Skift Take

Integrating new technology to improve your brand offerings is great, but there’s no value in it without connecting to customers on a human level.

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Nearly 30 speakers took the stage at last month’s Skift Global Forum to discuss the leading trends and innovations top of mind for the people defining the future of the global travel industry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, investment in technology to improve both product offerings and customer insight was cited as one of the major themes by industry speakers throughout this year’s conference. Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian declared that free Wi-Fi would (eventually) be available on board. Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, touted the company’s Ocean Medallion technology, which provides passengers with a personalized cruise experience through a wearable wristband. And TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer spoke about the company’s push for more curated recommendations to the individual, just to name a few examples.

However, many speakers added an asterisk to the increasing presence of technology in travel, cautioning that prioritizing the human element is critical to truly connect with customers. Joanna Geraghty, president and chief operating officer of JetBlue Airways explained that the airline was founded on the idea of “bringing humanity back to air travel” when it was launched 18 years ago. She further explained that individual employees are often mentioned by name when customers leave positive reviews about their JetBlue experience.

Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Hyatt, discussed how the company is evolving its vision to facilitate mindfulness and wellbeing, both on and off property, allowing its customers to “fulfill the purpose of being their best selves,” through its FIND platform and hiring of a chief wellness officer. Meanwhile, Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner of Embark, and Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, discussed the strong future ahead for luxury travel advisers, despite advances in technology. “Agents who were like human vending machines have gone away, and the ones that focused on providing value have thrived,” said Upchurch.

Ian Schrager, founder of the Morgans Hotel Group and pioneer of the boutique hotel movement in the United States perhaps spoke most candidly about how customer experience can often get overlooked due to the fancy bells and whistles that come with new technologies. “I think technology is the future –– but not mood boards in the lobby or iPads in every room…” He explained that hotel companies need to remember that they’re in the hospitality business and that the guest experience needs to include “something that astonishes people” with added “excitement” and “glamor.”

Hermès, a leader in the luxury retail sector, also understands the importance of human connection. Robert Chavez, Hermès’ president and CEO for the Americas, explained how the company still does much of its business in-person. Face-to-face communication and impeccable service with customers is so important for the retailer that Hermès doesn’t hire applicants who aren’t naturally inclined to connect and engage. “You can’t teach someone how to smile,” said Chavez. And each store has slightly different inventory, chosen by the store’s director, who flies to Paris a couple of times per year to choose products catered to its particular clientele.

While technology enables truly great and seamless travel experiences, technology itself is a means, not an end. Connecting with travelers on a human level is the piece that will truly differentiate good brands from great brands. Delivering memorable, emotional experiences is the best way to foster long-term loyalty among travelers and stand out in a market that’s constantly innovating.

Olson 1to1 provides loyalty technology, strategy, creative, analytics, and program management for some of the most well-known hotel and travel brands. Our mission is to help clients build meaningful, lasting, and mutually beneficial relationships with their customers, with an emphasis on infusing humanity into the experience. To learn more, download the report.

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This content was created collaboratively by Olson 1to1 and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

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Tags: digital, loyalty, sgf2018, skift global forum, technology

Photo credit: Hyatt, CEO Mark Hoplamazian with Rafat Ali of Skift at Skift Global Forum 2018

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