by Howard Tiersky

Travel conference CEOs worry technology could drive the de-personalization of travel

Oct 23, 2017
Technology Industry

And in an era where travelers have more stress than ever, is reducing genuine human contact actually increasing the sense of isolation and anxiety?

The theme of this year’s Skift Global Forum, the premiere annual conference for the travel industry, was “Travel in an Age of Permanxiety.” The organizers sought to highlight that travelers (and in fact most consumers) live in a constant state of elevated anxiety due to increased levels of real and perceived uncertainty in the world.

However, a different type of digital anxiety emerged as an ad hoc theme amongst the wide range of star-studded presenters, including the CEOs of Marriott, Wyndham, TripAdvisor, Priceline, Hilton, Expedia, Intercontinental, and Delta as well as CXO-level executives from Carnival, Lufthansa, Facebook, AirBnb, and more.

As Skift reported in their recent 2017 Digital Transformation Report, “The breakneck pace of disruption in mobile computing, social media, digital content creation, and content delivery has completely altered the way consumers shop for, book, share, and ultimately experience travel.” Consistent with this, many of the executive speakers illuminated steps their brands are taking to utilize digital to make travel more convenient. For example, Christopher Nassetta, CEO of Hilton, described initiatives ranging from keyless doors that allow you to bypass check-in to “smart” hotel rooms that recognize your preferences for music, lighting, and temperature. Mark Okerstrom, the newly minted CEO of Expedia, summed it up by saying that the job of Expedia is “to make everything easier.”

As a frequent business traveler, myself, I personally applaud this effort. And yet, it is exactly the type of hyper-efficiency that worries many travel providers. Lilian Tomovich, CMO and Chief Experience Officer of MGM, reports, hitting the topic most forcefully with a warning, “Companies that have placed too much reliance on digital suffer from ‘humanless’ customer service.” Many others touched on the same theme. Carnival Cruise Line’s CMO, Kathy Tan Mayor, described how it can be challenging to read the “signals” being sent to us by customer behavior and that, “Not all customers want to engage in the way that you think they do. Sometimes, they want a human.” Julian Guerrero Orozco, VP of Tourism for the government of Columbia, articulated, “No matter how much tech has infused travel, I think tours are the most human experience of all.”

Hilton is “using technology in a very different way to resonate with the customer,” according to Nassetta, including the ability to see the “virtual view” from a room before you book it. This sounds useful, but an attendee from a Canadian tourism board that I met during a break, echoed the same conflicted feeling I heard from many other attendees, that while these conveniences are great, there is a “challenge of missing the emotional component of hospitality if it’s too much digital.”

So, what to do? Royal Caribbean’s CEO, Richard Fain, shared his view that, “Easy is now the price of entry,” so there’s no going back to the days of waiting on hold for a reservations agent, and it’s doubtful many travelers would want to do that. But, if the warmth of human assistance is an important part of the travel experience, are we engineering it out? If Motel 6 shifts from, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” to “Our AI algorithm has determined that you prefer illumination in your room upon arrival,” is something important lost? This is the digital anxiety articulated by many executives at the conference.

There is ample evidence across many industries that customers are generally happier with efficient self-service over ‘dealing’ with an employee. Customer behavioral trends show clearly that most people prefer a drive-up ATM to going into a branch and interacting with a bank teller. And the dominance of Amazon indicates the degree to which people will flock to a retailer with outstanding self-service, even if there are no salespeople to help them out.

And yet, there are many downsides to reducing customer interaction in travel, including the potential reduction in the perception of ‘warmth’ of the brand and lost opportunities to create ‘magic moments’ through service. In addition, from a business perspective, 1-on-1 interactions provide vital opportunities to upsell the guests. In car rental, for example, many of the most profitable “ancillaries,” such as insurance and fuel plans, are sold at the rental pick-up counter. If such interactions are no longer needed, opportunities to add value and increase revenue could be lost.

Is there perhaps a way to use technology such that it delivers the benefits of digital efficiency and yet maintains the emotion? Or is that asking too much from bits and bytes? One cruise line executive at the conference described enthusiastically how, by automatically recognizing the guest via RFID, any bartender you walk up to on a cruise ship will automatically know your name and favorite drink, even if he has never seen you before. Does that give you the feeling of “a place where everyone knows your name,” or is it more like the robotic bartender in the recent Sci-Fi movie Passengers, whose antiseptic familiarity is ultimately more depressing than comforting?

In fact, rounding back to the original theme of the Skift conference, in an era where travelers have more stress than ever, is reducing genuine human contact actually increasing the sense of isolation and anxiety?

I posed this conundrum to Skift CEO, travel industry expert, and conference host, Rafat Ali, who agreed, saying, “In general, technology does increase the anxiety in travelers, and in just our daily lives. The more tech you bring in without the human component, it becomes more impersonal.” And he also agreed this is an important issue for travelers, citing part of the reason for the success of AirBnB (ironically, a digital platform) as travelers yearning for more authentic and human travel options and less efficient, “cookie cutter” hospitality experiences.

Opportunity 1: Big data

And yet Ali also pointed out there are ways to use technology to increase the human connection in travel. He shared a story of a recent trip at a Kimpton hotel in Chicago. He had noticed the hotel had placed bottles of water in the room with $6 price tags and tweeted out a photo indicating his dissatisfaction with the cost of in-room water. The hotel’s technology was scanning Twitter and noticed the travel-related tweet had been sent from within the “geo fence” set up around the property, and he received an email 20 minutes later indicating his account was being credited $10. Then he further received a personal handwritten note later that day in his room apologizing for his dissatisfaction accompanied by 2 complementary water bottles and a cheese tray. Whether the magnitude of the response was perhaps impacted by the fact that Ali is a powerful influencer in the travel industry, the core story is one of using technology to detect a moment of customer dissatisfaction and using that data to identify the right moment to intervene in a more human manner.

In addition to this tactic of using data mining to identify when an individualized customer response is warranted, several other opportunities and ideas for injecting human empathy into digitally-centric travel experience came up at the conference, some in presentations and some in side conversations I was able to have with various participants.

Opportunity 2: Leverage freed-up time

Those soul-less but efficient digital interactions can free up the time customer service employees might normally spend on highly transactional activities. MGM’s CMO described at the conference how MGM’s initial trial use of a chatbot did not meet their standards for customer interaction. But they are moving towards a blended approach (as described in How to prepare for the next major digital touchpoint, conversational commerce to automate answers to simple questions and free up staff time to focus on providing high value concierge advice for the more unique questions.

Opportunity 3: Bring a human face to digital

While text chat has been used effectively for more than a decade, American Express, Hertz, Bank of America and others are leveraging video chat to add the warmth of a real person. A similar effect is achieved when email communications come from a real individual (such as reservation confirmations coming from the manager of that hotel) and contain a photo of that person.

Opportunity 4: Employee training

Train employees to use customer data with social intelligence. Disney employees are alerted via their CRM system when you approach them wearing an RFID-enabled “Magic Band”. However, they do not necessarily address you by name on first engagement but make a personal connection first and then, share the sense of wonder at how the Magic Band brings their record up in the computer.

Opportunity 5: Digital personality

Digital interactions can still express a sense of human point of view. While it’s not the same as interacting with a human, interactions are “humanized” when humor and a unique style of communication is utilized in places like instructions, button text, and error messages.

Opportunity 6: Empathize with the Digital Customer

Delta CEO, Edward Bastian, announced at the Skift conference that they will start providing free WiFi-based texting to customers on all flights that are WiFi enabled. This corporate-level policy shows that they “get” the needs of the digital consumer and creates some brand love even in the absence of face-to-face interaction.

Opportunity 7: Foster community

Most often, successful hyper-digital companies aren’t without human connection, it’s just that a lot of the human contact occurs between customers rather than with the brand itself. Amazon reviews and Q&As provide opportunities for human connection, for example. In the hospitality space, hotels are experimenting with more communal space with shared tables and pantries and increasing “meet and greet” opportunities for guest. Sometimes, this humanity is empowered by technology. For example, some airlines permit seat-to-seat text chatting on flights through their entertainment system, and others airlines are leveraging “social seating” platforms to play matchmaker between passengers to help them find the perfect seat-mate when flying solo.

There’s certainly no stopping the wave of Digital Transformation, but in the collective judgment of a large gathering of seasoned travel executives, it’s important to keep seeking the balance between efficiency and humanity. And fortunately, there are a few effective models to follow and many creative innovators and marketers in the travel industry who are finding new ways to do this every day.