One industry that’s been majorly impacted by social distancing, government-mandated health and safety restrictions, and regional and countrywide lockdowns than the travel and hospitality industry. Even once travel restrictions are completely lifted, marketers within these businesses will have the tricky job of messaging to consumers who are reluctant to take trips for either business or recreation. Because of this reluctance, Goldman Sachs doesn’t expect 2019 travel levels to be reached again until at least 2023.
However, that doesn’t mean travel companies should remain static. Rather, this time period is an opportunity to judiciously prioritize opportunities to meet travelers where they are today and where they’ll be tomorrow.
First, let’s examine what travel marketers should be doing to prepare for the long-term future of travel, and then we’ll look at more immediate, low-cost opportunities to pursue today.
Adapting to long-term changes to travel
There’s little doubt that the future of travel will look quite different in the years ahead. Those in the hospitality and travel industry will try to:
1. Recalibrate and adjust to travelers’ expectations
The future of travel will entail fewer planes and fewer flight options in a given market, fewer cruise ships, fewer Uber or Lyft drivers, and fewer restaurants. Some travelers might find this more limited set of options frustrating. So, whether at a call center or during check-in, it would be helpful for customer service support workers to recalibrate travelers’ expectations as smoothly and painlessly as possible.
To do this efficiently, strive to understand what’s most important to each of your customers. Is it a direct flight rather than a one with a connection? Is it the time of day to travel? Is it the hotel’s proximity to landmarks or free parking? Ask your customers questions and guide them to the right information so that their must-have preferences can be addressed first, followed by the nice-to-haves.
Cleaning and sanitation procedures will likely be a major area of concern as well. Basic reassurances will be critical, and additional details will be needed to satisfy some travelers. To put them at ease, some companies will likely offer an add-on sanitization package, special seats or rooms for high-risk travelers, or other accommodations for customers willing to pay for them. Guidance on protocols and options may not only get certain individuals traveling sooner, but could also be a cost offset option as a business. Additionally, perhaps third-party validated industry standards become an option to “certify” cleanliness levels across properties.
Other customer conveniences like buffets, water fountains, pools, hot tubs, pool chairs, and various other shared experience items may either be removed, closed more often for required cleaning breaks, or only available by appointment. Some guests may consider these efforts inconvenient and be upset. Using triggered pre-trip messages via email, SMS, and push to set expectations appropriately ahead of time will be vital to avoiding surprised and unhappy guests.
2. Embrace a third kind of traveler: the workationer
While a lot of attention has been given to the WFH (Working From Home) trend, we think some of these workers will take it a step further and be a part of the WFA (Working From Anywhere) movement. When these workers travel, they won’t fall into the two traditional buckets of those traveling for business and those traveling for recreation. They’ll be doing a mix of the two with a working vacation.
While workationers are not new, the pandemic and the resulting changes to work and life will increase their numbers. So, to prepare for the future of travel, companies will try harder to attract this once-niche traveler.
For example, consider promoting spaces that are designed for both work and vacation, such as amenities like high-speed internet connections which appeal to workationers. Include pictures and floorplans of those spaces in your marketing messages to create a sense of confidence that both work and relaxation are achievable. In addition to bundled “vacation packages” that include air, hotel, and car, consider creating “work/play packages.” If brands are able to attract these workationers, they might be rewarded with longer stays on their properties.
3. Think about how your customer segments will change and message appropriately
The pandemic affected everyone differently based on their age, health conditions, where they live, and beliefs. So, the makeup of your customer base could mean big or small changes for you.
For instance, was a large portion of your business driven by people over the age of 60? Typically traveling for leisure more than business, this segment may be one of the last to come around to traveling again given their heightened health worries and concerns with confusing procedures, such as contactless room entry and contactless payments. Smart brands will adapt the targeting, imagery, and copy of their marketing efforts to speak effectively to this audience.
At the other end of the spectrum, some of your customers will decide that their procrastination-first approach to their bucket list of travel experiences needs to stop. They’ll want to tackle that head on as soon as they feel it’s safe. Other customers who missed or postponed major family milestones, such as weddings, family reunions, quinceañera parties, 25th-wedding anniversary celebrations, or 40th-birthday celebrations will be looking to make up for lost time. Identifying customers through surveys and browsing patterns, and then marketing to them effectively is a significant audience segmentation opportunity.
4. Embrace the new travel priority to avoid crowds.
Early indications point to the future of travel being much more focused on:
“Off the beaten path" and lesser known, but equally rewarding destinations
Bespoke experiences and guided trips that are lower stress and enable a deeper connection with the place or people they’re visiting
Simply avoiding crowded places
Off-season travel, such as traveling to Paris in the spring when the weather is cooler and cloudier so they can visit tourist spots when there aren’t long lines and huge crowds
These changes in consumer preferences offer travel and hospitality companies lots of opportunities to shift their promotions, packaging, segmentation, and testing strategies to identify and cater to crowd-weary travelers. They may also lead to the re-defining of peak-, shoulder-, and off-seasons and a better distribution of travelers, who previously flocked to a relatively small number of super-popular destinations.
Protecting your business now
Adopting most of the strategies above involve significant planning, and perhaps resources, that aren’t available for many travel companies right now due to required cost-cutting measures. However, the following actions can be implemented more immediately to help ensure success:
1. Protect your loyalists
For most of your loyalty club members, it’s been a long time since they’ve experienced the benefits of being a customer. Room or seat upgrades, members-only lounges, trips bought with points—most of the nicer elements of being a loyalty member are distant memories now. That means that the opportunity for these loyalists to be won over by a competitor has likely increased.
Consider these ways to keep your loyalists engaged:
Focus more on non-travel opportunities and benefits
Feature benefits or offers for those with your credit card
Use your partnerships creatively to provide ways to redeem loyalty points
Add temporary perks to loyalty tiers right now that encourage certain incremental behaviors moving the customer closer to travel. Perhaps having them filling out a survey on when they’d feel comfortable traveling, about where they want to go next, why they want to travel, and so on. Motivators that can be added to a profile to use for marketing in the future are helpful data points
Extend the expiration date of loyalty points
Extend the expiration of a loyalty tier, if it has to be maintained through continued activity
Create a "dream trip in 2021" sweepstakes to give away a trip designed using a mix of properties, , destinations, and partners which jumpstarts customers’ excitement around traveling again (and then awarding several of the trips for future redemption)
Note that this is also a prime opportunity for you to consider ways to attract your competitors’ loyalists, too. Consider heavier promotion to “match the status” a person may have with a competitor with an added benefit or two to entice them to try your offering.
2. Focus on your first-timers
You may have more first-time guests, flyers, or travelers right now as a percentage of your customer base than you’ve had in a long time. Whether it’s due to price shopping by leisure travelers or people staying at properties outside of city centers where a different mix of hospitality properties are available, embrace this opportunity to win these first-timers over as loyal customers going forward.
Suggestions to do so include:
Get them into your loyalty program ASAP. Ensure there is value from Day One so they experience benefits right away
Use your email program to onboard first-timers and orient them to your brand. If you haven’t looked at your onboarding messaging in a while, take a look at it with fresh eyes and make sure it’s appropriate for today’s travel world and your current goals
Communicate with first-timers ahead of their stay, flight, or car rental, being clear about what they should expect, especially since some of your procedures likely changed. The more you communicate, the more seamless their experience will be
Send them a survey regarding their stay and follow up with them thanking them for the feedback and addressing any issues they had
3. Use your data wisely
I’m not talking about data from six months ago. That’s old data. That may as well be from six years ago. I’m talking about leveraging recent data, leading indicators of your customers and their interest and propensity to travel with you.
Recent email open and click data—especially click data that’s tied to specific content categories—is highly instructive regarding intent. Same with site visit data from customers that are logged in. Connect that with frequency of engagement, and you get a sense of which customers have an increasing engagement velocity, which indicates a rising interest and openness to travel. The same holds true with your push and SMS messaging and so on.
Make sure you’re using all of the data trails at your disposal to optimize the experience for your customers, because different travelers will be ready at different times. Smart brands are ready when their customers are.
Using whatever customer touchpoints available, tell your customers what they need to know to ensure their experience is as good as possible. Tell them what you’re doing to make their visit safe and enjoyable—even better, show them via videos. Explain to them how their contactless experience will work from beginning to end. Highlight your cleaning protocols and staff training. Communication is important.
Note that some of this messaging is sensitive and may not make for the most comfortable content. For example, some travelers aren’t nervous about the measures hotels or airlines are taking, but rather how their fellow travelers will react and whether they’ll comply. In the airline industry alone, hundreds of passengers have been banned by airlines because of incidents that have led to flight delays and cancellations.
Simply telling your customers what your expectations are for their behavior may not be enough. The industry might consider having travelers agree to observe all safety measures as a part of their reservation, with financial and other penalties spelled out should they break the agreement. It may also be time for airlines to share their no-fly lists with one another so that bad actors can’t simply take their dangerous behavior to another carrier. These are difficult discussions, but may be necessary to overcome the hesitations of cautious travelers.
Finally, put your social media and PR teams on high alert and prepared to manage issues as people get back into traveling. Images of people violating established protocols are some of the most prone to be shared right now, so preparedness on this front is an absolute requirement.
5. Validate that what used to work, still does
What worked in early 2020 may not work now. A/B testing is low-cost, high-reward method of ensuring that your messaging is aligned with your customers’ needs. Spend some cycles testing imagery, content, and timing for all your digital marketing and communication channels.
The same holds true for your website, landing pages, and mobile app. Identify your most valuable touchpoints in your engagement ecosystem to ensure they reflect what travelers value today through validation and optimization testing. This would most certainly include your booking process, but may also include your cancellation process, rebooking process, application process for your private label credit card, and other touchpoints.
6. Add “snooze” functionality to ward off brand disengagers
Right now, anyone who unsubscribes from your email, SMS, and push messages may simply be doing so because they know they won’t be traveling for many months and therefore don’t want any messages from you. Rather than hoping that these customers will re-subscribe to your promotions (and not a competitor’s) in the future, reduce the risk that they won’t by offering them the opportunity to snooze their subscription for a while.
Right now, the worst action is inaction. Most travel and hospitality companies are in the position of protecting cash flow in order to sustain the business. This mix of immediate low-cost opportunities, paired with laying the groundwork for longer-term customer needs, hopefully provides that balance of moving forward while still protecting the business.
I speak for many people I know right now that would like nothing more than to hop on a plane; meet with friends, family, and colleagues in person over dinner; stay in a hotel ahead of a trip to see a college football game in person; or take a family cruise in the Caribbean to celebrate mom’s 70th birthday. We all hope to do this with you soon.
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