‘Weird, dynamic, unpredictable’: into the future with online travel

From ‘dated’ industry comeback kids to the Google factor, and doing things differently with loyalty and personalisation, it is all happening in Las Vegas where EyeforTravel North America kicked of yesterday

‘Dynamic and unpredictable,’ was how Del Ross, the chairperson of this week’s EyeforTravel North America, and a senior advisor to McKinsey, described the travel industry in the ‘weird year’ just gone. Ross, who yesterday opened the Las Vegas conference, which is now into its 20th year, said there had been some unexpected developments since last year's event. 

Two sectors in travel – the car rental firms and traditional travel agencies – that had been labelled ‘outdated’ seemed to be making a comeback, he said. And in another ironic twist, the dominance of Google’s increasingly monopolistic meta-model, was leading travel suppliers to cheer on a crowd that weren’t all that long ago labeled the ‘big bad OTAs’! (Watch out for an upcoming Google analysis on EyeforTravel.com next week).

It was fitting then that the opening address was from a major travel supplier – Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. Barry Goldstein, the company’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, called for continued disruption in the sector. In the opening keynote delegates heard that Wyndham’s eye is on the ‘travelling class’, the so-called millennial generation, which would help the middle class to double in the next five years.  

Goldstein also argued that many travel suppliers still lagged behind with a mobile first strategy, and were losing out on engagement with this increasingly important segment. Mobile presented a huge opportunity, he said, as does ‘personalisation’ which is a justified buzzword! 

Loyalty: missing a trick?

Loyalty was a hot topic and a number of speakers agreed that most firms in the travel sector are implementing it too narrowly. Emre Mangir, the chief commercial officer of ground transportation firm Mozio, said companies were missing a trick by not addressing what Google doesn’t knowabout your customer and only focusing on a small part of the experience. When people travel, they are looking forward to the experience in-destination and by better understanding how the flight or hotel fits into the broader trip would garner more loyalty. McKinsey’s Ross summed this point up nicely by saying: “People are our customers, even when they’re not travelling.”  

People are our customers, even when they’re not travelling

Morana Bakula, VP customer experience at marketing firm Bond Brand Loyalty, talked about a new kind of ‘currency’ in loyalty. As an example, she said business travellers taking a taxi at the end of a long day could be offered ‘silence’! 

Apple’s long-running, aspirational and iconic ‘Get a Mac’ campaign, which once posed the question ‘Are you an Apple or a PC?’, nicely sums up a point made on loyalty by Jordan Elkind, head of product management at EyeforTravel platinum sponsor Custora. He argued that people are loyal to brands ‘like them’. [In the Apple campaign case, the ‘cool’ guy was the ‘apple’, and the aim was also to acquire new aspirational customers]. 

Pointed personalisation 

The morning also saw Josh Margolis, VP, Customer Journey & Digital Products, Caesars Corporation, highlight the importance of engagement in effective personalisation, and why brands should be thinking about ‘immersive experiences’.

Margolis cited an example of how Caesar’s engaged digitally with a customer who paid a $39 initial hotel rate, which arguably slotted the customer into a “price and service insensitive segment”. However, by getting to know the customer’s interests through virtual listening, Caesars was able to upsell unique restaurant offerings, and the customer even splashed out on expensive champagne. [Maybe, spending what he’d saved on the room night!]

Right time can vary by customer segment

In a later session on personalisation, Eliot Hamlisch, VP of Worldwide Loyalty & Partnerships, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, continued the personalisation theme, also with an example of La Quinta Inns & Suites, going the extra mile.  La Quinta, a chain of limited service hotels in the US, Canada, Mexico, and Honduras embarked on a thoughtful personalisation campaign that sees check-in agents thank military veterans, for their ‘service’.  And, after all, being service-led is what all hotels should be about! 

Travel companies are often advised to ‘get the right product, to the right customer at the right time’. But Abhishek Mago, VP, Product & SEM, MyFlightSearch, pointed out that the “right time can vary by customer segment”. Its solution has been to micro-segment customers and make individual time-based offers, which resulted in a 30% uptick in spend.  

Getting it right 

Cosmopolitan Las Vegas developed Rose, an AI-driven chatbot with a unique and sassy personality that reflects the hotel’s overall brand. According to Mamie Peers, who was until recently VP - Digital Marketing Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, Rose, the queen of the double entrendre, only offers guests the “the right amount of wrong”. In doing so the brand has had the following promising results. 

  • ·     8% of all check-ins use Rose, and 69% are highly engaged
  • ·     Guests who text Rose, spend as much as 30% more
  • ·     11% of users return, and 43% through a direct channel 

Clearly a technology investment on the right side of right!

Other themes to emerge on day 1 included the growing opportunity in the tours and activities sector, that is predicted to be worth +$180 billion by 2020. Christina Heggie, Principal, JetBlue Technology Ventures, explained that while previously, tours and activities were mostly booked in destination, JetBlue is increasingly seeing people book experiences, even before their flight or hotel. 

Insights were also heard on how blockchain for the travel industry is evolving rapidly. Winding Tree has recently made several announcements, most recently its relationship with Air-France KLM on the travel supply side, but also in a technology partnership with Sciant to make the HTNG hotel distribution standards compatible with their blockchain-based distribution platform.

Day 2 will begin with a keynote address from Esteban Velez, VP Information Technology & Cyber Security, at Classic Hotels & Resorts, and is followed by presentations from brands that include Amazon, Twitter, American Airlines and more


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