Tom Costley explains the role of the internet in personalising travel experiences

Sipping cocktails while lolling between lazy palms in Mallorca or barging slowly past picturesque villages on a spring day in Holland, holiday moments are timeless. And the travel trade has always sold them neatly bundled, capturing the imagination of escape seeking consumers.

As digital technology revolutionises how people plan and book holidays, the travel sector has evolved to capture the power of the moment more than ever before. Key information about flights, hotels and pre-packaged holidays that were previously the domain of travel agents are now available at the click of a button.

Digital technology opens up a completely new catalogue of touchpoints that travel brands can tap. Planning a holiday now requires navigating the complex online world of flight price fluctuations, personalised accommodation and peer reviewed restaurants. And brands can now influence people’s decision-making processes at many moments in time if they understand how to seize the power of the moment.

So what does the new world of travel mean for brands?

Travelling is already teeming with special life moments from planning a trip with a loved one to the breathtaking vista at the end of a long hike and the luxury chocolate on your pillow.

Savvy travel brands understand that not all these moments are equal, and unlocking those that matter most during a customer’s journey can create new sales and strengthen brand equity. Companies that have evolved to take this people centric approach are thriving in a complicated new travel world. What can we learn from those who are doing it right?

Keep it personal! Some form of human interaction can often be important during holiday planning and can make a crucial difference at the point of purchase.

A challenge for brands is pinpointing exactly when and how people want personal guidance and advice. The more important the holiday – that trip of the year – the more critical human touchpoints across different platforms become.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines successfully attuned its social strategy to support people with human intervention and drive a competitive advantage.

THE PERSONAL TOUCH Our Connected Life study reveals that flights are the most-bought category online with 78 percent of us having done so across the globe. So travel is a much-loved and discussed topic online, making social media a serious opportunity for brands to helpfully join conversations that are already happening near the point of purchase.

KLM positioned its Twitter account as a ‘hub’ on a customer relationship management (CRM) model and boldly channelled a number of personal services through the site, making them easier to access more quickly than most travel brands. Its customers can link flight bookings to their social profiles, enabling the airline to easily reference a traveller’s flight if he or she tweets a question or problem. KLM’s page even offers an estimated resolution time of five minutes.

Aboard the aircraft, flight attendants are armed with iPads that display enquiries from passengers. Being able to anticipate a passenger’s needs in advance and respond to it immediately eases a moment of tension, and turns it into a positive experience. Thanks to this personalised approach, KLM passengers are more likely to be brand ambassadors for the airline.

But it’s important to be cautious of this approach especially in Western markets; brands that become too personal can be seen as intrusive.

KLM strikes the right balance because it has anticipated moments in the flight-booking journey where customers might need a helpful hand rather than an annoying prod. The KLM approach works because it has understood exactly when and how customers need that personal touch, and made use of the right tools (like Twitter and CRM, for example) to offer support the moment it’s needed.

HOLIDAY EXPERIENCE Having the power to plan trips in the digital world means people are now opting to use multiple brands and services instead of only one when they travel.

Forward-thinking travel companies are beginning to expand their services so they can anticipate the steps along a traveller’s path and offer something that might be entirely different but complementary to their core product.

This is why Airbnb created Airbnb Experiences, encouraging users to ‘seek out your passion.’ Usually focussed only on brokering accommodation between homeowners and vacationers, Airbnb identified an important moment – the question of what to do after checking-in – and met it with an experience-led offer.

In a similar vein, Headwater has tweaked its core holiday package to offer help and guidance at key moments. A self-guided vineyard cycling tour in France wraps up several adventurous experiences under one brand banner, leaving customers feeling both free and taken care of.

By smartly positioning itself as a behind-the-scenes ‘concierge,’ Headwater is right there with its customers along every moment of their holiday.

TRIPADVISOR PEERS It goes without saying that social media and TripAdvisor have dramatically levelled the playing field when it comes to travel booking experiences.

Seeking trusted advice that was previously limited to friends and family is now available instantly from peers around the world. We’ve become savvy enough to base a good portion of our travel choices on people we trust online – even if they’re strangers. Many of us also use social media while vacationing to humbly brag about the sand between our toes.

With research from TripAdvisor showing a correlation between rating scores and occupancy, many holiday brands are now investing more in marketing and social media to provide
visitors easy ways of buying products at the point when customers are reading reviews or surfing on Facebook.

Capitalising on the social trend, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide leveraged Facebook to attract social media savvy customers by offering special deals on an ‘Exclusives’ page – a campaign run solely on its Facebook profile. The campaign generated over US$ 2 million in sales.

Travel brands must embrace a new world that’s fuelled by resourceful and adventure-hungry people. Brands that meet people at instrumental moments during their vacation planning, which delight and surprise them on their way while offering the richest experiences during a trip, will succeed far and above those that don’t.

Tom Costley is the Head of Travel and Tourism at Kantar TNS UK