Dynamic personalized journeys: A path forward for travel brand recovery

Young family traveler wearing face masks with luggage walking at airport gate terminal lounge traveling during pandemic outbreak

Image source: Adobe Stock/petovarga.

Although it’s starting to show faint signs of recovery, few industries have been impacted more by COVID-19 than travel and hospitality. When the outbreak began to spread globally, cancellations and last-minute itinerary changes hit an all-time high. Travel brands had to act quickly as new, unforeseen adjustments to travel policies significantly disrupted the way they had previously managed the customer journey.

Expedia, for example, saw call center volumes increase dramatically, making it difficult to change or cancel itineraries without long wait times. As a response, the company not only increased its number of travel advisors but also introduced automated ways for customers to take action, including updating its websites with new features that made cancelling and rescheduling through text, email, or in the app easy, helping consumers help themselves.

Understanding your customer’s needs in the moment while keeping in mind all aspects of the holistic experience across the customer’s lifecycle has never been more critical. So while travel brands continue to recover (and to innovate), it’s critical they adopt and manage new processes, accelerate communication, and — most importantly — personalize experiences for individuals in real time for continued growth and success in a highly-unpredictable time.

Let’s talk about what’s going on at a deeper level so we can understand better how to respond accordingly.

Before the outbreak began, travel brands faced many challenges adapting to the multi-device, multichannel landscape. According to the eConsultancy 2020 Digital Trends in Travel & Hospitality study, 61 percent of brands said they lacked the resources to support coordinated omnichannel experiences and only 3 percent of companies said they had the capabilities to achieve true omnichannel personalization. What’s more, the report also found that just 30 percent of travel brands said they are focused on personalized and consistent customer journeys to stay ahead of the competition.

All the while consumer expectations from younger demos were accelerating the need for micro-moment marketing, a new and growing trend for personalization, with 51 percent seeking location-based recommendations. According to Julie Hoffmann, Adobe’s global head of travel industry strategy, “Prior to COVID-19, our consumer based travel research showed that younger demos — like Gen Z — were using a smartphone device almost interchangeably with their desktop during pre-trip planning, while older demos — like Gen X and Boomer — used a desktop more. Many brands were preparing to meet this younger demo’s needs for consistent experiences across devices, but now smartphones have increased across all demos accelerating the timeline for travel brands to respond.”

But while managing a customer’s preferred channels is hard enough, travel and hospitality is also typically extremely siloed from a data and channels perspective. In addition, marketing and customer-facing teams are usually siloed as well, making campaign orchestration incredibly complex for the marketers in this industry.

The 2020 Digital Trends: Travel & Hospitality report also found that a percent of large organizations — despite much investment — have failed to unify engagement channels. Because travel brands have found it difficult to replicate the cross-channel integrations that retailers have mastered, many have been left behind with regards to providing a meaningful and personalized experience across all touchpoints.

Add to that the constantly evolving consumer behavior, as people vacation closer to home and look for safe, socially distant travel options, and it’s clear to see that being able to pivot and anticipate new demand and expectations is essential to thrive in today’s digital economy.

A dynamic, personalized journey is key to shaping the new normal

Customers now are expecting that when they take an action, this same action/behavior should play a role in the personalized journey the consumer experiences every time they interact with a channel. So within every channel there is an opportunity to connect the dots and align the experience based on both the stage of the journey and current actions in flight.

This means incorporating consumer trends like more local, within-driving-distance vacations for hoteliers and layering in options based on travelers’ point of departure (within a partial-days drive, half-days drive, or a full-days drive) with 73 percent of all consumers choosing to travel by car over the next six months (according to Adobe’s qualitative research from the DEI). Or, using engagement data from the types of experiences (visiting national parks, remote beach locations) when they’ve shopped and browsed, then integrating these into the travel planning cycle as soon as the customer takes an action to reflect this interest.

MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment shut down their hotels for the first time in 20 years during the peak of the pandemic but were able to effectively communicate the changes and its reopening plans to its customers. Now, many months later, they’re successfully leading the way in new processes to bring comfort and peace-of-mind throughout the customer journey.

Once its hotels reopened, MGM and Caesars introduced “contactless check-in” to provide hotel guests with the option to use a mobile app for the entire check-in process, minimizing in-person interactions with front desk staff. They also introduced process changes to their restaurants, such as text notifications when a table is ready to reduce the need for groups to congregate while they wait, as well as digital menus viewable on personal mobile devices via a QR code. On top of improving health and safety, this also provides an incentive for guests to download the mobile app and introduces more ways for consumers to digitally engage with your brand.

These companies are successfully leading the way in not only opening back up, but also future-proofing their customer experience.

Another opportunity might be to identify customers with a higher affinity to fly to their destination and use their last destination search with the best available option in their preferred communication channel.

For airlines, many consumers have credit cards they use and apply to their next trips. As they actively search for a new flight, kicking off a journey to allow them to better understand how to use their e-credit could mean deferring heavy operational costs in the call center.

Most flights were cancelled early on during the pandemic leaving many customers with e-credits to use in the future. Many airlines have incorporated easy ways to use credits either upon login (web or app) or via email journeys. One major airline is using data to understand the impacted audiences for upcoming travel and tailoring communications based on travel within 7 days or beyond 7 days to optimize the journey. By anticipating needs, they reflect awareness for the customer’s journey.

This could also mean accelerating messaging — around sanitation efforts with masks, social distancing, and enhanced cleaning — at various parts of the journey where a customer may need this information.

The level of uncertainty for airlines, hotels, and other travel-based companies is also spiking, as they need to react to last-minute changes to schedules or travelers’ plans. Being able to adapt to these unplanned changes and still deliver a superior customer experience requires brands/marketers to be nimble and agile. The customer journey is even more dynamic, and brands have to anticipate changes and personalize the experience in real-time.

Dynamic journeys are playing a critical role in contactless interactions as consumers activate information through QR codes on their phone vs. traditional printed materials. These journeys that are dynamically driven by a customer’s actions are the baseline for expectations. Travel brands that invest are able to be more contextually relevant and are also seeing benefits in retention and loyalty

The benefits of personalizing customer journeys

In February 2018, Adobe commissioned Forrester Consulting to evaluate the business impact of investing in customer experience across the customer life cycle. The research found that experience-driven travel and hospitality firms (EDBs) outperform on top business priorities. EDBs lead the industry in the metrics that matter: They are 1.7x more likely to have leading product reviews and ratings, 1.7x more likely to lead in customer loyalty metrics, and 2x more likely to see an increase in customer advocacy compared to less mature firms.

Simply put, journey optimization satisfies customers and investors.

Travel brands that invest in becoming an experience-driven business are on a path to differentiate from competitors, capture market share, and improve customer interactions that often start and end across digital channels.

Not only that, but as we’ve been paying close attention to how customer journeys continue to change the travel industry, it’s clear from our research that experience-driven businesses drive greater value to the tune of 25 percent of all travel business, 2x revenue (compared to competitors), 15 percent topline growth, 1.9x YoY increase in customer retention, and 15–20 percent reduction in costs. This is smart growth for an industry that is looking for new ways to innovate and thrive during challenging times.

Steps to orchestrate personalized travel experiences

There are three things to consider in order to orchestrate personalized travel experiences:

Build a customer profile that can access real-time information: There are myriad behavior-based signals (app usage, redeeming rewards, reception of email with offers, using smartphones to price shop, etc.) to gain insight and add it to what else you know (loyalty member status, current location, etc.). Consider all such points of interaction to inform customer profile, adding in demographic data, along with hyper-localized social-distance options. Roll these up in a customer profile and constantly update to give the most current view of customer behavior — right now, not a year ago. Customers are constantly changing their behaviors, and have been particularly quick to adopt new technology and behaviors during the pandemic. Ramp up how quickly you get info so that information can be as close to real-time as possible so you’re clear the best way to respond.

Adopt a cross-channel orchestration strategy: While there will always be a place for scheduled, marketer-planned campaigns — these will increasingly be supplemented with individual, in-the-moment engagement strategies. To activate the data, you need to have systems in place that can react to the changing behaviors that inform the customer profile in order to deliver contextually relevant personalized messages. Being able to react to an individual’s needs and behaviors in real-time, wherever the journey takes them, means offers can be up to 10x more effective than traditional outbound campaigns (Forrester). Then you’re ready to engage customers across multiple channels in an orchestrated fashion, covering both scheduled, segment-based use cases as well as one-to-one real-time triggered journeys at the individual level.

Optimize campaign performance: Once you have mapped your customer journeys and those experiences are out in the wild, you need to have sophisticated reporting in place to understand which channels, content, messages, offers, and audience segments are performing the best. Dynamically slice and dice the data in a variety of ways and tie it back to revenue goals. Make changes on the fly to optimize performance and ROI.

The ability to optimize the flow and friction of the customer journey has become today’s launching pad to grow revenues, gain wallet share, and create brand advocates. If you take these steps, you can get there.