Travel firms should put the customer before analytics when optimising the functionality on their websites and mobile interfaces.
Chris Roe, senior vice president sales, distribution and loyalty at hospitality giant Accor, told a ContentSquare Travel Tribes breakfast event this week that the customer must come first.
Roe has previously worked for Expedia (he was employee number six in the UK), and Virgin Holidays, having begun his career at tour operator Thomson.
He told the audience of travel marketing professionals that when Expedia broke away from Microsoft it did not want technology designed in-house before knowing what customers wanted.
“Do not get your finance team to do your marketing. At Expedia everything went to customer before it got in the hands of developers,” he said.
“Nothing went live until it was tested and then it went to the developers and after they designed and tested it, then it went back to the customers.
“You need customer testing analytics but also to understand your products to leverage giving your customers what they want and at the same time make some money.”
Roe said when he joined Virgin Holidays the operator’s website was not tailored to direct sales and was trying to do too much and did not appear to have a specific purpose or identity.
He said one of the first things he did was to take the TV advert off the homepage because its purpose was getting people to the site.
After conducting customer analytics including a live session during which a group was observed using the site, 70 “cosmetic” quick wins were identified.
One was to change the colour of the buttons from Virgin red, a colour which communicated “stop” to the users, to blue and this saw a significant increase in conversions.
Roe said it was also important that the site appreciated that for a high ticket item like an Orlando family holiday, customers wanted to talk to someone offline before booking.
“It was not necessarily just about getting them through the booking flow, it was getting them out of the booking flow to a person, so it was also measured on click to call or a store visit.
“It’s not just about getting people to convert, it’s getting the consumer what they want. The mistakes people are making is they start with the analytics.
“They have versions A and B and they are testing but what if the customer wants version C?
“Analytics adds value once you have done the qualitative research and really understand what the customer wants.”
Roe said analytics tools can tell you where the pain points are in your user experience and where high bounce rates indicate users are finding it difficult to progress.
But he said customers are constantly changing so usability testing has to be ongoing to ensure firms keep up with evolving demands and address the anxieties consumers have about booking.
And travel is much harder to get this right in due to the complexity of the sector, said Roe. “You can’t come back and say I did not like it I want my money back.
“Retail is relatively easy. Travel is a lot more complex. And the cost of getting a customer is very, very expensive, it’s very, very competitive. I think we have it hard in travel.”
Roe cautioned there was a limit to what can be gleaned from researching what customers want. He said when Virgin Holidays asked customers they got back cheap holidays in the right locations.
None said they wanted a better airport experience, however, when the airline and operator launched its Vroom airport lounge concept it “flew off the shelves”.
“If we would have followed the rule of thumb [of listening to your customer], we would never have launched the Vroom,” he said.
At Accor, Roe said the focus was increasingly on mobile. “It’s not going away,” he said, “that’s a major challenge. You spend money getting people to mobile but it’s not converting.
“The problem is unless you have a log in, which we do, you have no idea whether it’s a unique user or another impression.
“Log-in helps. You have a single customer view. That’s another major challenge we have as an industry.
“If I can understand what you are doing I can target you to go on to book on the right device.”
Although artificial intelligence promises a future in which consumers are offered a much more personalised experience, Roe is still to be convinced.
He said tests at Expedia indicated that the best performing trials were often those that presented search results that were not optimised to the customer.
Roe said this indicates consumers have a better idea of what they don’t want than what they do want and so are open to being offered product predictive analytics would not suggest.