6 Strategies for Boosting Travel Customer Loyalty in Times of Uncertainty

Liam Burns
Written by Liam Burns
September 09, 2020

No industry has suffered more under the pandemic than travel and tourism.

Previously forecasted to grow in 2020, projections now estimate travel revenue will decline by about 35% this year.

Travel customer loyalty was already elusive before COVID-19. Today, 77% of customers say brands don’t make enough of a genuine effort to earn their loyalty.

Understanding your unique customer needs and creating an optimal experience are both critical for cementing loyalty.


The Disconnect Between the Travel Industry and Customer Habits

There’s a fundamental problem with how customers shop for travel services and the experience brands provide.

Almost every travel industry giant has a rewards program in place, but the actual customer loyalty doesn’t hold up in practice. Loyalty program members still shop around on at least three websites before booking.

From trip-to-trip, 80% of customers will book a different hotel and 77% will choose a different airline. Even 40% of frequent fliers book with alternative airlines. This means companies aren’t providing the experience travel customers demand in exchange for their loyalty.

Furthermore, 84% of consumers say they’re willing to pay more for a better experience. In terms of the travel industry’s services, products, and experience, that figure is pretty telling.

Brands need to evaluate their unique offerings and audience segments before improving their digital experience.


How to Increase Travel Customer Loyalty in Times of Uncertainty and Beyond

You can’t force customer loyalty. Furthermore, the same customer experience won’t work for every travel company. It depends entirely on your audience and what they expect while traveling.

In many cases, customers might not even be aware of their own expectations. Nevertheless, these subconscious expectations still exist and apply to their buying behavior.

Here are a few strategies to help you boost customer loyalty.

1. Promote Flexibility to Increase Travel Customer Loyalty

Most travelers have tried to switch a flight date only to discover it will cost more than double what they paid for the original booking.

Airline and hotel leaders have already adapted flexible booking policies under COVID-19. They’re setting the standard now for all travel brands to follow.

Customers know if one brand doesn’t offer the flexibility they need, they can find it somewhere else.

It’s not enough to tuck flexibility away in the fine print either. Customers need to see policies up-front throughout their booking process: As they’re shopping, checking out, and post-purchase.

United lets travelers know right away on their homepage that they’ve dropped change fees. The customer doesn’t have to seek out the information themselves.

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By clicking Learn more, travelers can see other flexible updates United has made to its policy.

United also makes it clear that the permanent removal of change fees online applies only to US flights. It’s important to make customers aware of this limitation openly instead of hiding it.

Waiting for a customer to book an intercontinental flight to let them know they can’t change it for free will make travelers feel exploited and angry. This is not good for travel customer loyalty.

2. Offer a Frictionless Digital Experience Across All Devices

Customers expect an omnichannel experience. 71% say brands should deliver a consistent experience across every channel yet only 29% say companies deliver.

Travel customer loyalty is especially tied to a frictionless omnichannel experience. It’s common for travelers to start browsing flights on one device and complete the transaction on another.

Consider a few scenarios where a consistent and seamless digital experience is critical:

  • The digital nomad who lives booking-to-booking and relies on consistent mobile access.
  • The casual vacationer who gets inspiration via their phone and reserves flights on their laptop.
  • The business traveler who forwards booking information to higher-ups or accounting.

Some of these customers might complete the entire purchase through their smartphone – like the digital nomad. Others might need their browsing data to transfer between devices without any effort on their part.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to find out where your experience hits a snag until problems multiply.

British Airways enlisted Decibel’s help to track their digital experience and look for hiccups. Using advanced session replay and heatmap analysis, Decibel managed to pinpoint both the “what” and “why” of what was going wrong.

British Airways finally had the context they needed to prevent problems from piling up. Smooth processes are vital for encouraging travel customer loyalty.

3. Personalize Based on Unique Customer Needs

Customers have always had unique travel needs. The changing economy, however, has strengthened the divide.

What it means to travel for business and leisure has shifted. What customers need from their travel has changed. A personalized experience is important here.

85% say customized itineraries are more useful than mass-marketed choices.

Let customers add details about their trip plans. You can use this information to adjust your marketing. Not only will it help you provide the most relevant content, but it also lets you learn about your audience segments.

Notice how Lonely Planet includes topics for a wide range of demographics in their email.

After offering budget ideas and tips for single parents, it moves onto stories of parents homeschooling their kids around the world.

Lonely Planet can learn more about the subscriber based on what topics they click. From there, it can adjust its marketing messaging.

Instead of focusing on individual customer profiles, focus on behavior patterns. You might not be able to predict where and how a customer travels, but you can take cues from their behavior to predict short-term travel plans.

4. Expand Your Point Redemption or Loyalty Offerings to Boost Travel Customer Loyalty

Airline miles and point systems have existed for about 40 years now without a major overhaul.  In fact, it costs more miles to claim reward flights than ever before. Now, the pandemic’s restrictions have credit card companies reevaluating airline points.

The problem is so bad it’s pulled down customer satisfaction by 1% in the credit card industry. Many cards have switched to offering rewards on streaming services and food delivery.

If credit cards aren’t benefiting from travel miles anymore, perhaps it’s time for travel companies themselves to revisit their own rewards system.

Research shows even loyalty program members shop around before booking flights and accommodations. Why bother restricting loyalty perks to members?

Use services and experience to show customers why you deserve their loyalty.

Open the VIP lounge to everyone regardless of status. Allow access to priority seats and discounted upgrades. Many people will never manage to afford upgrading to business class regardless. You could win their customer loyalty, however, by offering perks.

5. Rethink How Customers Might Use Your App

Airbnb and similar startups drove a major push for improved travel apps a few years ago. However, many brands haven’t managed to keep up.

Airlines today offer maps and booking information but traveling involves so much more than that.

Expanding your app’s capabilities can go a long way towards improving loyalty. The more someone uses your app, the more likely they are to remember your brand when it’s time to book a service.

Airbnb allows travelers to plan detailed itineraries within the app. Prior to the pandemic (when live music transitioned to live streams), the app Bandsintown had started expanding its services by partnering with travel companies.

Bandsintown knew that users often need to do more than just purchase tickets. Sometimes they need lodging, directions to the venue, and transportation.

The key is to figure out what your customers might need and how you can fill the gap – like a one-stop shop experience.

Airlines, for example, could expand their apps to include games that don’t require Wi-Fi or eBooks to keep busy during a flight.

6. Blend the Physical and Digital Worlds to Boost Travel Customer Loyalty

Phygital marketing blends the physical and digital experience to improve both. The result is a highly personalized and relevant experience.

Travel brands have a wide range of possibilities to expand their phygital experience. Over the years, we’ve already seen airlines improve their seatback displays to include free movies, attendant call buttons, and ordering tools.

It’s smart to include features like these through your brand app experience and mobile website as well to meet the touchless demand. Make sure you design a special version of your website specifically for traveling customers.

Create a portal where they can adjust their itinerary, purchase items/services, buy Wi-Fi, and more. Partnering with Google Maps or other relevant brands like Uber can help you take your offerings to another level.

The United Airlines app seamlessly blends physical and digital experiences with useful tools like airport maps.

Phygital experience features also give you access to real-life data you’d never normally be able to collect.


Takeaways

Travelers aren’t a monolith. Some expect low rates, others demand flexibility, and others want upgrades. Regardless, it’s on brands to figure out what their audience expects and create an optimized experience to reflect that.

  • Promote flexibility and put control in customer hands across every device.
  • Free up bottlenecks and friction from cross-device experiences.
  • Personalize your experience and offerings based on needs and past behavior.
  • Reevaluate your point system and reward benefits to meet changing expectations.
  • Rethink how customers use your app throughout every step of the travel process.
  • Create a phygital marketing strategy to seamlessly blend real-world and digital experiences.

Need some help figuring out your digital experience? The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Digital Experience for Enterprise provides three fundamental resources for identifying problems and stitching up loose ends.

Topics: Customer Experience, Customer Loyalty, Travel
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