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Analysis

How Today’s Travel Marketers Balance Scale and Gratitude to Build Loyalty

Even as tech-forward solutions like Airbnb disrupt the market, tenacious travel marketers are finding effective ways to operate and excel at retention

Evan F.P.
September 20 2018

The digital travel sales market is on track to hit $817.54 billion by 2020, and competition is heating up.

Thanks to their extremely high lifetime value, travel customers are among the most expensive to acquire. A 2017 spending report by mobile attribution company Tenjin, found that travel apps averaged $5.55 per paid install, nearly a full $2.00 higher than the next highest genre. With such high acquisition costs, travel marketers are under pressure to not only capture new market share, but to also hold on to what they already have.

This is easier said than done, especially considering the dramatic disruptions to business practices introduced by tech-forward solutions like AirBnB, FlipKey, and HomeAway. The once largely face-to-face, relationship-driven world of travel brokerage has given way to scalable tech solutions that aim to replicate the same level of personalized care without the overhead costs. As the new world of digital travel evolves, newcomers and incumbents alike are having to seek out every angle of potential advantage to protect their share of a market increasingly known for its high churn rates. For most, that means big investments in digital solutions, but that often comes at the cost of the less quantifiable metric of human connection, which can have its own consequences.

A widely cited study by the Rockefeller property group found that the most common reason for customers to leave any business, with 68% of respondents agreeing, is that customers believe the business doesn’t care about them. It’s a troubling figure, especially considering the increasingly impersonal ways we conduct business in a post-mobile world.

The firms that succeed are those that commit to finding the ideal balance of old and new world appreciation. This means taking advantage of the convenience that modern solutions provide without sacrificing the emotional resonance of hands-on, non-scalable displays of gratitude. Here are some of the most effective customer appreciation initiatives for today’s digital travel customers.

Social Media Engagement

Travel marketers have seen great success in pairing face-to-face appreciation initiatives with social media, expanding communication reach and tapping into customers’ personal networks with a genuine, heartfelt expression of thanks. Egencia, Expedia’s corporate travel arm, employed this to great effect during Client Appreciation Week, where it found that “An opportunity that lent itself to social media was account managers surprising local clients with gift baskets. Then the Egencia account manager and the client posed for a photo together that was posted on social media.” By keeping interactions genuine and generous, Egencia was able to “generate not only appreciation, but user content, customer feedback and its social media accounts’ highest organic click through rates ever.”

Executive Outreach

As businesses continue to embrace the efficiencies of scale afforded them by digital solutions, greater significance is placed on non-scalable, one-to-one appreciation efforts, especially coming from those positions of power. Marriott Hotels takes this dynamic very seriously. Melanie Nayer for 4Hoteliers.com explains how during its own customer appreciation week, “Bill Marriott, executive chairman of Marriott International, will join other senior executives and associates making phone calls to more than 125,000 customers around the world, just to say ‘thank you.’ This humbling display of gratitude, and others like it, are a prime example of how Marriott’s loyalty marketers operate intentionally and effectively to earn return business from its customers.

Price Matching

In an interview with Kevin Price of Price of Business, PixieVacations partners Steve and Lisa Griswold explain how proactive financial advocacy on behalf of their customers has helped drive success for their vacation travel agency. “If a lower priced vacation offer comes out we will move the guest to the lower priced vacation package. Nothing changes for the guest, they keep the same hotel and amenities all at a lower price.” The Griswold’s go on to explain how this act of genuine altruism leads to increasing customer loyalty and social proof. ”Guests build a personal relationship with their Pixie Concierge and often share their experiences and vacation photos with them during their trip and on Facebook and Pinterest.”

Handwritten Notes

Even as digital solutions revolutionize the business of travel, there’s still plenty of room for small, meaningful demonstrations of gratitude. In an article originally published in eHotelier, managing partner of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited, Larry Mogelonsky articulates the power of a handwritten note left for a guest. “Regardless of length or what’s said, you know that someone had to physically take the time to write that note, and that it probably hasn’t been sitting around for too long either. It sends a persuasive subliminal message.” Mogelonsky compares this to other categories of communication like spam and templated emails, illustrating how just by taking the time to write out a handwritten note, businesses show that they value not only the customer’s business, but their time. It’s this message that fosters loyalty in customers.

Loyalty Programs

The expanding world of digital travel platforms easily lends itself to point-based loyalty programs. The space’s most ambitious innovators, however, are using user-level behavioral variables to create two-way appreciation systems that reward participants who help improve user experience. Digital travel leader AirBnB is leading the charge with its new “Superguest” loyalty program. While details are still emerging, the program is described as rewarding the platform’s “best guests”, presumably offering discounts and upgrades to users that receive higher ratings from vendors. Similar functionality exists in the platform’s “Superhost” loyalty program, which rewards top-rated hosts with higher visibility in search results, fostering feelings or appreciation, while simultaneously improving experiences across the ecosystem.

Loyalty is built on relationships, but relationships are incredibly sophisticated and subject to a world of nuance that is growing increasingly foreign to today’s business leaders. Efficiencies of scale drive valuations in the modern business landscape, but as travel marketers know, it takes both scalability and genuine connection to foster strong loyalty in customers. Those that can find the ideal balance are fated to succeed.

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Evan F.P.

Evan is a writer, educator and tech marketer. As content director at Fluid PR Group, he helps businesses tell their stories to the world. He lives in Toronto with his wife, their son and an occasionally well-behaved Australian Shepherd named Islay. Follow Evan on Twitter

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