Here are ten quotes from CEOs of the world's largest and most successful hotels, booking sites, airlines and destination marketing organizations on what personalization meant to them this year, how they're working to improve on this front and what their plans are to get even more personal in the years ahead.
Most travel brands saw their industry with tunnel vision this year through the ambient ‘authentic,’ ‘millennials’ and ‘personalization’ catch phrases as marketing campaigns rolled out, flights and hotels were at capacity and some destinations welcomed a record number of visitors.
Most came as close to perfecting their millennial marketing as they’ll likely get and several brands ceded considerable control to locals to help fill travelers’ demand for authenticity. But many brands continued to underperform with personalization, however, despite introducing products aimed at developing deeper relationships with travelers while getting served news that their customers feel they don’t know them like they should.
Skift talked to dozens of travel CEOs in 2015, from some of the world’s largest booking sites to the biggest hotel players to destination marketing organizations rewriting the playbook for how to get visitors to their cities sooner and feel more comfortable doing so.
Following are thoughts from 10 of those CEOs reflecting on how personalization fits into their brand’s strategy and how they see it evolving with a new year a few days away.
Craig Reid, Auberge Resorts
On the service experience, there’s a higher degree of expectation that the service should be tailored to the individual. There’s less adherence to time and protocols and guests really require the service entity to organize the experience around them rather than the guest organize himself around the experience.
Paul Hennessy, Priceline.com
Simplicity and personalization are the answers to unlocking the future of conversion on the mobile web experience.
Steve Hafner, Kayak
The reality is that the most effective personalization is when you don’t ask a consumer to do anything explicit. What they are asking you to do is to tell them you like four-star hotels that have a pool, that have free Wi-Fi or are in the city center. Most consumers don’t want to do that. What they’d rather do is scan through a list of hotels and then pick the one that they like. What you don’t know is why they picked that.
What we’re working on is the observational stuff, which is let’s look at the hotels and flights that consumers engage on and let’s try to derive machine-learning on what consumers are actually telling us by their behavior, and use that to inform what we show the consumer the next time.
J. Allen Smith, Four Seasons
Underpinning [our high-tech enabled philosophy] is a high level of training to make sure that people are using it in the right way, hiring the right people. As [Four Seasons founder] Issy Sharp always said, ‘We hire for attitude, and we train for the skills we need.’ The technology is not a substitute for that.
The key is that it will allow us to more efficiently gather information about our guests and more rapidly put it in the hands of people that can use it effectively. It still requires that people use judgement and understand the sensitivity with which you have to treat this information. You can’t sit there with your iPhone in front of you and say, ‘Oh. Hello Mr. Smith. It’s such a pleasure to see you.’
Alex Cruz, Vueling
If we get it wrong, you never fly with us again. If I give you a suggestion that is absolutely irrelevant, but very specific, I’m actually going to show you that I don’t know anything about you. So we have to be very careful with the process, and we’re spending a little bit of time getting it right.
We need to help people and engage with them in ways that haven’t happened before.
Craig Kreeger, Virgin Atlantic
The relationship between Virgin Atlantic and our customers is really the relationship between the people of Virgin Atlantic and our customers. We encourage our people (through our hiring, training and practices) to be themselves at work and to have fun. I think that the human connection that comes from that creates a great relationship and has come to define the Virgin brand.
It means listening to our customers and genuinely seeking to make their experience great. In the end, our team is our brand and our people make the relationship with our customers a genuine and positive one.
Mark Hoplamazian, Hyatt Hotels Corporation
Tech takes care of the basics so our colleagues can spend more time relating to guests and caring for them in personal ways, whether that’s swooping in with something they forgot, restaurant recommendations or helping to celebrate a special occasion. In fact, every technology initiative starts by answering, “How will we help our colleagues care for our guests?”
For example, we’re testing self-service mobile app features that allow guests who want it to do anything from ordering room service to requesting their car from valet to using a phone as a room key or to print their keys at a kiosk.
As another example, a front desk agent currently needs to flip between many systems’ screens to check-in a guest. We’re testing a new, integrated interface to bring everything together in one screen — by desktop, tablet or mobile device — so our colleagues spend less time with their heads down and more time having a dialogue. Even our global learning platform is mobile, so colleagues can access training anyplace and just as they would in their normal lives.
Sonia Cheng, Rosewood Hotel Group
It’s not unexpected but travelers are more sophisticated and they are no longer looking for physical extravagance at the luxury level. They’re looking more for a personal experience and someone attending to every detail of their stay. That is what they’re expecting walking into a luxury hotel right now.
Ted Teng, Leading Hotels of the World
We really try not to categorize our customers. I see a lot of conversations about personalization, but I think a lot of the personalization conversations are really more about categorizing — basically grouping people together and then treating them in a certain way.
I think personalization is really about creating something just for one particular person in a particular instance. I see the mass categorization based on nationality, gender, purpose of travel, age and all that, but there’s a lot more diversity within each categorization.
I know China, as an outbound market, is getting bigger for everyone and we’re seeing that. Some companies have a term called “China ready.” I think that is absolutely 180 degrees away from personalization. That’s treating Chinese travelers as if they’re all the same; therefore, if we give them these things then they will be happy.
Issam Kazim, Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing
In order to [increase visitor arrivals to Dubai], we looked at what data was available online since travelers are researching Dubai online. We looked at key markets and found that information was either dated or inaccurate. People were building their impressions on Dubai based on what they heard or had seen in pictures. They think it’s just about being bigger and better and that’s it. There’s no spirit, no soul.
The first task was to find people who are talking about Dubai then bring them to Dubai and let them explore and discover what it’s about. With that, we start getting user-generated content that’s accurate. At the end of the day, they all have their own opinions and that’s fair enough. We know that the majority of the time, people come to Dubai once and realize that there’s much more to the city to come back for.
There is no one size fits all. I can’t say that we can crack a model that applies across all demographics or source markets.
Advertising doesn’t really [make travelers want to visit Dubai right now]. You need people to understand the stories of individuals who have visited Dubai and influential people who can actually share that story.It’s not endorsing it. It’s about that person genuinely being an advocate because they enjoyed that experience.
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Photo credit: Tourists visiting Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain. Karan Jain / Flickr