According to the U.S. Travel Association, travel spending declined by 42% in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on. International travel fell by 76% while domestic travel dipped 34%. Hotels were among the hardest hit, with many experiencing high vacancies throughout the year.
Now, as vaccines become more widely distributed, travel demand is on the rise. According to a TripAdvisor survey, 77% of travelers globally said they'd be more likely to travel internationally once they've been vaccinated. Nearly half (47%) of travelers said they're planning to travel internationally in 2021.
Those are promising statistics for an industry that's been gutted by the pandemic. But a sudden spike in travel demand creates a different challenge. Hotels, airlines, and other hospitality providers must now adjust operationally to meet rapidly increasing demand and new consumer expectations around digital communication, hygiene practices, and flexibility -- while delivering exemplary customer experiences along the way.
Travelers who've been grounded for 15 months are eager to say goodbye to COVID-19 and explore the world. And the CDC's easing of restrictions for vaccinated individuals gives travelers confidence that it is, finally, safe to travel again. Those factors are fueling demand for longer, more exotic, and more expensive trips -- a phenomenon known as revenge travel.
As vacationers start packing their bags, hotels and hospitality providers face a make-or-break moment. On one hand, they have an opportunity to regain some momentum after a tough 15 months. On the other hand, if they fail to deliver positive customer experiences through this demand shift, they risk weakening brand loyalty in the future.
For that reason, it's vital for hotels and other hospitality companies to shore up controls around customer experience. Three digital CX initiatives will be critical to maximizing customer satisfaction and building brand loyalty in 2021 and beyond.
1. Provide personal and convenient digital messaging services that replace the need for physical contact with staff
Hospitality providers must create seamless, individualized interactions with guests -- while reducing dependence on in-person customer service.
There are two trends driving the need to reduce physical contact between staff and customers. First, customer preferences are changing. In the aftermath of the pandemic, many travelers now accept and even appreciate socially distant protocols. For instance, 80% of customers say they'd download a hotel app that allows them to check-in and check-out virtually.
Second, staffing concerns will require hotels to automate and digitize processes wherever possible. Hiring and training workers quickly to meet spiking demand will be challenging, given the shortage of hourly and entry-level workers that's ongoing in the U.S.
Digital messaging systems can add efficiency to customer service, create more customer touchpoints, and increase customer comfort. By leveraging digital platforms to engage with customers before, during, and after their stay, hotels and hospitality providers can deliver seamless check-in and check-out services. They can also guide customers to amenities that can enrich their stay.
According to Hotel News Resource, 20% percent of consumers would feel more comfortable at a hotel if there were a digital messaging system that could limit physical interactions with staff. In another study, 67% of customers found value in messaging a brand through its mobile app. Nearly 80% of consumers had a valuable experience from participating in an online chat with a customer service rep.
Vrbo has proven this concept by providing guests with a number of digital touchpoints like the Vrbo Vacation Rentals app, the Vrbo online help community, virtual chat support, and more. These touchpoints help the business facilitate contact-free check-ins and check-outs, guest and host communication, and give travelers access to customer service support at the tip of their fingers.
Safety is a top concern for travelers in a post-pandemic world. The onus is on the business to gain customer trust and loyalty in this area. The effort must involve proactive communication of safety information and protocols. Speed of communication and level of detail are important here. It's not enough to publish generic safety FAQs or COVID-19 protocols on a website and hope customers find the information they want. Hotels and hospitality providers need to deliver that information to customers directly.
Travelers are also relying on their peers and review sites like Tripadvisor to understand how businesses are ensuring customer safety. That trend amplifies the impact of a hotel's communication efforts. Hotels that make travelers feel safe will be rewarded with positive online reviews, and ultimately, more business. Properties that are less disciplined about safety communications may see the opposite.
The hospitality industry faces a turning point in 2021, as revenge travel ramps up. Hotels and hospitality providers must invest in digital platforms to streamline customer services, adjust to changing consumer preferences, and deliver smooth interactions with less physical contact, all without sacrificing the personalization that comes with traditional in-person services.
Social media will also continue to amplify a business’s service performance as demand for travel accommodations picks up speed. Guests are reading reviews, asking questions, and seeking advice before they book. Travelers want to hear first-hand experiences from their peers. For that reason, hospitality providers must do what they can to encourage positive commentary online.
Investing in a robust digital CX strategy supports these priorities. In order to survive (and thrive) in this pivotal time, hospitality and travel-based businesses will need to embrace these changing consumer preferences and adapt to a digital-first, post-COVID-19 world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher Stark is the Director of Business Value Consulting at Khoros. Stark, who was previously a customer experience Director with Nike, leads the company’s BVC group with a clear mandate for growth and customer experience innovation. His unique expertise building a customer experience program and implementing Khoros CX Insights at one of the world’s largest retail giants is invaluable in understanding configuration and time-to-value for onboarding new clients.