The State of Travel Personalization in 2018

Personalization has frequently been described in travel as the new loyalty. When a hotel tailors its service to individual needs and preferences, guests receive an enhanced experience and are more likely to rebook.

But there remains a gap between the level of personalization consumers want, and what they’re actually receiving. In addition, broader concerns over data security are making customers more wary about how their data is acquired and used.

The following post looks at the state of personalization in 2018, including a guide on how hotels can take advantage of the latest trends and information to deliver the best possible guest experience.

The demand for personalization

According to a survey published at Adobe’s North American 2018 Summit, younger travelers expect their favorite travel brands to offer personalized experiences. This attitude is unsurprising. Younger generations have grown up in an on-demand world where brands anticipate their needs and choices are limitless. The idea of giving over data is second nature — part of the deal for receiving tailored content, services and experiences.

For hotels, it’s therefore going to be increasingly important to focus on personalization as this generation (and younger ones besides) mature and become the dominant travel demographic.

However, there’s a bigger picture to consider. Offering a hyper-personalized experience is all well and good, but not everyone feels the same about sharing their data. While having an eye on the future is important, hotels also need to consider their current demographic. The willingness of younger generations to give up data isn’t shared by everyone.

At the recent Skift Tech Forum, Hilton’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, Chris Silcock, expressed his own concerns over hyper-personalization encroaching on guest privacy.

Silcock’s view is that guests should control the extent to which their experience is personalized. In practical terms, that means forgetting “gimmicky extras” and instead using data as a tool that solves practical problems, such as check-in friction.

This simplified vision bucks the industry zeitgeist where more data and greater personalization has become something of a holy grail. Yet Silcock’s restraint hints at how consumers have become highly attuned to issues over data privacy — not least since Facebook’s high-profile data-harvesting scandal.

The challenge for hotels, then, is to understand what level of personalization is appropriate for their own guests. Instead of broad assumptions about demographic-specific preferences, a better approach might be to understand what each individual wants from their experience.

How to use data wisely

All of this leads to an important question: how can hotels identify where to find the most useful data, and how does that translate into making a meaningful difference to the guest experience?

Skift and Adobe’s 2018 Digital Transformation Report helps answer this question by suggesting the importance of variety when collecting data. The key is to use a mix of first-party data (e.g. your hotel’s own website, social channels) and third-party data (e.g. Facebook and search behavior).

In a survey of marketers, the Skift and Adobe report found that the most relied upon sources for data acquisition were social media (60%), email (58%), digital analytics (52%) and transactional data (47%).  Tapping into a broad variety of data sources helps flesh out more detailed and reliable guest profiles.

Yet having access to endless data is useless, unless it’s deployed with intelligence. Personalization also needs to take place throughout the customer journey, from inspiring a traveler’s initial choice to delivering a great on-property experience.

How can hotels utilize personalization?

How hotels can personalize guest experience

With the above points in mind, here are three tips to personalize the guest experience.

1) Tailored marketing

The inspiration phase of travel is a pivotal moment where hotels should be personalizing content. For instance, rather than blasting out a generic email campaign with the same offer-led sales messages, think about how you can tailor that same email to different audience segments.

By looking at past data (e.g. booking habits, on-property spending trends) you can create different emails that promote the specific amenities, services or experiences you know particular guests are interested in.

According to Google, AI can play an important part in this process by helping marketers “tailor campaigns to consumer intent in the moment.” Tailored ads are also an important way to maximize click-through rates. By serving personalized ads to relevant audiences, consumers can be targeted with personalized messaging that matches their buying intent.

2) Guiding customer choices

As touched upon already, endless access to data doesn’t guarantee you’ll satisfy customer needs. A recent article by Tnooz analysed the way Netflix has mastered personalization by understanding two important points:

1) Customers do not know what they want.

2) Humans are poor at making decisions, and increasing choice further decreases a human’s ability to make a decision.

Netflix has access to a vast amount of customer data. But it understands that to convert more customers, it needs to make personal recommendations and reduce choice. The same curated approach is used by the likes of Amazon and Spotify to guide decisions amid a maze of potential options.

In travel, OTAs have embraced this same e-commerce mentality. By using embedded cookies and marketing automation systems, they learn what travel shoppers previously searched for on their site, and use that information to make relevant suggestions.

This technology is also becoming available to hotels, enabling their own websites to offer e-commerce personalization that reduces decision-making overwhelm and helps increase conversion rates.

3) On-property experience

To delivering a truly great on-property experience, hotels need to know something about their guests before they arrive. Increasingly, hotel brands are going the extra mile to acquire vital snippets of information that tell a story of their customers.

For instance, Marriott monitors real-time social media activity from their glass-enclosed command center to help “surprise and delight” guests. One such example involved the team sending a bottle of Champagne to a newly engaged couple after they tagged their engagement photo at a Marriott property.

Virgin Hotels has put personalization in the hands of their guests. A mobile app called ‘Lucy’ allows guests to do things like adjust the temperature of their room, and make external dining reservations. Meanwhile, Virgin’s preference programme (“The Know”) lets guests fill in an online form to reveal their favorite entertainment, favorite bands, traveling companions, and request a “Fantasy Mini Fridge Item”.

The Virgin approach is to let guests dictate how much of their experience is personalized, rather than them feeling their data has been surreptitiously acquired.

In the case of both Virgin and Marriott, a huge investment in technology isn’t needed to learn more about your guests. Analysing social media, offering online questionnaires, and good old fashioned face-to-face conversations during the hotel stay can all reveal preferences in order to super-serve guests at every opportunity.

Unlocking the power of personalization

Personalization is becoming a hardwired expectation of an entire generation. Younger travelers in particular have strong expectations that brands should know what they want, and they make travel decisions based on feeling their needs are understood. Yet the hotel industry is still lagging some way behind what the modern day traveler wants — often reacting to needs rather than anticipating them.

However, in the interests of relationship building and guest loyalty, personalization needs to be done in the right way. To varying degrees, guests are happy to provide personal data to receive a better experience, but the means by which this data is collected needs to feel open and optional.

Of course, no matter how much information a hotel acquires on each guest, everything rests on the actual on-property experience. Personalization can only be effective when it’s delivered by thoughtful and attentive service. The value of the human touch should never be forgotten.

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