Customer Expectation is the New Buzzword For the Travel Industry
Jack Kerouac, writer and traveler, dreamt of a backpack revolution many years ago, where average Americans would fan out the length and breadth of their country with nothing more than a backpack. Many years later, miles away, in a different milieu, another age, another country, in India, Jack Kerouac’s dream is being relived like there’s no tomorrow. Yes, India is traveling. Whether it is the overworked executive planning, a quick weekend getaway or family of four migrating to the hills to beat the scorching summers – traveling is in.
How big is the industry in India?
The industry is thriving, not withstanding the impact of the country’s slowing economy, depreciating rupee and failing airline industry. Stats are inevitable. The World Travel and Tourism Council calculated that tourism generated INR 6.6 Trillion or 6.6% of the nation’s GDP in 2012. Jobs generated 39.5 million. More than 7 million foreign tourists come to our shores every year. Domestic tourists stand at a whooping 850.86 million. Online booking is off the charts.
In 2012 alone, Indians spent $22.1 billion on business travel alone, surpassing Canada to become the 10th largest travel market in the world. With growth rate registering a healthy 5% YOY the travel industry is poised for great times. Besides providing a ready outlet for our recreational needs, travel generates millions of jobs annually and sustains thousands of ancillary industries spreading across the length and breadth of the country which is a good reason for cheering this industry.
Factors driving growth
India’s rich history, cultural and geographical diversity, besides its many scenic vistas spread across the length and breadth of the country, makes its international tourism appeal large and diverse. India ranks 65th out of 144 countries as per the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness report 2013. Also India has quite a good road and air transport facilities besides an extensive rail network, which makes traveling to distant parts of the country hassle free.
Factors impeding growth of the Indian Tourism industry
But all is not hunky dory. Any conversation on traveling in India has the habit of veering unerringly to the prickly topic of tour operators and their lack of ethics. They would sell you tour packages to (famous) lakes that had dried up long time ago or to (wannabe) forts famous for some skirmishes nobody knows much about or to some fictional towns famous for fictional events unreported in history books.
Less said about hotel accommodation the better: dirty rooms; unresponsive staff; rooms smelling of weed; toilets that don’t flush; taps that don’t work; pricy food; tell-tale signs of previous night’s orgies. It is all grin to bear with. Wait until the next day; only to check out before eleven P.M. Cross your fingers. Look for another stay. All this hectic traipsing through one hotel door to another eats into your traveling time and before you know it is time to pack your bags and go back to your 9-5 job. Holiday ruined.
Rise of the new informed class of travelers
Historically, travel companies in India have been callous, giving the short end of the stick to the typical traveler. Short on choices, low on information, the traveler in India, is a much harried lot.
But all of this is changing; thanks to the rise of a new class of information savvy travelers connected to the great World Wide Web of Information on their smart-phones, tablets and laptops. Thanks to the profusion of information and services on the internet. Today’s customers are more confident of their bargaining position.
a) Changing expectations
As seen from the above discussion the major difficult areas for a typical traveler are –
1) Price – Is my travel agent overcharging me? Is there a group discount? Can I get the same package for less from a different vendor? I hope they don’t shortchange me? Is there a package for a budget traveler like me? Is my travel agent trustworthy? Am I, in the words of my travel agent, getting the best deal out there? Isn’t the wining and dining terribly expensive?
2) Service -Will I be staying in an industry accredited hotel? Will they have clean linen and fresh towels for me? I hope the food is good. Will the itinerary include all the tourist hotspots? What is the best place to wine and dine in this foreign city? What do they have planned for an action junkie like me or is there something more laid back to sedate me?
b) Managing Expectations
So basically the travel business boils down to managing the many aspirations and expectations of the modern day traveler. And who else will bring it together than the online travel agency.
Online travel booking behavior follows the following pattern: 1) ideation stage – strong desire for traveling is established; 2) learning phase – logging online for researching various travel destinations; 3) booking phase – buying a customized travel plan from an online travel agency or OTA.
During steps 1, 2 and 3 the buyer may visit multiple websites to gather information needed for stitching together a travel package.
Acquiring and retaining customers
The #1 challenge before online travel agents is converting online visitors to customers and hopefully brand ambassadors. Good SEO brings site visitors and then it is a question of how well businesses are able to engage visitors coming to their site.
a) Acquiring New Customers
The OTA industry has taken rapid strides since the last time you checked into a budget hotel. It is safer. There are more packages and options. Information is easily accessible. You can easily bypass the services of cut-throat tour operators and touts and all those who are after your money by logging into the net and searching for the deals that suit both your pocket and lifestyle.
Today’s travelers suffer from an information overload which is in sharp contrast to travelers belonging to an earlier era suffering from an information deficit which made them an easy game for unscrupulous tour operators. However, this has changed significantly with travel websites providing tour packages complete with locale and wining & dining information. Most importantly, all this travel information is now available to anyone with an internet connection. Tourists can simply log into a travel website, check various package deals, compare prices and choose the one package that suits their pocket and lifestyle.
Consequently, travel companies have had to step up their efforts to make their presence felt in the virtual marketplace. A strong web presence, a database of readable content, 24×7 helpline, WOW level customer experience and much more. Success has boiled down to their ability to hawk their travel agency business online through SEO/SEM/Content campaign and high quality customer engagement (customer experience) efforts. With smart-phone sales going through websites should be smart-phone compliant.
a) Creating Brand Ambassadors
Words travel. Invite your customers to share their good experience on social media platforms.
b) Retaining Customers
It is easier to retain than attain new customers, but it is easier said than done. Customers are influenced by positive and negative influences while repurchasing from an OTA. Drivers of positive influence include –
1) Focusing on the overall experience – What is the one thing that is guaranteed to make a traveler irate? It is an OTA that slaps one charge over the other at every turn. Want help with your baggage? Pay Re 500 extra. Want a porter? Pay extra. Traveling should be stress free. It is supposed to be of quality time. All inclusive deals should be all inclusive. No extra payments or charges.
2) Manage traveler anxiety when bad things happen – 24/7 Twitter Concierge. Not far fetched at all. Five star hotels are training customer service reps on how to reply in 140 characters. 24×7 helpline can go a long way in negating customer’s anxiety before, during and after the trip has taken place.
Monitor Social Media platforms for negative experiences – Respond to criticism on social media platforms immediately before travelers vote with their wallet. Sometimes an apology works better than compensation. However, know when there is a need for compensation.
How can Knowlarity help the OTA INDUSTRY?
The secret to building a great travel agency is quality customer engagement. And, in order to make this happen, all channels of communication have to be open 24×7. However, this is easier said than done, smaller agencies lack the funds or the technical know-how needed for a well rounded communication platform.
In this context, one can make a strong case for cloud based communication platforms. Unlike conventional telephony servers, that are costly and maintenance heavy, cloud based telephony platforms are affordable and maintenance free as they come on a managed services platform. Some come with their own CRM for recording customer details (name, telephone number, lead detail) which can be used for ready referencing purposes when the customer calls back on a later date.
Better communications capability invariably leads to superior customer to business to customer engagement riding on hindrance free exchange of ideas and information. Dynamic call routing, off hours support, voicemail and callback service provides seamless communications capability to travel agencies.
With large scale travel companies entering the lucrative market in India domestic companies will have to step up on their customer engagement efforts to stay competitive in the fast developing market. In a market segment where communication is the key, cloud telephony can play a major role in leveling the playing field between big biz and small biz providing Fortune 500 type communications to travel operators.