founder Paul English, with its app that act as a personal travel concierge, be the answer?

Oh, and then there is the rise of the vacation rental and the impact that this is having on hotels space. In the coming weeks, we will be taking a much closer look at what the hotel of the 21st century might look like.

But in the meantime, Day 2 in Las Vegas will soon be underway. Watch out for that round up on Monday October 10 and for further analysis and insight from the event in the coming weeks

TDS N. America 2016

October 2016, Las Vegas

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