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Relevance is the one word that should be keeping the captains of the travel industry awake at night, says Brian Solis, the author of a new book. Pamela Whitby caught up with him in London earlier this month.

In the travel industry, the experience is everything, so in today’s connected world why do so many brands seem to be entirely missing the boat? For Brian Solis, an analyst at the Altimeter Group and author of WTF: What’s the Future of Business? the answer lies in a four-letter word: smug. “The travel industry, (and in fact the broader hospitality industry), is really a very smug business,” he says, arguing that many involved in it just don’t think enough about the user experience. In attempting to answer the question that the title of his book poses, Solis strongly believes the future of business lies in the user experience and the travel and hospitality industries should be thinking more clearly than ever about how to go about designing experiences that are so incredible that people will want to share them.

Solis cites a recent personal experience that delivered and the impact this had on his network. “In Paris I stayed in the James Bond suite at Seven Hotel, one of the Elegancia group of Hotels,” he says. “This was literally ‘instagrammable’ design experience and within an hour of posting a photograph on my social networks I had received 400 reactions.” The result: this suite, he believes, is now almost certainly on the to-do list of many of his friends.

The connected customer

According to Solis, the mistake of most online travel businesses today is that they are only marketing to one of the two types of customer. On the one hand there are traditional customers who are not entirely happy with the status quo but they live with it – they turn to Google, TripAdvisor (Web 1.0 in Sollis’s book) and then destination or hotel websites to help them with their decision-making. Then there are those who will bypass traditional websites, and use YouTube, slickly designed travel apps like TripTease and their own social networks to research.

That said, it is no longer as simple as defining a person as a millennial or from Generation X. “I’m 42 years old and part of Generation X but I live online, I have multiple presences on social networks, I go YouTube to search rather than Google. I can’t stand travel websites because they are mostly horrible, absolutely horrible, so I go to other sites to get the information I need. So I start to act like a millennial because I live a connected lifestyle,” he says.

This is what Solis refers to as Generation C, the connected generation, and he believes the travel and broader hospitality just hasn’t understood their needs. “My research around the connected customer shows that we go to a range of different places [not just to Google] to research and we look at different people to help us make our decision,” explains Solis. So, why is this a big deal? “Because most hotels, destinations, services, properties don’t even understand the Internet, let alone the future of connected society. They are becoming further and further away from being plugged in,” he says.

Brian Solis, an analyst at the Altimeter Group and author of WTF: What’s the future of business?  http://wtfbusiness.com/

Tall order?

One could argue here that is it Solis that is sounding smug but maybe he has a point.  Today he uses a mobile or tablet to plan is trip, but he argues that from an experiential standpoint many are still not designed with mobile in mind. Websites might talk about the hotel, have some pictures of the hotel and have a reservation calendar. But, argues Solis, he wants to know what his peers think, what his network think and whether they have any thoughts or images of the destination he is researching. “I have to go everywhere around the social web, to get what I need and it would be wonderful if the hotel or service just realised how I was thinking and presented me with the information that in a really simple, wonderful and collected manner.”

The connected customer, like Solis, wants to see far more than a few pictures and a reservation calendar. He wants to hear about why and when the hotel opened, a bit about the people. He wants pictures because “you can never have enough pictures” of the hotel, the room, the neighbourhood. He wants to hear about the rationale for pricing, why this business chose to serve that particular coffee at breakfast, he wants to know about local ingredients on the menu. All this will help him feel more connected to the destination and the place. And if that isn’t enough, he also wants a hotel to link to Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr, Twitter and so on to see what his peers are doing…and he also wants that site to look fantastic on iPad, on mobile and on the desktop.

Solis believes travel businesses need to go much further in understanding their customer because you can only design incredible experiences if you have this information. But how do you do this? With online surveys, big data, analytics, with social and so on? “Yes, all of the above, but the truth is that the only way you can really get to know your customer is by thinking you have something to learn – to at least show you care,” he says. “Even Philippe [Philippe Vaurs of Elegancia hotels]who I believe has a vision for truly beautiful hotels recognises that he still has something to learn – he is first person to say he could improve on his online presence.”

Technology second 

For Solis, however, it should never be a technology first approach. He often hears brands asking: what is our Facebook or Twitter strategy, as if this is the means to an end or the solution to a problem. Instead, brands should be asking: what sort of experience are we trying to deliver, what is our vision, what is our promise - and then how do tools like Twitter, Pinterest bring that to life? “These networks should help you but they bring to life a bigger vision or purpose that should be considered first,” he says.

Of course it is not just about the online experience, it is about relationship building in the real world too. “Sending me a survey after I have stayed at your hotel, is not relationship building,” he says. “But what about a lovely handwritten note, followed up by an email or phone call?”

Ultimately it is about creating relevant experiences for each customer. And if there is one thing that should be keeping the industry awake at night, for Solis, it is the word ‘relevance’. 

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