Great State breakfast: The battle to own the travel consumer

Following our recent breakfast debate: The battle to own the travel consumer, we are pleased to share key insights from attending brands including our expert panel from Bristol Airport, Japan Airlines, Holiday Extras, Eurostar and Trainline.

The UK travel industry is managing to weather the economic storm of austerity. We’re seeing growing passenger numbers, airport expansions and increased spending, which are all contributing to a sense of positivity in the sector.

However, established brands are not without threat. Today, consumers’ expectations are high, their patience low and out of sector organisations are actively developing opportunities via their access to personal data.

Greater experience = greater ownership

It’s an open and ever-increasing desire for brands to own more of their customers' time, data and – ultimately – spend. To do this they must continually deliver better customer experiences. The better the experience, the more compelling the brand and the higher the share of wallet.

As Anthony Clarke-Cowell, Associate Communications Director at Holiday Extras put it: “travel will always inherently contain hassle”. However, technology continues to allow service providers to alleviate some of these frustrations by better connecting customer and brand through the end to end travel journey.

That journey can be a long and complex one: looking for inspiration; making a decision and booking; the trip itself and the return home. It’s highly unlikely that one provider will be fulfilling services and communications from end to end, yet customers today expect a level of simplicity and seamlessness to their travel interactions.

With these high expectations, multiple service needs and fight for customers, is there room for everyone?

Key insights

Our panel and round table discussions considered the challenges of delivering superior experiences against this complex backdrop. There were three key takeouts from the morning.

1) Partnering is preferential

Across our panelists and attendees there was limited appetite to own every aspect of the journey, but instead an ambition to align more closely with partners.

Nigel Scott, Business Development Director, Bristol Airport, highlighted that instead of worrying about who owns what, there should be greater openness and focus on customer need as, “our customers don’t differentiate, they consider us, the airline… all part of the travel experience”.

Matt Lovell, Head of Data, Analytics and Insight, Eurostar, echoed the need to work with partners as he explained that, “50% of our sales are made by 3rd parties so we have to work very closely together to ensure all our customers get the same level of experience”.

Nigel Scott later summed up the potential risk of not working closely with partners: “there’s a danger that if we don’t cooperate and don’t work together, someone will pull the rug from under all of us”.

There was agreement that partnerships aren’t always straightforward and commercially can be sensitive, but perseverance leads to progress. The opening up of data and building trust between partners comes from being transparent about your needs, ultimately for the customers’ benefit.

2) Pain deflates delight

The end-to-end travel journey – mode aside - is one often fraught with friction, so for those delivering experiences, there is one crucial requirement. There must be consistency.

Matt Lovell stated that, “customers want consistency, not some bits of brilliance”. It was equally acknowledged that papering over ‘bad bits with good’ isn’t a solution.

This was something that Trainline’s Ian Randolph, Product Owner, Data Science, Personalisation and Ancillary, was especially keen to champion: “we want to add assurance so customers are ready for anything” adding, “the (Trainline’s) data science team’s backlog is focussed on adding predictability”.

This matters, as we humans suffer a 'negativity bias' where we attach much more weight to a negative experiences than positive ones. If even the slightest element of the experience is disappointing, that is what will be remembered regardless of everything else.

These thoughts were nevertheless delivered with a note of caution. In addressing consumer pain points, brands need to be responsible and address true issues and not ones that they want to use a particular technology to solve.

Ian Randolph summed this up when he discussed the desire to “solve problems that haven’t been solved before” and not simply occupy ourselves with “front-end delivery”. He was discussing this with direct reference to Voice technology, something the company have been exploring for a while but only launched for Google Assistant late last year – when the technology was right.

Randolph felt that, due to the “diversity of preferences and multitude of ticket options” a chatbot would prove less useful initially for complex tasks like choosing the right tickets and more useful for simpler tasks like checking train times. It was only with the development of subsequent technology that voice can deliver a much more nuanced service for these simple tasks. Randolph cited intelligent use of AI with Trainline's ability to scan Twitter. By using natural language processing, they can tell a passenger the reason for their delay and add it to the voice app.

3) Work with and for the customer

Focusing on the needs of the customer can very quickly change when the commercial agenda dictates, or a new technology is on the horizon. The panel underlined the need for customer insight to inform experiences.

Andy Grodecki, UK and Ireland General Manager, Japan Airlines (JAL), raised the point that his organisation fully embraces the capabilities digital technology offers, “we are big supporters of using technology – when and where it works for our clients”. He provided an interesting example of this coming into play. Whilst data connection and streaming are anticipated as a great opportunity for UK air passengers, JAL already offers this service on its flights as some customers find it of great benefit. However, as part of one of the regular feedback cycles premium clients reported enjoying the lack of connectivity a flight offers. The presentation of this service is carefully managed around them. The idea of staying ‘unconnected’ was something that other brands had received feedback on. It’s a real consideration when delivering a ‘seamless experience’ and shouldn’t be ignored.

Similarly, Ian Randolph highlighted that Trainline’s approach is led by constant cycles of testing: “having constant conversations with customers makes it very real.” Nigel Scott talked about working on “smarter monetisation” of services which are rooted in data and centre on giving a little something back to travellers based on greater knowledge and understanding. For instance, Bristol Airport is looking at ways to offer their passengers the chance to exchange or upgrade services once in the airport if they find they no longer need a service. For example if they buy fast track and security queues are light they could put the value of that purchase towards lounge access to spend their time waiting for their trip in greater comfort.

Is it possible to deliver delightful experiences?

Given the ‘pain’ that can be experienced by both the customer throughout their journey or a brand in their quest to create the perfect delivery partnership, it led us to the ask the question: is it possible to deliver a delightful experience?

In short, there was a resounding yes.

Delight is still possible, even with the challenges that are faced. It can be delivered in two ways; adopting unique initiatives (such as Bristol Airport’s volunteer workforce of VIPs or Japan Airlines opening up their lounge for the benefit of all passengers booked on the early morning JAL flight departing at 01.55AM) or by taking the big vision and applying razor sharp focus, drilling deep into one vertical.

Ian Randolph shared the example of developing the first true e-ticket in cooperation with UK rail partners, a huge logistical challenge as it involved the seamless linking of the on and offline worlds. It was initially built around one train route between two stations, via one operator. It was only rolled out nationally when proven to be ‘a great experience’, anything less than wouldn’t have been enough.

Similarly, both Nigel Scott and Matt Lovell touched on biometrics (referencing biometric data being used successfully to identify passengers and speed up their check-in and boarding process) with the latter mentioning Eurostar’s upcoming trial with business customers, to start to look into what is possible. Scott also discussed investigating self-service boarding using the technology.

This niche approach of drilling into one vertical, enables a brand to keep moving forward without having to wait for huge cycles of work to be completed, beginning to pave the way for future delight. So, we end where we started with a distinct sense of positivity.

Wrapping up…

The brand might want to own the customer, but ultimately the customer owns their experience. An effective experience must add value to the traveler’s journey for them to use it - and it's their use that shapes its future design.

It is the openness of brands to work together as partners, making wider pools of data accessible, which will enable journeys to become that little bit more seamless.

This is how expectation gaps close and move brands closer to tipping their customers into the realms of delight.

If you would like to learn how Great State can help you to adopt new digital products and services to relieve pain points in your customer’s journey and to provide them with more delightful experiences, contact Great State.