As the number of U.S. vaccinations continues to rise, Americans are starting to make up for lost time and making plans to travel again. After being isolated and limited by where they could visit and who they could see for the last year and a half, people are ready to get back on the road, in the air, and even on the water as the travel industry starts to open back up after a nearly $500 billion spending decline since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic (U.S Travel Association). According to TSA, 2 million people passed through U.S. airport security in the seven days leading up to Thanksgiving and AAA reports that more than 50% of American adults plan to take a domestic vacation before the end of 2022.
But vacationing doesn’t look the same as it did pre-pandemic. Travelers are renting private residences rather than staying in big-name hotels. They are visiting more local destinations and staying longer, with many still working remotely or having more flexible schedules. They are opting for more rural, outdoorsy areas versus the glamour of domestic cities and international destinations. Travelers are preferring to participate in outdoor activities, like camping, skiing, and trips to the coast where they can be less concerned about crowded areas. Case in point, the U.S. national parks are seeing a healthy rebound – Yellowstone Park had a record number of visitors in August 2021, 12% over their last pre-pandemic August 2019 according to the National Parks Service.
If these travel trends stick around - and it’s likely they might as concerns about new viral variants arise - businesses like the hotel industry, airlines, and rental car companies will have to learn how they can entice travelers back and provide them with the improved experiences today’s consumers expect. The travel industry is already feeling the strain of the stretched supply chain and employment shortage as wait times, rental car shortages, and limited guest services are creating negative experiences – which we all know can quickly become a viral nightmare. As leaders in the travel industry prepare their organizations for continued reopening, it would be wise to use this time to reexamine their customers’ preferences and choice factors and use those insights to optimize current offerings and create new programs to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty, not only for their own business but for the overall success of the entire industry.
While it would be best to perform a customized market research study that would provide fast, actionable insights that are specific to your customers, we’ve identified a few trends in which to improve the overall customer experience:
1) Keeping travelers safe. Even though people are more willing to travel, they are still wary of large crowds, conscious about maintaining safe distances, and demand clean, germ-free environments. Increased adoption of contactless check-ins and digital keys allow travelers to go directly to their rooms instead of waiting to check in to their rooms in person. Airport robots are being deployed with body temperature sensors and self-cleaning equipment to ease nervous travelers’ minds. Hilton CleanStay, a partnership between Hilton and Lysol, was established to develop protocols and best practices in cleanliness and hygiene to ensure a safer stay for their customers. Check-in with your customers to see what sort of safety preferences are most important to them.
2) Exploring non-traditional opportunities. As people slowly ease their way back into traveling, it’s a great time to explore more unconventional ways to utilize your current offerings. One example of success in this area is HotelsByDay.com, which offers discounted conference, meeting, and individual rooms for remote workers to have access to private workspaces and facilities when offices remain closed – and saw a huge jump in bookings once the pandemic hit. Large chain hotels could benefit from adopting new ways for customers to use their facilities, especially since business travel is expected to return significantly slower than leisure travel.
3) Staying flexible. To win customers back, hotels and airlines must allow for more flexibility in bookings, cancellations, and scheduling to improve the user experience. Customers want to be confident that they won’t lose if they need to make last-minute adjustments or state travel regulations change. Businesses not willing to offer flexible reservations simply won’t be able to compete.
4) Improving rewards programs. Rewarding travelers with free flights and hotel stays are not necessarily the most desirable benefit of loyalty programs in this new age of travel. Understanding that people are not necessarily open to stacking up flights to use their points, some airlines are allowing customers to use credit for other experiences like dining, Uber rides, and more. With less frequent flying and hotel bookings, it’s more important than ever to monitor what rewards your guests appreciate most and which they could do without. A simple survey could show that a costly perk you have been providing is not actually driving interest from your guests, or that the small change - like extending hotel checkout times - would better improve customer satisfaction.
Addressing the latest trends in travel is a good place to start but asking your customers directly would provide the best insight when improving customer loyalty. Performing research to understand what’s most important to customers and how they choose between competitors will help make more impactful decisions that achieve your goals. For more, check out this case study of how a luxury hotel chain used customer insights to improve the loyalty program and increase retention.