Engage travel customers during and after COVID-19

The travel, transport & hospitality sectors are facing tough times. But I’ve seen recovery from previous crises: two Gulf wars, ash clouds, 9/11… The combination of the industry’s resilience, coupled with the unwavering passionate people who work in travel, fills me with optimism.

I ran an online discussion with Amadeus and Salesforce about the ways the industry is coping with the pandemic. In this blog I summarise what we discussed – you can also get the video here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Webinar-TTH-screenshot-1.png

You can’t engage customers without employees

One of the most important lessons from the pandemic so far has been that digitalising business pays off. Being able to work from home has held up the global economy, with over 40% working remotely by April. Many companies had to buy laptops for their staff at short notice, especially for their call centres. After this, it’s unlikely anyone will choose to keep their business offline. The current pandemic is an important lesson, as there may be more global crises in future. The cloud empowers employees to manage customer engagement from wherever they are.

Alex Bosworth, Account Executive for Travel, Transport & Hospitality at Salesforce, highlighted how Salesforce makes working from home possible. Those already using Salesforce were at an advantage at the start of the pandemic. Their customer data was securely accessible to employees from anywhere in the world. They were able to respond quickly to customers about cancelled flights or accommodation at a time when tensions were high.

The disruption of businesses during the pandemic was partly down to the sudden change of business practices. Going from in-person to online interactions from one day to the next was not easy for everybody. Many companies had to pivot their entire business model. Salesforce responded with a new product, work.com, to enable companies to get back to work safely as soon as possible. Alex sees this being particularly useful for travel, transport and hospitality. The sooner you get your employees safely back to a physical workplace, the more people can continue travelling again.

Andy Cruse, Partnerships & Strategic Alliances, Corporate IT Business at Amadeus, agreed. Getting people back to the office will help the industry. Employees’ personal circumstances differ and companies should recognise this. Some people find it hard to work from home. They might not have a good working environment at home, or have young families. If companies can get the foundations right with their staff, it will cascade to their customers.

Customer experience depends on communication

Delaying or refunding holidays has been a logistical nightmare for the travel industry during lockdown. Those who were able to process refunds and communicate timelines throughout the process will likely retain loyal customers in future. Customers unable to access refunds or even vouchers will be frustrated. Those customers may be vocal about the company’s failures, damaging the company’s brand.

Tony Hollis, Account Manager at Amadeus, referenced Lufthansa’s recent announcement. They have issued over €2.5 billion in refunds already due to COVID-19. Usually people just change their bookings. During this period, the group reported refunding passengers at a rate of 1,800 per hour. Airlines who do not have the infrastructure to manage this level of activity will struggle to keep up. The media is then quick to pick up on those stories where companies fail.

Companies need to work towards more flexibility. The industry has traditionally discouraged customers from changing or cancelling their travel plans. Those companies favouring the traveller’s needs over their own will find it easier to process amendments and increase customer loyalty. No one knows what will happen or how long this will go on for. It shouldn’t hurt companies to offer their customers more to retain them for longer. One example of this is extending the status of a loyalty rewards programme. This ensures customers will do business with the company in future. It is crucial to communicate quickly, to ensure the customer sitting at home gets the best experience.

Going back is not an option

Some in the industry believe that 2021 will see a “booking frenzy”. People are desperate to travel again, and they will as soon as restrictions are lifted. While we will likely see a spike in activity, we have to be realistic. The industry will not look like it was before. Domestic and International travel will always be a necessity, as people want to visit their friends and family. Many will also be keen to use up their credits from delayed 2020 holidays. Others will be happy to stay in their own country. “Staycations” have had an excellent summer and may continue to see this trend.

Alex saw one of his UK holiday park customers achieving successive record weeks since they reopened in July. Companies need to prepare for trends in either direction at the moment. That might mean significant increased demand, or to respond with new revenue streams. Andy referenced the example of the Asian airline who created the “flight to nowhere”. The carrier recognised that many of their customers enjoy the entire airport and travel experience. From airport hotels to duty free shopping, customers are already getting nostalgic. The company recreated the experience without flying to a destination, fulfilling their customers’ wishes while complying with COVID restrictions. Customers jumped at the chance to take advantage of this new take on travel. It demonstrates the power of companies understanding their customers and how to keep them loyal in adverse circumstances.

Humanisation and digitalisation of travel

Travel, transport and hospitality companies have adopted digitalisation quickly over the last few years. Business travellers are already familiar with communication solutions from wanting face-to-face contact with family while abroad. They are now using the same technology to speak to their customers from home.

Andy sees the pandemic as the industry’s opportunity to reset. Sustainable travel is not only good for the environment – it’s good for plenty of other reasons. Locals in highly popular tourist spots might appreciate having a bit of breathing space. International travel can become more special again and companies can focus on enhancing the entire customer journey.

Getting feedback from the customer and capturing the right data is key to retaining customer loyalty. This will in turn bring back people’s confidence in travel. When it comes to communications, customers want relevance, not spam – quality, not quantity.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic significantly impacted corporate travel. The virtual world we live in is becoming the norm. But I agreed with the panelists: the value of face-to-face interactions is far higher than that of virtual. In fact, the value of being physically in front of your customer before your competitors has always been understood. We make most of our business connections in person. We will see eventually whether those business relationships that have been entirely virtual will hold the same level of trust. Companies may be saving money on business travel in the short-term. But they need to invest wisely to enable higher quality sales interactions in the long-term. The right technology allows companies to plan better and keep their employees safe as they get them travelling again.

Optimism, coordination, adoption

We summarised our online discussion with three key takeaways for the audience:

  1. Optimism: every tough period brings opportunity and digital transformation will enable the industry to retain and acquire new customers
  2. Coordination: the industry needs to work with technology providers to build a standard approach for the future
  3. Adoption: companies should look into the technology they have and ensure their employees are using it to its full extent

If technology adoption is one of your company’s challenges, watch our most recent Salesforce adoption webinar with Introhive. We talked with them about using AI with Salesforce for intelligence and insight into the business.

To hear the full version of the conversation I had with Amadeus & Salesforce, download the recording from this page.