The Future Of Travel Experience: The “space between” for digital-led airlines

Luc Bondat and Praveen Sharma, United Airlines

In the Future of Travel Experience, Jeffrey Katz, CEO of Journera and founding CEO of Orbitz, goes one-to-one with fellow leaders to get their insights on how advanced technology and changing consumer expectations will shape the future of the industry.

In this installment, Katz interviews two of the biggest forces behind United’s customer experience strategy: Luc Bondar, VP for loyalty, and Praveen Sharma, VP for digital products and enterprise analytics.

Luc and Praveen, you both run massive businesses for United that are focused on the customer experience. These include Mileage Plus, a new mobile app and the digital and analytics functions that power so much of customer experience today. What excites each of you about the future of customer experience?

Sharma: Right now, the expectation for the customer experience is changing. It is no longer just transactional, but customers are looking for an overall experience when they fly. They’re looking for pro-active engagement and pro-active reaction throughout their travel journey, as we make traveling easier and less stressful. 

As a global airline, it’s exciting to do this at scale. It’s a lot easier to provide an awesome customer experience at smaller scale, or in a limited way, but we want to make the entire travel experience easier for the 158 million customers who travel with us every year. 

Bondar: I’ve been in the loyalty space for more than 20 years. Today, we are finally seeing the speed, the lower cost to aggregate data and the ability to connect different technologies to create a more personalized experience to improve the travel journey for our customers.

With the ability to use data that customers knowingly and willingly share, we’re better able to understand who our customers are and what they want, to create an experience that they expect when they travel with us.

Digital natives – millennials and their younger siblings, Gen Z – have become a major part of business and leisure travel markets. How are their preferences shaping how you think about loyalty and the digital experience?

Bondar: The millennial generation tends to value experiences over things, so travel is always right up at the top of the list. I would say that’s equally the case for Gen Zs.

They value travel and seeing the world as one of their highest priorities over the next decade. Between millennials, and Gen-Z, you’ve got the largest consumer segment in the market. 

We want to help them think about where they’re going in the world and how we can inspire them to go to those places. We also know value is important to this age group, as well as values.

To build a great relationship with them, they not only have to trust that we’re going to deliver a good experience and that it’s going to be valuable and they are going to get value from it. They also need to know that they can personally align with the brands they choose. 

Sharma: Gen-Z and Millennials are not just mobile-native, they are mobile-first. So, across all of our products and programs, we need to make sure the design is mobile-first and mobile-only in some cases. 

Their expectation of speed of transaction is very different from other groups. They also expect a digital experience that is visual and that captures their imaginations.

We believe we are leaving the Transaction Era of travel and are in the early stages of the Experience Era. Where do you think the big innovations will come when it comes to the travel experience in the next 5, 10 or 20 years?

Bondar: I think a lot about this journey view where, historically as an airline, we had relationships with partners that were transactional in nature.

When I think about the white spaces and where big innovation is going to come over the coming years, I think it’s going to be in the space between the different components that make up the journey: connecting your planning and your research and your booking with getting to the airport, with the flight, with your hotel. 

In between each of those components there is:

  • How do I navigate the airport?
  • Where do I find the car to pick me up from my house?
  • How do I let the hotel know that my flight’s on time so they can have my room ready for me?
  • How do I get my bag delivered to the hotel when I land even though I don’t want to check in for another ten hours because I’m going into a business meeting?

There’s a big opportunity to create connections between each of the different components that make up the travel journey – creating a common view of individual customers that allow different players across the travel chain to connect the dots for a customer moving through his or her trip to make it more seamless. 

That’s what this future space is going to look like. The innovation is going to come in those spaces between parties across the travel chain where we find ways to make the overall travel experience more cohesive and more intuitive.

Sharma: The white space will be to connect all of those touch points in travel.

A very important point is to make sure those insights reach the people on the front lines working to deliver a great experience. That “last mile” – the digital to human connection – is going to be critical.

About the author…

Jeff Katz is CEO of Journera and founding CEO of Orbitz.

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