Analogies describing the online travel experience are plentiful and yet Argos without the catalogue sticks in the mind as an image of what it can be like for users.
The analogy comes from Comair ecommerce manager Bryan Porter, who was speaking at the OpenJaw t-Retailing Summit a few weeks ago.
Some context was given to the complexity airlines are dealing with earlier in the day by Cathay Pacific manager, digital retail, Catherine Hornby, who while admitting the airline needs to do more in the retail space said one of the challenges is to think like a retailer.
She says that with the majority of the airline's 30,000 employees involved in "mission control" (meals on board, planes in the sky etc) a wholesale switch in mentality is therefore required.
"Rather than a seat we need to think of a customer and how many of their needs can we actually fulfill."
But, she adds, the business is not designed with the internet in mind and products need to be translated into something customers understand.
For this, Hornby applies a Cathay twist to the traditional four Ps of marketing - product, price, promotion, place.
- Product - knowing your product and understanding what makes the customer buy it. However, almost 200 planes a day flying most days of the year to multiple destinations equals a whole lot of products to put in front of consumers within the limits of existing online search forms and advanced search parameters.
- Price and promotion – how does an airline effectively promote its core product as well as hotels, cars and other ancillaries? Hornby points out that on Amazon you click through to a product page. Straightforward enough, but not for the airline industry which is only just getting the technology to do this stuff. Ryanair, she says, has come closest with its efforts. What airlines end up with is stock keeping unit pages enabling them to configure, promote and sell products in a more simple way. And, airlines should also think of destinations as SKUs, says Hornby. Interesting to note comments made by Ryanair at EyeforTravel about more personalised destination guides.
- Place – getting traditional distribution people to consider new types of distribution. There's so much talk about Google Flight Search and that's something Cathay is conscious of but, "being on the fringe of China", it also has a whole other set of distribution channels to consider – e.g. Taobao and mobile messaging application, WeChat.
"Taobao Travel is a mega multi-brand online shopping mall that we have to set up shop in. Mobile also takes on a different guise in China. Several airlines are selling on WeChat."
And, Hornby's parting shot:
"Understanding context and what is driving consumer behaviour is vital. If you think you know what the customer wants, you are wrong."
Later, some of the themes were picked up during panel sessions with Comair's Porter saying that airlines assume every customer on the website knows what they want - hence the Argos analogy.
The inevitable questions around what is needed, where the 'next big innovation' will come from and what small steps can be taken also ensued with some interesting conclusions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both OpenJaw vice president of product strategy Mark Lenahan and Travelport vice president of merchandising and distribution Fergal Kelly talked about knitting information together to build a continual relationship with the customer.
"Increasingly what people will start to expect is a constant iterative flow of information done in a subtle, contextual way that starts to build up a picture of what your aspiration/your goal is. So, there is all ready this background, constantly refining data/information so when I get to the point of action, suppliers are ready to give highly relevant offers."
But, he says, travel suppliers need to share more, start thinking about themselves as just one part of the puzzle as opposed to the only part.
And, Lenahan adds that the winner will be the travel company that offers consumers everything they need, uses past information and has a continuous relationship with them.
The small steps/low-hanging fruit question has been covered at many a recent airline conference including the OpenJaw event and some airlines are already reasonably far down that path.
Kelly sums it up nicely - it's about "taking obstacles out and identifying every piece of grit that irritates."
As for going from the low-hanging fruit to a more one-to-one world?
The technology, it seems, is in place but there's a question over airline system readiness to manage personalised offers once they have been made.
NB: Disclaimer - travel for the author's attendance at the event was supported by OpenJaw.
NB2: Sore eyes image via Shutterstock.