LEADERSHIP LAB 2015: ALGORITHMS VS ROMANCE
In the second part of our series of Leadership Lab interviews, we talk to participants Tina Edmundson (Marriott International) and Jonas Rask Eilersen (RASK Travel) about how the idea of personalisation can be applied through either technology or human interaction to elevate the traveller’s experience.
To read the full findings from this year’s Lab on the topic of ALGORITHMS VS ROMANCE, look out for your hard copy of the report or request a copy here…
Tina Edmundson – Global Officer for Luxury and Lifestyle Brands, Marriott International
How can the curation of data be used to help travel brands cut through the noise of the modern marketplace and enable better consumer choices?
The curation of audience data is enabling us to develop a profound and personal understanding of our guests around the world. It has been key in the development of Marriott International’s expanding portfolio of lifestyle brands, which targets a broad millennial audience, but also caters to niche traveller profiles.
How can travel brands use the wealth of personal data they now have access to intelligently, and in a way that doesn’t irritate or feel intrusive to the consumer?
With a more personal understanding of our guests, with the help of new technologies from social media to owned content to the Marriott International Mobile app – we are now able to micro-target and communicate efficiently with our guests in their language, to engage on their preferred platform, to join their conversations, to let our guests voice their opinions and points of view and to respond quickly and effectively to make change – customer loyalty is key to Marriott International and through our expansive digital and social footprint we are reaching millions of guests personally, in a way that is native.
Do you agree that when it comes to spontaneity and convenience, OTAs have a temporary monopoly on bookings? Can direct and agent bookings compete with the degree of personalisation being offered by algorithms?
It’s true that OTAs provide travellers with the means to search, compare and book a broad range of published hotel rates, to see shared traveller reviews, and to customise their choices, and algorithms can analyse data to produce better predictions than the top expert in a given field. What they don’t offer is a direct and personal connection with the brand; they certainly don’t offer empathy, creativity or any social skills. In this new world of super smart machines, we still value emotional intelligence – we like to, for example, inject some humour into our relationships with our guests.
What do you think will be the next innovations in using data to track and predict guest preferences? Do ideas like geotagging and loyalty programmes have a future?
Geotagging is already allowing us to understand our guests’ travel preferences and loyalty programmes are key. Marriott’s award-winning loyalty program, Marriott Rewards, spans 19 brands and 4300 properties worldwide and has over 50 million members around the world. With this level of personal engagement we have a unique advantage in tracking and tailoring to our guest preferences.
How will the continuing power of consumer feedback through social media and review sites shape the power balance between brands defining consumers (through data tagging) and consumers defining brands?
More and more it is consumers who are defining our brands – they are our greatest resource. We want to be in an authentic, two-way conversation with them. The closer we get to our audiences, the more we can provide our guests with an authentic, seamless travel and hospitality experience.
As the world goes mobile and immediacy becomes a key factor in booking decisions, how should travel brands adjust how they reach consumers?
They should celebrate this shift! Marriott International just launched a new digital campaign titled #itpaystobookdirect, which highlights the benefits for consumers who book hotel stays directly on Marriott.com. Guests who book direct get best rate guarantees, free WiFi and mobile check-in, access to all the rooms available and the most trustworthy information from the source – it’s the best way for our guests to personalise their stay. We believe in a personal connection with our guests, intuition, and anticipating our guests’ needs – these are the tenets of hospitality. It seems like our approach has shifted from push to pull and it feels more creative. We can draw our inspiration for innovation directly from our audiences, and we can let them live their dreams – I don’t think any algorithm has worked out how to dream yet.
Jonas Rask Eilersen – Founding Director, RASK Travel
In a data-driven world, the idea of anonymity is becoming increasingly appealing. How can travel brands create an anonymous experience that still fulfils all the traveller’s needs?
If you are a provider of experiences and you only have, and are only targeting, guests or consumers who want to tell the whole world about it, then you’re doing something wrong. At RASK, many of our clients wouldn’t dream of sharing their experiences with anybody but a trusted few. Luckily, we are among those trusted few for them, and incidentally, those clients are also our most profitable, by far.
An inherent issue in terms of creating and discovering these experiences is that the way that many people get to know about even an ‘anonymous’ experience is through social media; which, just as inherently, tracks and tags the people experiencing it and sharing it. If you really want to create truly anonymous travel experiences, then you have to stop sharing the experiences, or at the very least, be more careful about how and to whom you’re disseminating them.
Can targeted travel and anonymous travel work in tandem?
Absolutely, and it does – for some. You’re simply not hearing about it – for the very reason that these experiences are not shared on social media or at sales roadshows.
Do you agree that the desire to go off-grid presents an opportunity for travel agents? How can agents take advantage of this?
This is a huge opportunity for both suppliers and intermediaries – however, the onus is on the suppliers to identify these intermediaries, i.e. travel agents. In the big sales and marketing machines for many suppliers, there is simply too much focus on the mass market – even when it comes to lifestyle luxury. It is obvious that the way you don’t do it is to run big sales presentations and roadshows – what you want is to be presented exclusively with these special products and experiences, which we on the agency side can then present to our client in an honest, calm milieu. The key here is to ensure that the chain is kept quiet and under the radar; today’s successful travel agents are confidantes of their best clients and we need to feel that hand on our heart, we can recommend these anonymous travel experiences.
In general, I think that, even today, sales and marketing machines on the whole simply do not appreciate the fact that today’s successful travel agents possess insider knowledge about their clients, which is akin to the insight that the client’s lawyer or doctor might have. When you have that kind of knowledge about people, you know what fits them and you go out there and get it for them. I have yet to experience a response from the supplier side that reflects an understanding of how profitable this kind of knowledge can be.
Are loyalty programmes still relevant, or do people not want to feel like they are being followed by their data?
Loyalty programmes continue to be relevant – I just don’t think that it’s about loyalty anymore. Rather, it’s simply another currency – i.e. which credit card, frequent flyer programme or frequent guest programme gives the most bang for your buck. I’m not saying that these programmes are not very important, or relevant, anymore – however, the meaningful interaction you, as a supplier, really want, is one where you make an emotional connection with your client.
Are innovations like geotagging always a bad idea, or are there ways that they can be sensitively used to improve the traveller’s experience?
Yes, I certainly think it can be a great idea – however, the human interaction is what makes it memorable, and thereby relevant in the long run. I don’t think anybody’s heart jumps when they get a computer-generated birthday greeting from their bank, for example. Still, if you work with the right people, whether you’re on the supplier side or the intermediary side, then you are able to interpret all the wonderful data available to you and translate it into a meaningful interaction with your client.