The online travel triangle: mobile, data and the customer experience

“What customers want is communication, information and control.”

The statement came from Dara Brady, Ryanair’s head of digital experience at recent keynote address to an EyeforTravel audience in London. He was sharing his insights, into how Ryanair, like all other brands, is trying to play a more active role in the customer journey.

The ‘communication’ piece is, of course, is being driven by the rise of mobile, while ‘information’ relates to ‘big data’ and how brands harness it to deliver real-time personal and relevant travel information and offers. The third part – control - well, that’s about the customer who today owns the journey.

As Guy Stephenson, CCO, Gatwick Airport puts it: “In a digital world, the customer owns himself. The power lies with the consumer.”

Even Ryanair, notorious for its poor customer relations, has recognised this and completed a strategic volte-face in the past 18 months to two years. In doing so, it has put mobile, data and the customer firmly at the centre of its business goals.

Whether Ryanair has this three-pronged approach or inclement weather to thank, the strategy seems to be paying off and in October the airline saw half-year after tax profits rise by 37% on revenues of £4bn.

On mobile: apps aren’t everything  

On mobile there isn’t much to say other than to state the obvious: that if you don’t have a focused and measurable strategy in place you’re in trouble. The industry knows this and in 2014, 70% of travel executives, according to EyeforTravel research, had planned to increase investment in mobile.

No doubt that figure is rising and for those getting it right, investments are beginning to pay off. IHG, for example, one of the first hotel brands to take a mobile booking, has seen mobile revenues rise from$148m in 2012 to $1bn this year. With mobile expected to account for 40% of all e-commerce transactions by year-end this upward trajectory is expected to continue.

However, while mobile is strategically important, the path to conversion is getting longer and travellers are using more devices and different sites to compare offers. So, the ability to study customer behaviour and understand what role different channels and devices play in the purchase path is difficult. On this score, there is more work to do.

“There are a limited number of solutions available to address this,” says Breffni Horgan, Head Mobile & Product at Hostelworld, who explains that some are technical solutions that require investment, while others tend to negatively impact the customer experience with login-walls and so on. 

Clearly, however, multi-device behaviour should not be ignored, and Tom Valentine, CCO of the fast-growing luxury hotel closed user group, Secret Escapes, has this warning: “If I see another mobile agency case study saying that the users who download the app are more valuable, I will shoot myself and probably the person delivering it.”

On data: a single source of information is needed

Today many brands have recognised that sharing data, providing the right partnerships and agreements are in place, is good a thing. Because wherever the customer is accessing it, what they want is reliable information; they expect booking apps and websites to be able to work with different providers of services. APIs are one way to do this.

Heathrow Airport is one brand that has recognised the importance of keeping the traveller connected and it is doing this by:

  • Providing a single source of information to business partners in order to improve the passenger experience
  • Building a digital passenger information hub that will enable business partners to utilise Heathrow's digital estate
  • Establishing a ‘data exchange charter’ to build trust and security>
  • Innovate to will enable us to deliver the experience that the passenger expects

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However, it’s worth bearing in mind that while it’s imperative to work with both old and emerging gatekeepers of data - Apple, Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb - travel brands must ensure that their data is being used in an appropriate and commercially beneficial way.  

On the customer: don’t be irrelevant

So mobile and data are two key trends but the third, and the most important, is customer experience. Indeed, how you win, engage and hold on to customers in a competitive and crowded landscape will separate the winners from the losers.

“The biggest opportunity, and challenge, is making the customer experience better,” says John Whitley, Director, Ancillary Sales, Hertz.

Though he doesn’t say it, this also has to be done in a way that is commercially viable. Here ancillary offers represent a huge opportunity because althoughthey make up just 7% of the revenue, they can account for 20% of the profit due to higher margins,says Michael Bentley a partner Revenue Analytics, and EyeforTravel sponsor.

However, for ancillaries to really deliver value Bentley argues they need to leverage predictive analytics with RM capabilities to produce personalised and relevant offers at the right time.

Being personal and relevant is undoubtedly the holy grail but Torsten Kriedt, Vice President, Product Planning & Corporate Intelligence at BCD Travel fears that “2016 will see even more brands pretending to own the traveller by increasing investment in their branded digital channels and bombarding customers with irrelevant offers every 48 hours”.

His advice is to focus less on mobile and more on the end-to-end experience. Because while securing that all-important big ticket booking is, of course, important, the real value will be realised before, during and after the trip.

Join us in Amsterdam (Nov 24 – 25) where over 150 senior executives from brands like Secret Escapes, Hostelworld, Heathrow Airport and Hertz will be gathering to talk RM & analytics and marketing mobile and social media

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