How do today’s best lifestyle travel brands elevate the user experience above their competitors’ products to drive higher conversion rates and steal market share?

According to Katie Dill, head of experience design at Airbnb, the secret is aligning digital and live consumer engagement throughout the travel journey. The end goal is to create a strong emotional and personal connection between the travel brand and customer.

At the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference in Austin this month, she presented a session called “Designing Experiences Offline and Online” to provide examples of how that’s accomplished at Virgin Airlines, Lyft, Disney and Airbnb.

Virgin America Has Less Crappy UX Than Competitors

First, Dill asked the audience what elevates a Virgin America flight experience to something less horrible than other carriers?

“It starts way, way in the beginning right from the advertisements,” she answered. “There’s a theme here. It’s edgy, it’s simplified, it’s refined. And that same theme is visible and felt throughout the majority of the touch points that you might have with it. So when you’re booking your travel, for example, the website and the UI are simplified and refined and edgy.”

Likewise, Virgin’s check-in process is a physical manifestation of that digital interaction. There’s a militant focus on a large amount of small details relating to language, tone, colors, vibrancy and hipness. Consumers subconsciously see the cohesiveness among all of the interactions with the brand, both online or offline.

This is where travel companies who believe their 5-year-old website is still good enough to drive engagement should rethink that.

“So by the time you actually get on the airplane, it’s like a crescendo of the entire ensemble they’re creating,” Dill said. “Imagine that, it’s wild how they’ve been able to do it. It’s the same cramped and overly expensive experience as most airlines, but there’s definitely this elevated feeling because all the while through every touch point you’ve had, they’ve basically been reinforcing this message that it is elevated, that it is different, that it is edgy, unique and refined.”

And when companies do that and they do it well, she explained, they compound the overall value of the brand in the consumer’s mind.

Disney Customers are an Internet of Things

Disney has an advantage when it comes to online/offline engagement because of the company’s assets. Disney also literally owns all of those moments. Therefore, they’re better able to marry digital and physical into a concerted, orchestrated whole to deliver a new overarching narrative defined as a “magical” or “enchanted” experience.

“Now, the Disney MagicBand takes this whole idea of customer experience and bridges the online and offline into a whole other world,” Dill said. “But what it does as well is it makes that one story, that one narrative, personal to you. So Virgin is telling one story, but they’re telling that same story to all of us. The MagicBand, which connects the digital and physical world actually helps to make that one story for you all about you.”

As visitors move through the theme park, their movements and purchase decisions are tracked by Disney, which can use that data to customize the experience for each individual through the personal profile information and context-aware technology. Dill says that as soon as you start submitting personal information to a brand, you’re starting a relationship.

The more personal information that someone supplies, the more personal the connection. In the case of the Disney MagicBand, it becomes almost like a physical talisman representing that bond with the brand.

“There’s a lot they can do with that because they’re connecting the physical and digital worlds and they’re building a relationship over time,” Dill told the audience. “They’re coming together to create a bigger value and an emotional impact. That’s honestly where the magic happens.”

Controlling Chaos in the Sharing Economy

Sharing companies like Airbnb and Lyft have unique advantages and challenges when it comes to developing a lifestyle-oriented narrative around their brands. By definition, they provide the best example of mixing a digital platform and a physical travel experience.

The advantage for the brands is based on offering something that disrupts an entire industry, so the brand message is really communicating something fresh, modern, and innovative — three of the primary pillars defining lifestyle branding.

Also attractive to consumers seeking an elevated lifestyle travel experience, the room and car-sharing companies offer a new level of convenient customization for different types of lifestyles at what’s perceived to be a higher value.

On the other hand, because sharing companies are based on a peer-to-peer transactional model, the companies don’t have control of the actual product experience. A sharing company can only set the framework for value exchange, anticipate challenges, and navigate the line between too much control and too much chaos.

So Dill says Airbnb’s goal is to do whatever it can to “relent control but not lose control” by building systems that celebrate and foster community engagement.

“If you think about it, it’s the diversity of uniqueness of that community that really adds so much to your experience,” said Dill. “So you want to be able to harness the diversity and turn it into a value add. This is an extreme case of offline and online experience design.”

One of the ways to celebrate diversity and community is through detailed descriptions of the individual members of that community. That’s why Airbnb encourages its hosts to provide as many photographs and details as possible about each listing to show the individuality and creative spirit of each accommodation — and therefore the individuality and creative spirit of the brand.

That’s also why Lyft introduced the ability to create personal profiles last year where riders can add things like their favorite music. By celebrating the individual customer, Dill suggests, Lyft is creating an online experience that directly impacts the offline experience and communicates the company’s set of brand values to differentiate it from competitors.

“The platform is effectively setting the stage for the experience,” she said. “It in many ways is providing the structure for which this interaction then can happen. The platform is a stage than can control the chaos. It’s essentially adding guard rails to facilitate those experiences.”

Those “guard rails” are designed to avoid the chaotic MySpace effect where users were provided too much freedom to design their pages, leading to a messy brand experience.

Whereas a platform like Facebook is much more structured to maintain usability.

Similarly for sharing companies, they want to structure the online framework so it conveys trust and reliability based on consistency and convenience. But at the same time, there needs to be enough opportunity for customization to set individual expectations and champion the individual user’s desire for self-expression.

Therefore, lifestyle companies are trying to highlight the unique individual identities of their customers with unique profiles online, so when they meet offline there’s more comfort and understanding of who those people are.

At the same time, how companies collect that information, how they use it, and what they use it for communicates who they are.

Dill said, “A company cannot create a great unified user experience unless you have a sense of its specific lifestyle.”

Photo Credit: An Airbnb host in Brooklyn, New York. Airbnb