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Jul 30, 2013 - The ferocious competition in the travel industry today means that fine-tuning the user experience both online and on site must be an imperative as this is where travel brands really can differentiate. Pamela Whitby and Ritesh Gupta take a look.

Building brand loyalty through a great user experience and customer service has the greatest differentiation potential but it's complicated. After all, the travel industry has to work much harder than retailers to deliver conversions. Simply put this is because choosing where to holiday is one of the most important - and often expensive - decisions a person makes in a year.

Customers are increasingly picky too, visiting as many as 22 different travel points of contact (websites, social media, travel operators and so on), before making a booking, according to the EyeforTravel Social Media and Mobile in Travel Distribution Report, 2013. Against this backdrop, the company that delivers highly relevant, compelling information with the right security measures for a customer to part with their hard-earned cash and which makes it simple to book, will win the initial business. If they go a step further before, during and after the holiday that customer may even return and become loyal to the brand in the future.

While it is no understatement that a great, seamless, slick user experience is of utmost importance, brands must first understand their own business objectives and of course the customer. For Cheryl Reynolds, Manager, Distribution of Virgin America this is about collaboration between suppliers, online travel agents and meta-search players, for example. "It's important for all parties work together to address any issues, and that customer service teams stay in close contact with each other," she says. "We are continuously sharing changes to our route network, system enhancements, and any changes in strategy so that we can work more effectively together to provide an even better guest experience."

For many suppliers, however, the ultimate goal is direct bookings. UK Low-cost carrier EasyJet is one of these and its strategy seems to be working. It has developed a simple and easy to use website, it has a mobile app that delivers a mobile boarding card and other relevant trip information - such as departure and arrival times - and is working with hotels, car hire, parking firms and airport retailers and so on to deliver relevant offers at the point of sale and in the run up to departure. They also use the mobile to inform guests about delays and so on.

Keeping it simple

Simplicity in a complicated world seems to be the key word in the discussion around user experience. Ultimately if firms want a person to engage with their brand and products, they must put everything into ensuring the best experience for a visitor to their website. This includes everything from ease of use on the site, to what merchandising is offered, to great content and the overall visual appeal. It also means quick response times. A query about a reservation online should not be dealt with in 72 hours - which unbelievably still happens on some travel sites!

Of course, it isn't easy and the industry is not there yet, but what this does mean is that there are still plenty of opportunities for companies to delight the customer and capture market share.

Moving with mobile

One area where brand can and must differentiate is with mobile. Concorde Hotels & Resorts has spotted an opportunity in mobile check in and check out. In 2012 over 53% of travel inspiration began on a mobile platform, says Graham Dungey, the group's SVP eCommerce, Revenue & Business Development. He believes mobile gives the customer a choice when they want it, how they want it and in a way they want it communicated. The move to self-service was driven by a number of factors including:

  • The growth in mobile travel distribution technology
  • User adoption of mobile technology with 3G connectivity
  • Greater confidence in using mobile for transactional services
  • The success of airline efficiency of mobile check in

For all these reasons and more it clear to see why mobile should be a number 1 priority in the drive to creating a great differentiating customer experience that drives loyalty.

Concorde's Smart Way is an electronic check-in and check-out system to help customers save time, while also enhancing the experience. Some people are, after all, willing to trade human interaction, admin and paperwork for a clean and clinical experience. But it is also about being flexible and embracing the individual specific needs of each guest, he says.

One of the challenges today is that there is still a disconnect between the traditional industry teams of marketing and communication and the digital experience and technology teams. If this can change, there are will be a number of new and innovative ways to communicate with the customer shortly after reservation, during the trip and even after check out. Think global positioning services with route planning, transport planning, SMS, mobile apps, interactive mobile sites, NFC or near-field communication and SIRI, speech interpretation and recognition interface.

Other ways hotels are moving to bring a new travel dimension to the hotel customer via smartphone:

  • eConcierge - Think room service ordering, in-house experience inspiration and reservations for the wellness centre, golf, beach trips, sunbed and so on; restaurant bookings both on and off property; local attractions and off property experiences such as city tours, museum passes, CRM targeted offers; and even maintenance issues
  • The smartphone becomes the room key, light switch, curtain opener, temperature regulator and so on.

To hear more insights from Cheryl Reynolds, Manager, Distribution of Virgin America join us at the Travel Distribution Summit, North America in Chicago on the 23-24 September. 

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