Tony Wheble, chief executive of verified reviews and customer insights platform Feefo assesses the travel’s sector’s reaction to COVID and says he sees reasons to be optimistic for the future
If there’s been one key lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic for travel firms it’s been how challenging it is to keep up with how a fast-changing crisis hits consumer sentiment.
Fear, uncertainty and confusion have characterised the public mood alongside periods when more positive feelings have prevailed like hope, anticipation and excitement.
It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, and travel brands themselves have not been immune during the course of a pandemic that has seen hopes raised and dashed constantly for 18 months.
With travel facing the devastating prospect of a second lost summer, Tony Wheble, chief executive of customer insights platform Feefo, fears industry morale is now dipping below consumers’.
Wheble said, in terms of confidence and uncertainty, the travel sector was well ahead of consumers in the early phase of the pandemic when the first wave hit the UK in March last year.
Consumer confidence took another hit in the second and third waves, but we’re now in a third phase in which the vaccine roll-out is seeing increased optimism despite continuing uncertainty over travel.
“While the pandemic was something new to us people who work in travel tended to see it as just the next thing to deal with,” Wheble said. “We’ve seen it all before.
“We’ve had economic meltdowns, we’ve had the volcanic ash crisis, we’ve had oil issues, geopolitical challenges and, guess what, we always find a way around it and the industry always bounces back.
“That’s the way in travel you tend to think, so you go into solutions mode and you do your best to help your clients.
“And so I think, at that stage, you’d say confidence among people that work in the industry that things would be okay was probably fairly high.
“For clients, confidence was hit quite quickly and at that point was very low, whereas the sector was fairly resilient in terms of its mindset.
“But what I’ve seen is a steady decline in confidence among people in the sector to the extent that I’m not sure if morale could be any lower and client confidence has actually overtaken the sector.
“I see consumers thinking, okay, so I kind of know what we’re dealing with here. And I understand I’m not going to lose my money and that there is flexibility around booking.
“I’ve had one or two vaccinations, I kind of get this green, amber, red List thing, although I don’t necessarily agree with its logic, but I’m clear on the rules of engagement.
“And I’m fairly confident that I’m going to be healthy and safe and, therefore, I just need to think about what I want travel-wise in terms of my plans.
“So, I think you had this three-stage situation where clients became angry and confused and uncertain because they didn’t feel that they were being treated fairly and with clarity.
“Clarity was then provided at phase two by the travel businesses who realised maybe they’d scored some own goals around customer experience and communication.
“Now, in combination with a vaccination process, this is resulting in a slightly more confident client.
“But, for the industry, government incompetence and confused and illogical policies around the traffic light system and testing has been the last several straws for people.”
Three approaches: Schizophrenic, pragmatic and brave
Wheble said this has prompted him to look at how different travel brands are responding to the situation to see what strategies companies are adopting to weather the last months of this crisis.
He picked out some very different approaches:
“Some providers very understandably fall into the trap of overloading customers with information, even as they’re trying to provide reassurance.
“Customers are immediately hit with icons on their home pages telling you about testing packages, free changes, COVID cover, pre-travel peace of mind and refund guarantees.
“I look at this and I put myself inside the head of a consumer. What you actually project is uncertainty, complexity and extra expense. This amplifies the risk to consumers of booking now.
“I can imagine the conversations around boardroom tables about all of these various initiatives and what they need to do to reassure clients, but I think it has the opposite effect.
“You might have the best intentions, but when you combine this messaging with a focus on price and discount messaging, your communications become almost schizophrenic.”
However, Wheble praised some brands for communicating well with customers in very difficult circumstances.
“Kuoni, I would say, have taken a pragmatic approach with simplicity of messaging. What I read from it is their focus is on total peace of mind,” he said.
“They’ve really projected their values, which I think focuses on trust, financial security and flexibility.
“Ultimately, if I am a Kuoni customer, or if I’m thinking about becoming a Kuoni customer, I’ve got complete peace of mind.
“And what I really like about what they’ve done is they’ve been pragmatic and they’ve focused on planning ahead for something special.
“Really simple messaging gives me confidence, and I’ll spend time with that business because financially I feel secure and they’re not trying to sell me a holiday in July that might not happen.”
Wheble picked out one leading brand, in particular, for what he sees as a brave, customer-centric approach.
“On The Beach is not selling holidays for June, July and August,” he said. “This is the ultimate client- and staff-first business decision as far as I’m concerned.
“[On The Beach chief executive] Simon Cooper is really demonstrating integrity, leadership, and clarity and a real understanding of his customer base and their sentiment.
“I have to applaud him for that. It’s a super brave decision and I think it’s probably the right decision in terms of customer retention. Time will tell.
“From what we’re hearing from customers and from businesses in the sector, what Simon has done is likely to build loyalty and therefore secure impressive levels of customer retention.
“Simon and his team will know that they will have to continue that dialogue with their customer base and next year’s messaging needs to work out how to remind them of what they’ve done.
“Clearly, Simon is thinking about the long-term health of his business and satisfaction and welfare of his clients. You can’t do anything but applaud that level of brave business decision making.”
Learnings in lockdown
Wheble also says that Feefo itself has been on a journey of learning what brands need from it during the pandemic.
He said the brand, which saw a meteoric rise under its previous owner before a management buy-out in November 2018, heavily focussed on its verified reviews generating platform.
But Wheble said increasingly clients are looking to get more under the skin of how consumers are really feeling, rather than relying on the feedback of the vocal few who get in touch directly.
“Clients have come to us and said we measure how happy our customers are or not, but we’d like to try to understand a little bit more now about sentiment and intent,” he said.
“There were a handful of clients doing that last summer, but now trying to get under the skin of how customers are feeling has taken precedence over what they’ve said about a service or product.
“In terms of our products, whilst we’re still a massive feedback platform, we’ve seen travel maybe more than any other sector, start to really want to dig under the skin of sentiment and intent.
“Historically the focus among travel businesses has been quite transactional. Their focus has been on what customers are searching for, what’s converting and are they motivated by a big discount or early booking offer.
“What we’re now seeing is a more of a sentiment, empathy, understanding focus about what customers really want, what do they feel, and are they confident, are they eager, are they still nervous, are they confused.
“A lot of the analysis we’re doing for clients, at scale, is picking out some of those key words and trying to understand what messaging our customers can use to reassure and gain trust.
“That being said, I’m certain the travel sector will retain a transactional focus to drive new business flows.
“But I hope brands will increasingly combine this strategy with the more enlightened approach of tapping into regular dialogue with their customers around sentiment and customer experience.”
Shifting focus on customer experience
Wheble said he believes travel brands are committing to seeing customer experience as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI).
This trend, which emerged from a survey the company ran with clients in the spring, is seen as a positive that will come out of COVID-19.
“I think it’s taken a while for this shift to catch on in the travel sector,” said Wheble.
“I’ve always considered the travel sector to be progressive when it comes to e-commerce and digital marketing but in recent years, financial services, banking and automotive sectors have really challenged travel in terms of the analytics and insight they’re gaining about their customers.
“They know how to tailor the customer journey to really create personal experiences for the customer personas that they have.
“Part of this responsibility has to be attributed to insight providers like ourselves, who need to perhaps showcase our products more to the travel industry, to show them that we are more than just a reviews platform and have great additional tools to drive value to their business.
“I’m confident that in the years to come, we’ll see more travel businesses leading the way with seeing customer behaviour and sentiment analysis as part of their sales funnel and integrated into their strategy for driving revenue.”