This article is part of our May series about travel and hospitality. Click here for more.
Consumers expect real-time, frictionless experiences in every single brand engagement—both online and off. The travel industry is no exception to this rule.
Combine that with a landscape where new competitors are vying for the travel customer’s wallet, and it’s easy to see that the industry has reached a point of inflection, according to John Spencer, a managing director in Accenture’s travel practice. Travel brands need to make a “wise pivot and rotate to new sources of competitive advantage,” he said. “But they must do this while still growing the core business.”
Artificial intelligence, experiential marketing, mobile and geolocation, and dynamic personalization are some of the main tactics travel brands are embracing to better engage customers and get ahead of the competition. Let’s take a closer look.
According to Spencer, AI has become a useful tool for improving travel brands’ ability to forecast and respond to demand. Machine learning, for example, can be used to dynamically adjust room prices or flight costs based on internal and external market data. Case in point: Google Flights uses AI and machine learning to predict communicate delays before the information is officially available from the airlines.
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas also is using AI via a new concierge named Rose. Upon checking in to the hotel, guests are given a card that reads: “Know my secrets. Text me,” and “I am the answer to the question that you never asked.” Rose responds immediately to queries and requests, such as the best places to shop or the need for more towels in the room.
“The next stage will see AI help produce personalized content and create curated recommendations at all points of a customer journey using real-time signals,” Spencer predicted. “We will see AI handling flight bookings and be able to rebook passengers following adverse weather reports, ensure they have enough time at stopovers, keep them fully up to date with developments, and even automatically reserve rooms for them in hotels when lengthy delays look likely.”
At a time when data and analytics are tablestakes, the emphasis is now shifting on experiences as a differentiator. According to Spencer, digital can be used as an “invisible enabler of physical and sensory experiences.”
His recommendation is for travel brands to create new services that are deeply integrated into the physical world. A good example is Hilton with its keyless room entry. Consumers receive their digital key via Hilton’s mobile app, which notifies them when their rooms are ready and then pushes the key to their mobile devices.
So where is all this headed?
“Imagine a hotel room of the future that adapts to a visitor’s personal preferences,” Spencer said. “Everything is custom-configured—from room temperature, to pillow type, to digital content, and specialized toiletries. A digital personal assistant is available for users to videoconference with friends and family, and even order high-end goods from local merchants or meals based on dietary restrictions. When it is time to leave, it checks flights and even makes changes as needed. It’s the ultimate experience in comfort.”
A few brands have already reached this level. Take Disney, whose MagicBand keeps tab on users when they pick preferred attractions, dining locations, and rides at its resorts and theme parks. Based on user selections, the band comes up with the most friction-free itinerary. Travelers can use their bands to enter parks, unlock their Disney Resort hotel rooms, and buy food and merchandise. They can also be used as a “Fast Pass” to avoid long lines for attractions.
Scandinavian Airlines is another brand-forward example. “They think of themselves as a lifestyle brand,” said Julie Hoffmann, Adobe’s head of travel and hospitality strategy. “So when you book a flight, they’ll actually help you find a dog sitter, they’ll help you have your grocery delivery handled while you’re away—things like that, which really is above and beyond an airline.”
As more travel brands become experience-led businesses, Hoffmann said she expects that they’ll roll out even more service extensions to go above and beyond their ecosystem.
Mobile And Geolocation
Adobe research from August 2017 found that travel brands have a higher interest in mobile enablement than other industries. That makes sense, Hoffmann said.
“Travel brands need to nail mobile in order to be able to have that cohesion when somebody’s traveling,” she said. It’s no wonder, then, that the No. 1 technology investment for travel companies in 2017 was mobile experience analytics, she said.
Indeed, travel companies are leveraging mobile to make their experiences as smooth as possible, with services such as mobile check-in, location-based offerings, mobile payments, and mobile ordering at airports or on-property. What’s more, adding a layer of geolocation to your mobile efforts can take marketing to a whole new level. Knowing a traveler’s location creates a better context for what he or she is doing—insight that enables brands to provide more customized and relevant experiences.
For example, using mobile geolocation in its app, Heathrow Airport in London changes the content and deals served to travelers based on where they are in the airport as well as the shops and restaurant that are nearest to them.
Geolocation is also used in the HotelTonight app, a mobile-only service that offers last-minute deals on hotel rooms around the world. The app uses the location of opted-in users and offers “Escape” deals within driving distance.
“I believe the promise of mobile and geolocation remains untapped in the travel space, with companies still experimenting and looking for unique ways to utilize geolocation for better on- and off-property experiences,” Accenture’s Spencer said.
We all know the days of spray and pray are over. The aforementioned Adobe study found that 53% of travel brands personalize email content, and 47% use dynamic content in email as a means of marketing one-to-one.
To create these highly individualized experiences, companies are factoring in customers’ demographics, past purchases, browsing behaviors, and the context behind their preferences, according to Spencer. Of course, segmentation remains an important method for understanding a customer base, but it has its limits.
“Profiling is not personalization,” Spencer said. “Organizations have started to look for ways to gather insights [that help] anticipate customers’ needs through an ongoing dialogue versus predicting them based on demographics. When the real promise of personalization takes hold, brand ambassadors will be able to guide customers to the hottest fashion boutique, the best farm-to-table restaurant in town, or a scenic off-the-beaten path running trail, in addition to recommending on-property amenities.”
Dynamic personalization, according to Adobe’s Hoffmann, is contextually changing and transforming the communication to travelers based on where they are, what types of activities they’ve done, or whether they are traveling alone or with family.
“Think of the creative as no longer fixed and static,” Hoffmann said. “Instead, it’s more like you’re going to get this if you’re here. If you go somewhere else, you’re going to get something else, depending on where we see you and what that looks like.”
Companies including Carnival Cruise Lines are using “guest intelligence” to provide dynamic, real-time personalization to customers. For example, a customer who begins by exploring Carnival’s Princess cruise line might be redirected to its Cunard line if that would be a better fit. The idea is to find out as much information as possible about the customer’s expectations and then match that customer to the cruise line that will provide the right experience.
We’re still in the early stages of dynamic personalization, Hoffmann pointed out. At the moment, many brands can tell whether a customer has already booked a trip, and they know to serve up content for the next stage of the travel journey, which is typically what to do once at the destination.
“There are many tourism activities out there to choose from,” Hoffmann said. “Personalization of the future is going to go deeper than just where the traveler is in the customer journey. It is going to be about knowing people’s individual attributes and knowing that customer A loves spas, while customer B would never step foot in one.”