The travel industry has been talking about personalization for so long without doing much about it. It has become so much lip service, a philosophy every company swears allegiance to but one no one knows how to put into practice.
First, let’s define personalization.
Providing a personalized travel experience has historically meant recognizing VIP or repeat guests, honoring the entitlements of a frequent flier or frequent guest status, providing expedited car rental pickup, using the traveller’s name and other in-trip touches to make sure the experience was a “personal” one.
Today, personalization has taken on a much broader meaning, extending it from in-trip services to pre-trip targeted offers and advertising, and to post-trip reviews and offers to share. For the purposes of this post, let’s stick to non-advertising forms of personalization.
Offering personalized communications before and after a trip, in such a fragmented industry as travel, has historically been really hard to do.
Traveller information resides in mostly locally-based, generally operational applications (think of the 51,000+ hotels as an example) in legacy database structures, and the data has been structured to provide operational service to the guest or passenger, not to market to them.
Happily, times are changing. Consumers are getting used to providing personal data, like preferences for communication, location, payment, etc., driven mostly by the retail industry, And, technology companies are developing affordable automation for small suppliers (tour operators, golf course operators, experience providers, etc.).
Finally, the shift from local instances of data to cloud-based instances and from older database structures to more modern ones has made access to traveller data easier, faster and cheaper for suppliers and other travel providers.
Let’s not forget about big data. In addition to the operational data travel companies have about their travellers, it’s now possible to layer on all sorts of external data about someone to provide more pointed and useful information to them during all aspects of the trip.
That allegiance to preferences and personalization is a hot topic of conversation amongst startups, as evidenced at the PhoCusWright Travel Innovation Summit last week in Florida.
Many of the 30 startups that pitched during the event are building or have built businesses based on the assumption there’s money to be made by providing more personalized services, products and offers to travellers.
Building the ability to aggregate data to offer true personalization is eye-wateringly expensive, not a characteristic one usually associates with startups, so what exactly do these companies mean when they throw around these buzzwords?
A brief scan of some of the presenters at the Travel Innovation Summit provides some insight.
“Leveraging the power of personalization to disrupt the online hotel booking process” is how Olset was introduced at Phocuswright, which is quite the statement to make.
What its site shows is the ability to book hotels based on a series of preferences, including brand, star- and user-rating, rate and distance. Also included is the opportunity to select features – wifi, ‘nice room’, pool, etc. Nothing really new here, at least by the look of things – a set of filters to help choose a room that should better meet the user’s needs.
As the CEO of Olset, Gad Bashvitz, said during his presentations, “filters do not equal personalization” so Olset obviously needs more time to mature to move from filters to personalization.
What Olset is doing that might be interesting is partnering with virtual assistant software applications to harness the data in those applications to help search for and book hotels.
The idea of using preferences already loaded into a virtual assistant app seems like a pretty good shortcut to aggregation of preferences and other information about the user. Olset only works with hotels now, but says it will add restaurants in 2014.
This is a mobile app that has been built primarily to allow a hotel guest to check in online and bypass the front desk. The user can also add in some preferences, like requesting a specific room or room type, adding a loyalty number, providing arrival time and making special requests.
Users can do all of these on most hotel supplier sites and one some of their supplier-specific apps, but the online check-in is the hook here.
Many convention and large city properties already have kiosks in the lobby for check in and check out, allowing guests to bypass the front desk. The hotel loses an opportunity to interact with the guest, but it also gets the guests out of long lines.
Checkmate says it provides a new potential revenue stream to hotels by allowing hotels to act on the special requests guests load into the app. Those preferences could theoretically be saved by both Checkmate and the hotel for future guest visits, although Checkmate’s level of integration to property management systems is unclear.
Sabre Custom Offers
Even the big boys are getting in on the act, generally using ‘merchandising’ as a way to indicate the use of preferences to provide more targeted offers. Sabre Travel Network debuted its Custom Offers product, using shopping and booking data, special offers from suppliers and historical information in the traveller’s profile so travel agents can offer ancillary products and services to clients (it’s also available via Sabre’s XML feeds to other sites), increase conversion, keep their customers happy and make more money.
A company of Sabre’s size and scale is well-positioned to build and deploy this type of technology, especially considering the massive amount of data it manages about travellers and travel suppliers, plus it has a built-in point of sale ecosystem via its thousands of travel agents users, which sets it apart from the startups and smaller companies in the room.
Personalization is still a viable component to the buzzword bingo game, but it feels like the industry is beginning to understand it better, and in the near future, be able to drive customer satisfaction and make money while doing it.
NB: Red man image via Shutterstock.