It’s hard and it’s not going to get any easier. That underlying theme was one of my key takeaways as nearly 300 travel industry marketing executives gathered last week in New York City at the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) Digital Marketing Strategy Conference.
Of course, with the challenges come opportunities and it was interesting to hear different perspectives on how brands are addressing the all-important need to connect and engage with today’s traveler.
Not surprisingly, much of the discussion centered on enhancing the customer experience and the need to personalize our communications so that you’re talking to customers on a truly individual basis and delivering messages and services that are highly relevant. A Gartner study found that 89% of companies believe that customer experiences will be the primary basis for competition in the future, and a Forrester report stated that companies rated as “Customer Experience Leaders” were outperforming the market by 93%.
That said, only 7% of customers in a CMSWire study reported having their expectations surpassed. And in a study last year from Time, Inc. and YouGov only 3% of affluent travelers felt that luxury brands always lived up to their promise of quality, craftsmanship and design and artistry.
There’s no question that as customers research online and experience more in both the virtual and real worlds, that their expectations increase. And with the advent of new technologies and the sharing of abundant data, customers are expecting things to happen in real time and be highly personalized just for them.
Here are just a few of the interesting points that I took away from the conference:
- Obviously, no discussion of customer engagement can happen without a focus on mobile and the reality that it will be used for 25% of all U.S. travel sales in 2015.
- Too many marketers tend to lump smartphones and tablets as one, when in fact a smartphone is always connected, while a vast majority of tablets are generally dependent on a Wi-Fi connection and are being used more like a desktop device.
- Jerry Kressman, who serves as eMarketer’s travel analyst, shared that one leading travel brand thinks about mobile when they think about acquisition. And that they think about apps when they think about retention and loyalty. It’s an important distinction and reflects that people are generally more willing to engage with a brand-specific app only once they have sampled the product and feel like the relationship (and the app) offer some inherent or implied benefit and value.
- Another interesting insight from Kressmann was that hotels are converting better in their direct sites when they mimic the leading OTAs in their region and market.
- While many are still focused on first- and last-click attribution, the reality is that there are numerous assist interactions that happen between those two points that shouldn’t be overlooked or their importance underestimated. At Leading Hotels of the World, they are finding value in looking at a time-decay attribution model and encouraged others to do the same.
- While analytics is an essential element of both maximizing and measuring engagement, when the audience was asked how many had full time analysts on staff to manage this effort only five hands went up. It reinforced the discussion that marketers continue to struggle to get the resources they need to be successful in their engagement efforts.
- It was revealed that the trailer for Marriott’s eagerly anticipated content play, “The Two Bellmen,” has been seen over 1 million times on YouTube, yet it was surprising that only 174 of those viewers had actually shared the video. That’s fewer than two-tenths of 1%.
- With all the discussion about engagement, Jim Zito from Chelsea Hotels reminded everyone that some people are going away to be disconnected and that you need to really understand your audience and the guest experience you’re promising before layering in all kinds of technology and forced engagement. He cited Ruschmeyer’s, their property in Montauk, N.Y., as one where maintaining the laid back, flip-flop atmosphere trumps all else.
- When budgets and resources are tight, Sean Cohen, creative director for TravelClick, made an impassioned plea for people to focus on converting travelers that are further down the sales funnel. While “Upfunnel” marketing that builds awareness and brand affinity is where all the sexy and fun work is being done, the heavy lifting and greatest return is happening once people are already well down the sales funnel.
- Among the brands doing the most interesting things relative to engagement is Marriott where they are testing their “Local Perks” program at 15 hotels. Using beacon transmitters throughout key areas of these properties, they are able to send push notifications to anyone within a certain radius of the beacon. The opt-in experience requires guests to download a specific app which enables guests to receive special offers, information on hours and services and more. And while Marriott said that the guest response had been very positive, the implementation has proved to be particularly time and resource intensive, as it required coordination across a wealth of departments and functions, and it has required far more content development and testing than they had anticipated to get it right and to maintain engagement on an ongoing basis.
Indeed, if there was anything that seemed to be mentioned in many of the presentations it was the complexity, challenges and the implied cost (in terms of people and financial investment) to aggregate, manage and parse data from multiple systems, invest in the required technology, build and manage the content, and constantly test, measure and analyze the results.
Of course, it was equally clear that those brands and hotels that don’t start to embrace these realities and make engagement a core part of their business strategy risk being left behind.
*Originally published on MediaPost.