Our partner’s perspective on the future of personalization in travel and hospitality
When it comes to the global travel and hospitality industry, leading brands are no stranger to embracing technology at every turn. Whether they’re rolling out digital keycards, iterating on loyalty apps, or testing contactless experiences, travel and hospitality companies are always striving to improve the customer experience — both online and offline.
Still, like with every other industry — and maybe even more than other industries — travel continues to recover from challenges that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as they move on from issues like tight restrictions, widespread refunds and cancellations, and thousands of rescheduled events, these stalwart brands are ready to start looking to the future. A future that can meet the demand of ever-evolving customer expectations — by personalizing each customer’s experience with real-time data to build lasting relationships and positively impact the business.
We recently sat down with Nick Shay, head of travel and hospitality at Publicis Sapient, to discuss his thoughts on the state of the industry, how companies can start personalizing at scale, and the main benefits they can enjoy by focusing on customer experience. We also discussed Shay’s thoughts on Personalization at Scale: Travel and Hospitality Industry Spotlight, a Forrester Consulting paper commissioned by Adobe. Let’s take a look at what Shay had to say.
We’d love to start by having you tell us a bit about what you do and your backstory at Publicis Sapient.
I run travel and hospitality at Publicis Sapient for its international market. My backstory, in a way, is quite simple. I joined a startup 25 years ago, and I’m still at that startup. It just happens to be quite a large company. I’m very much passionate about how you can bring technology and experience together. And what I love about travel and hospitality is it’s an industry where, for the time being at least, you must experience it physically, not just digitally. And who isn’t passionate about travel? It’s such a great industry.
Touching on that industry aspect and how truly global it is, let’s talk about the Forrester study. What are some of the challenges that you think might be top of mind for this industry?
Over the years companies have proven that focusing on customer experience — and of course personalization — is a big part of driving better results.
But one observation I was pleased to see in the study is that personalization has always been focused on the upfront sales funnel — the pre-booking experience and booking experience — on how you can drive up conversion. This highlights both a challenge and an opportunity for brands to make personalization so integral to their experience that it extends throughout the entire customer journey, not just the upfront stages. If they can address this gap, then there is a real opportunity for new value creation for travel companies and their customers.
For example, if you’re a cruise line, you don’t just care about the booking. You want the whole cruise experience to be great for your cruisers because you know they’re going to come back again and again and again. And I think that’s where part of the challenge is. The experience of personalization tends to drop off as soon as you go from an online booking into the actual experience of the travel, vacation, or cruise.
As we think about tying that experience together from start to finish with data and content, how should companies actually take action to get that started?
There are a number of elements to it. One way is to do a better job collecting data, picking up on the signals from customers, and then reacting to those signals, resulting in a more personalized experience.
I’ll stick with the cruise example for now. Today, with cruises, you have a ship experience and a shore experience. When you’re on shore, you’re researching and booking your cruise. Now, say you want to book. Do you want the spa package? Do you want the table at the restaurant on the ship on the first night? Do you want to have a free bottle of wine thrown in? You’re booking all of that, right? That needs to transition onto the ship, so when you go there, they should know who you are and they say, “Hello, Mr. Gardner. Lovely to see you.”
But what happens is these things end up being broken up into silos, so that experience is often broken along the way. At the heart of it, you often find that it’s not necessarily the technology that’s getting in the way — it’s because of the way operations and the organization are set up. There’s someone running the restaurant, someone else running the bookings, and so on. In essence, the organization is not centered around the passenger or the cruiser and the customer experience suffers.
It’s not necessarily the technology that’s getting in the way — it’s because of the way operations and the organization are set up.
Nick Shay, Head of Travel and Hospitality, Publicis Sapient
One thing companies can do is reorganize themselves in a way that focuses their teams a lot more around the guests. A second thing is that companies can get a lot better at data. If you use the cruise as an example again, right now we have internet everywhere. A brand’s platform that’s driving the experience and capturing the data can be available to cruisers whether they’re on shore or on the ship.
There’s another school of thought that says the passenger should have more control of their data. Imagine a world where you as a passenger have everything in your phone and it’s all yours, a bit like a passport. No one knows who you are until you wave your passport, and at that point you are immediately trusted. This represents a departure from the traditional 360-degree view of the customer model that has often resulted in brands storing incomplete or out-of-date views of customers, leading to poor levels of services. This will mean letting the passenger share what they need to share when they need to share it. If you are in the travel business, then you will need to learn to listen and respond accordingly in this new paradigm.
That’s fascinating, and it sounds like both these schools of thought rely on data and connecting teams together and doing it all in real time. And they’re both areas where travel and hospitality companies maybe have some work to do or opportunities they could tap into. With that in mind, are there other key areas where these companies are falling short?
I mentioned that businesses can be quite complicated, often because they are organized around business lines, not customers. They can also be reluctant to partner with other businesses to create more unified products and experiences. But if you can challenge that thinking, then so much more is possible.
It’s that integration of experience, data, and technology that makes it work right. That’s where the magic happens.
Nick Shay, Head of Travel and Hospitality, Publicis Sapient
Say you’re running an airport, and you have different business lines. Someone’s running retail, someone else on parking, someone else on security, someone on airline partnerships and so on — those are very separate things and so the impetus is on the passenger to orchestrate their experience.
Now let’s think what’s possible if you center around the passenger. Imagine driving up to the parking garage and through automatic number plate recognition — security knows that you have arrived. You get a notification on your phone that you have an appointment to go through security at a specific time to avoid the queues. You leave your keys with the valet because you had requested dry cleaning and grocery shopping when you booked your trip, and you want those things to be left in your car when you return. The restaurant knows you are on your way and sends the menu to your phone so that you can order on the fly. They will put the order through the kitchen when they know you are passing through security.
On the way home, you’re in the air and remember you need to buy a present for your kids. You decide to shop at the airport rather than choosing from the limited selection that is on the cart they push up and down the aisle. Those gifts are waiting for you when you land. This is very easy to say and very hard to do. But through partnerships travel companies can do things very differently, creating more value for customers and for their own business.
Bringing this to life requires heavy use of technology, of course. Cloud, data, and open APIs are a given, but more and more we will also see the use of artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, virtual reality, and Web3 technology powering these partnerships and experiences.
We’ve come this far without talking AI, but we’re at the beginning of a paradigm shift that companies need to go after.
For example, imagine if you needed to get customer service during your vacation. If you’ve ever had a bad experience when you’re on a vacation and you’re trying to reach someone, you know how frustrating it can be. But imagine if you can start using conversational AI to personalize the experience. It’s that integration of experience, data, and technology that makes it work right. That’s where the magic happens.
We’ve talked a lot about these big pillars — data, content, technology. If you had to outline some key steps to improve the customer experience, what might those steps be to get companies started?
The first thing is you need to understand your customers and know when things are breaking down in the experience. That’s just a given, but it’s amazing how many companies don’t really scrutinize what the data is telling them.
I’ll give you an example. We started looking at the data of a quick-service restaurant chain to understand why people were dropping out of the mobile order flow at a particular point. What was causing the friction? We realized that there was only a problem with Android and not with iPhone users. And when we put monetary value to how much money was being left on the table, we realized there was a significant problem to be solved. It’s about getting into the data and looking at it in the context of the customer journey, and it’s an underused method today.
But thinking about how to improve the customer experience is just one approach. The other approach is to ask what happens if you reimagine the entire experience.
That’s completely different. Because that requires not just an incremental change, but to imagine if you could change everything from the ground up. For example, imagine if you wanted to just change what an airport was.
Let’s say you’re on the beach and checked in and literally walk from the beach onto your plane. Or imagine that baggage claim never existed. It doesn’t feel like a consumer-facing experience today, does it? You ideate around what a future experience could be, trying not to be too stuck in what there is today because it is too limiting. You need to start looking at experiences in other industries to bring in inspiration and different perspectives.
For example, in hospitality I’ve seen hotels turning into community hubs. Rather than hotels being places that people from out of town go and stay in, they become a hub and a source of value for their local community.
Now that we’ve talked about challenges, opportunities, and ways to make change happen, what could be some of the main benefits that travel and hospitality companies can see by making the experience their priority?
Well, the first one is customer advocacy and loyalty. Disney is still an expert at this in the way that they do it. They have such a high repeat rate where customers who go and experience Disney for the first time will come back 70% of the time. And it’s because Disney pays so much attention to the experience. In many respects, a company will get customer loyalty if they invest in it.
I think the first thing is you need to understand your customers and know when things are breaking down in the experience.
Nick Shay, Head of Travel and Hospitality, Publicis Sapient
Then there’s going to be the upside. You’re going to get more bookings or increased wallet share.
But to make this happen, companies must keep innovating. There isn’t a time where you can just stand still and say you’re all good. If you look at what’s happening in the travel and hospitality space, there’s so much innovation now. And when it comes to the experience, you need to be constantly looking at what’s next.
Embrace the future of travel and hospitality
We’re so grateful for the time Shay took to shed some light on the state of travel and hospitality. Like he said, the future of the industry depends on innovation. And at Adobe, we’re here to help you find new ways to connect your data, content, collaboration, and journey initiatives — all so you can deliver amazing experiences for your customers. Whether you’re trying to find the small changes you need to make to boost your loyalty or looking to reimagine your entire experience, we have the tools you need to take the first step.
Check out how we help leading travel brands transform their experiences and innovate every day. Or get a closer look at industry trends and insights in the Forrester study Personalization at Scale: Travel & Hospitality Spotlight.
Join us at Adobe Summit. As a Diamond Sponsor, Publicis Sapient will be showcasing how together with Adobe they are delivering transformative solutions for clients. Stop by their booth #601 to connect with their team and get inspired about how our solutions can help drive your business goals through digital transformation. Learn more about the partnership with Adobe.