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Travel marketing: The untapped promise of beacons for delivering customer value

Marketers know that delivering location-specific offers and services is gold, and that's why big box retailers like Macy's and Starbucks are using iBeacons to deliver high value messages to customers. Travel marketers can follow their lead by placing these beacons — which are location-aware wireless sensors that use Bluetooth Low Energy to detect when a person is nearby — at the hotel entrance or at the boarding gate so customers can check in easily. By tapping into a customer’s location, airline companies, hotels and rental car agencies can send highly specific messages to customers. We recently spoke with Glenn Gruber, senior mobile strategist at Propelics, an enterprise mobile consulting firm, about the promise of beacons and how brands can effectively implement them.

Q: How can travel brands use beacons to reach their customers?

A: Of course there’s the opportunity to upsell customers and increase revenues, but the challenge is to not overdo the messaging to the point that people get tired of intrusion. It’s important to look at how you can use the technology in service delivery to make people’s lives a little easier, like checking into a hotel or boarding a flight.

Q: How can hotels and airlines provide customer value with beacons?

A: The whole check-in process can be completely redefined through beacons. People are using other methods to check-in in advance or bypass lines, but each of those methods typically requires some sort of action or initiative on behalf of the traveler. Whereas if you had a beacon simply at the entrance of a hotel or by the boarding gate, you can make their life a lot easier without having to take any action. When people are traveling they are often carrying a bunch of bags and don’t have enough hands to take their phone out of their pocket, so you’re clearly enhancing service delivery.

The whole key is to use beacons to provide personalized offers, but there hasn’t been much progress that’s been made. That’s because you don’t have a lot of these natural triggers that may enable spur of the moment purchase that can happen while you’re actually traveling, whereas those offers are not top of mind when sent out a couple weeks before. There are times when you know more about the traveler and the environment they’re in, triggers can be more powerful with that information.

Q: How are travel brands using beacons effectively today?

A: Starwood, with their Aloft brand, is using Bluetooth low energy technology — not necessarily beacons — in their Cupertino and Manhattan hotels for check-in and also are using digital keys. You hold your phone up and as you rotate the phone, it essentially unlocks the door.

In the car rental industry, Silvercar is using bluetooth LE and beacons built into the car, so you can unlock the car, pop the trunk, and begin the rental. It’s a great case of integrating the service experience with the technology. Similarly when you return the car, it automatically logs the end of the rental, measures the gas level and sends the invoice. They’re looking to take that to another level by using the beacon and phone to personalize the car itself based on who the renter is. It’s easier for them because it’s all one car model — the Audi A4. They can remember preferences of where you like the seat, your favorite radio stations, recent places you’ve put into the GPS. That’s a lot of personalization that’s triggered by the device recognizing who you are and the context of your trip.

Q: What tips would you give brands looking to integrate beacons?

A: The key is to think about what matters to the traveler at each of the moments in their journey, whether it’s checking in, going through security or getting luggage, and think about where proximity can act as a trigger. Don’t just think about presenting offers, but consider how to make life easier for the traveler.

Something to recognize is that beacons aren’t magic. Some people think that once you put up a beacon, it just works and you’re in great shape, but you have to be sure that you have the right backend systems to enable all of the things that you want to do. Once the beacon says that someone is a certain distance away, the mobile device has to interact with a backend system that manages the interactions and offers that are triggered. You need to prioritize and push information based on rules that you can dynamically change on the fly.

Don’t try to overpower the consumer at the beginning. A lot of testing is going to be merited. It may behoove people to be a little more prudent in how quickly they ramp up design. The worst thing that can happen is you hammer people with so many offers that they disable the beacon location capability or they delete the app.

That’s the balance of any marketing interaction. You’re looking to build customer satisfaction in their interactions with you, the options you offer them and the ways the service is provided to them — but you don’t want to go so far that it becomes a turn-off that instead of encouraging loyalty, you’re encouraging them to leave you for a competitor.

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