In March 2020, the pandemic halted travel around the globe, and in the U.S., flight passengers dropped to nearly 100,000 per day, down from nearly 2.5 million in 2019. However, as COVID-19 cases began to drop and vaccines picked up, TSA saw the first major sign that travel is on its way back with more than 1.3 million people screened at airports on March 12. Air traffic has only picked up in the last month, and as vaccines are now available to all American adults, more than two-thirds (68%) plan to travel this summer.
While this is great news for the hospitality industry, which has suffered greatly during the pandemic, it also means ramping up customer service efforts from zero to 60 in a matter of weeks. So how can hospitality companies meet consumer expectations and win back loyalty amid the summer travel surge? What should they prioritize to ensure they are putting their best foot forward in terms of customer experience (CX)?
Scale Up Customer Service to Meet Heightened Demand
At the beginning of the pandemic, hospitality companies were caught in the difficult position of cancelling thousands of bookings with little notice, with many companies forced to cut staff, making these efforts even more difficult. With more than two in five consumers reporting they would stop doing business with a brand after a bad customer experience, scaling service channels ahead of the summer travel spike is key to ramping up without losing customers.
A longstanding impact on customer loyalty will be built during this renewed travel season as 86% of Americans prefer to travel with an airline that treats them fairly during the pandemic. Additionally, nearly three-quarters would pay more for their ticket if they knew the airline would provide them with fair service, underscoring the importance of scaling up efforts to match consumer demand.
When scaling customer experience functions, it’s not only about hiring more employees - it’s critical to invest in the right areas of the experience. For example, with concerns about potential cancellations and heighted questions about COVID-19 policies and restrictions, brands should consider having an easy channel to change or cancel bookings and provide accessible answers to frequently asked questions about current policies.
Provide 24/7 Self-Service and Omnichannel Options
Prior to the pandemic more than four in five (82%) consumers expected brands to be available 24/7. However, the average response time for most companies is 12 hours, a clear misalignment with consumer expectations. In our new normal, this need for speed is even greater, with 35 percent of consumers (and 42% of Gen Zs and Millennials) reporting the ability to find an answer or resolve an issue themselves is a crucial element of the customer experience. More than half (53%) want that option simply because it’s faster and another 22% are looking for a service or solution that’s available anytime and anywhere.
A 24/7 self-service experience is not one-size fits all - different consumers will look to different platforms, increasing the importance of having an omnichannel strategy. However, nearly half (48%) of millennials and Gen Zs cite 24/7 service as a loyalty driver for travel and hospitality brands. More and more consumers are looking to social media as a preferred method for questions and customer service issues. At the same time, chatbots and voice assistants are becoming increasingly popular and desired solutions for timely and consistent self-service.
Creating a variety of easy-to-use self-service options across multiple channels can ensure hospitality companies are providing consumers with multiple touchpoints to solve their problem, a crucial step in keeping brand loyalty high.
Rethinking Consumers Needs Post-Pandemic
Beyond scaling customer experience functions and providing always-on self-service support across multiple channels, hospitality brands are also tasked with thinking about the new needs of consumers when traveling in a post-pandemic world. Beyond integrating top-notch cleaning protocols, a priority for many Americans is contactless and keyless experiences. Many brands have already started implementing new technology; for example, Delta recently announced it would offer contactless payments while onboard. For hotels, keyless entry, QR codes for menus at the bar or restaurant and a phone app to request an extra towel or pillow will be key factors in gaining customer loyalty.
Another major consideration for hospitality companies is more flexible change and cancellation policies. While many major hotel chains already had relatively flexible policies pre-pandemic, we’re seeing some airlines create more permanent flexibility beyond the pandemic - and with flexibility and easy changes comes peace of mind for consumers and a higher likelihood of loyalty.
As the pandemic has greatly changed the way we all interact in the world, travel must change too, providing experiences that allow customers to feel safe and welcome from the initial booking to check out or deboarding.
About Martin Wilkinson-Brown
As Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for Sitel Group, Martin Wilkinson-Brown leads the Global Marketing and Communications team to drive marketing strategies, enhance the group’s go-to-market offerings and provide innovative customer experience management solutions.
Prior to becoming CMO, Martin was the vice president of Global Marketing and Communications and has held numerous roles within the company since joining over 17 years ago. His expertise spans Operations, Learning & Development, Process Improvement and more.
Martin studied Glass, Architectural Glass & Ceramics at the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom. He is based out of the group’s global HQ in Miami.