General Manager - Loyalty Agency Collinson
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Engaging travel lovers to champion travel recovery

1st Jun 2020
General Manager - Loyalty Agency Collinson
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People who love the journey are grounded. How can travel brands connect with travellers to reassure them, reward them, and help them to once more take to the skies when the time is right?

Why do we travel? For some people, it’s a desire to explore. For others, it’s about seeing friends and family, or doing business. For most of us, it’s a combination. 

But today, things have changed. The COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic has grounded planes, trains and automobiles around the globe; so while our desire to travel still remains, the travel ecosystem is now experiencing a seismic shift. We are navigating an uncharted territory and brands will need to address the change and modify their approach accordingly. This could be an opportunity to improve the travel experience for the better.

Airlines, hotels, and every business across the travel ecosystem must rethink customer engagement. They must ask: How can we rebuild relationships and confidence today, to help champion the recovery that the travel industry so desperately needs tomorrow?

Brands are responding to the need for action in a huge variety of ways. Some businesses are ripping out ironclad rules to create more forgiving customer policies. Others are working overtime to deliver on unique customer needs that have suddenly arisen. Practically all companies are rethinking how they communicate at this complicated, ever-changing time. 

There is much to learn from the best practices we’re already seeing, about how to engage travellers today to drive the eventual travel recovery – a recovery we are all hopeful for.

Empathy and flexibility

The outbreak of COVID-19 has frequent travellers feeling frustrated and powerless. They are cut-off from doing the thing they love, unable to plan for the near future and in many cases prevented from doing their job. In this context, it is imperative that travel brands act with empathy and flexibility when setting rebooking and cancellation policies. After all, the people who travel frequently are the heart of the industry – and it won’t keep beating without them.

The same goes for loyalty programmes, which are now inundated with concerns from members wanting to know how they can maintain their status if they’re unable to travel. Offering uninterrupted tier status is one important way to show members that they are valued and to demonstrate that loyalty goes both ways. While it may go against normal policy – this is an unprecedented situation.

Many airlines and hotels worldwide, as well as tourism operators, have already waived cancellation fees, relaxed loyalty membership earning requirements, and introduced more flexibility on future bookings. Some companies are going even further: Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific for example, is offering three months of relief points to Marco Polo Club members for them to enjoy when travel resumes; and both Delta Airlines and United Airlines recently announced the extension of all status levels through 2021. From no-fee cancellations, to extra rewards, to discounts on future bookings, there are many ways a business can look forward to the eventual recovery via a policy that reassures passengers now and encourages them to get excited for future travel.

Relevant, innovative offerings

With so many travellers not only grounded but also stuck inside their homes under isolation orders, travel brands are faced with a unique challenge: how to stay engaged and relevant during this completely unprecedented situation?

Loyalty currency can be a powerful mechanism to not only remain engaged with, but to also drive crucial revenue from travellers. Many brands already extend their loyalty currency into everyday life – with online shopping malls to earn and spend points, co-branded credit cards and so on – but now it’s time to broaden ancillary usage and revenue streams even further. This will be key for travel brands and loyalty programmes to remain top-of-mind and wallet when their core proposition is not currently valid. Collinson, for example, is already working with partners to bring new offerings like meal kit and grocery home delivery services into the loyalty ecosystem, so that the travel brands we work with have more opportunities to connect with and reward their customers in a deeply relevant way.

Travel companies can also observe the best practices of organisations in other industries. The key is imagination – thinking outside the box to creatively engage with customers, and the public at large. It’s not about pushing a brand’s own agenda, but rather addressing the wider situation. Museums worldwide are now connecting with people via virtual tours, to provide much-needed entertainment and cultural exploration without leaving the house. This is a fantastic way to engage travel lovers now and help them create a travel wish list for the future; and there is plenty more whitespace for airlines, hotels and other businesses to join in.

Honest, transparent and timely communications

Every brand is on a communications journey, depending on when and how their business has been affected by the outbreak. The first step is baseline communications, to share the company’s own actions in monitoring the situation and putting safety first. After that, brands can get more creative with aspirational and even bold communications. Both types of communications are critical for travel lovers, who need reassurance and crucial information as much as they need a reminder that the joy of travelling is not forever lost. Visit Portugal introduced an uplifting ‘Can’t Skip Hope’ video series and Lonely Planet is using social media to share cool travel finds – and these are just two examples of how brands can use timely, aspirational communications to inspire people to keep their love for travel alive.

Transparency is key for all communications at this moment, and brands can stand out from the crowd with an honest point of view on how the business itself is being affected by the outbreak. Hilton has been open about communicating the difficulties now facing its operations, announcing that its President and CEO will forgo a salary for the remainder of 2020 and describing the tough decision of having to reduce team members’ schedules. Meanwhile, Marriott International’s President and CEO published a public message to associates, speaking frankly about the profound impact of the pandemic and describing specific actions being taken, including salary cuts for executives.

This kind of transparency can help build kinship between travel brands and their customers, each of which are facing challenges. It’s also an opportunity to share the good news. Hilton revealed that it will give team members access to over 500,000 temporary jobs via the Hilton Workforce Resources Center until travel picks up again – bringing in the aspirational, hopeful side of the story.

Looking towards travel recovery

After COVID-19, the future of travel may look very different than any of us imagined. But there’s no going back; and every business operating in and around the travel sector must take a stake in building that future.

The time to act is now. When it’s safe to hit the road and take to the skies, travellers will remember the brands that went above and beyond to reward and reassure them during this difficult period. From flexible policies, to unexpected offerings and transparent communications – travel brands must take a stand, be kind and be innovative, and show their customers that they are valued and that their needs come first. Engaging travel lovers today is the only way to champion the travel recovery tomorrow.

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