Travel Market Report asked Ana Brant, director of global guest experience and innovation at the Dorchester Collection, to share some thoughts on how agents can better serve the luxury market.
How can a small travel agency with limited resources understand who their luxury clients are and what those clients need? Do they need to invest in some kind of technology to help?
Technology is simply an enabler, not the end goal. Businesses invest countless resources into building state-of-the-art customer insight databases that end up being used by only a small percentage of the organization. Actually, what they don’t realize is that databases, even though designed to bring us closer to the customer, are actually taking us further away from humanity. Customers become spreadsheets, market segments and dashboards instead of individuals with different needs at different times. Databases record rational behavior, without taking into consideration the most important component, the context.
We learn much more by observing our guests in the lobby than from any other insight database. It is important to note that that observation may be digital also – you can learn a lot about your guests from social media.
A travel agency, in my opinion, has a unique competitive advantage, as they actually still talk to their customers, they understand them as human beings, they know about their intimate desires and expectations, what kind of bed they prefer, what view, what hotels they like the most, are they traveling via private jet, what is the purpose of their travel, who are they with, etc. No database can ever be as sophisticated as a human mind.
There is an opportunity for a travel agency to capture “institutional memory,” a platform where agents can record what they know about their clients so the customer experience doesn’t suffer due to changes in business. Now when I think about this, travel agency intelligence may even be valuable to the hoteliers. Not only that we would like to learn more about our customers as individuals, but we would love to know where they go when they don’t stay with us and why!
What questions should travel agents ask to build out their clients’ dossiers?
I am a believer that even though curiosity is a talent that cannot be taught, it can be inspired.
The first part of the success lies in hiring for curiosity. Curious people naturally strive to learn and improve; they are excited by learning new facts and are often catalysts for change. They Google, research, experiment with new things and love to read. We all know that one person who always has questions at the end of the meeting. Some of us may find it annoying, but chances are, he or she is curious, so we need to take advantage of their talent.
The second part is about inspiring curiosity so it becomes contagious, and setting up the process and tools for enabling curiosity. One way to do this is to help travel agents create context driven, empathy questions.
Let’s say you want to learn more about the family who just returned from an annual vacation you booked. You have the context – vacation. Instead of asking your client directly the typical “how was your vacation” question; I would suggest asking their permission to speak to one of the children and ask them: “what did you like the most about your vacation.” Let’s say the child says ‘the pool,” this is where “extreme empathy” comes in and you follow up with the sub question “why was this pool so cool?” The child tells you “because I was allowed to jump in.”
And voila, you just uncovered that, most likely, the reason parents have chosen a certain hotel is because their kids like to jump in the pool. You will know that next time before you suggest a hotel for this family, you should check the hotel’s pool policy. And for hoteliers, what an insight – do we know how many guests we lose because their kids can’t jump to the pool due to our policy?
So far I have not had a chance to meet a customer insight database that can tell you this.
Do you have any ideas about how agents too can “observe” the luxury traveler’s experience?
We have an opportunity to open our horizons and define what constitutes “observations.”
We think of “observations” as the action of observing someone to gain information, usually in a traditional way. In hospitality we would relate this statement to observing the customers in the lobby, a restaurant, or observing their arrival process at the front door. Such observations are uncomfortable for many and take long time to gain a valuable insight. Unfortunately this is not something travel agents will ever be able to do; neither would this be the best use of their time.
However, “observations” have come a long way in recent years; we just haven’t connected the dots. This is where I would bring in technology as an enabler. Technology redefined observations into “the ability to notice significant details”.
For instance, how many “significant details” can you observe through social media? Chances are that your clients are on social media. If they are not, their partners are or their kids or whoever they are travelling with are. Travel and food are the most popular subjects on social media. So why limit ourselves to the physical lobbies and restaurants when our clients are inviting us into their digital lobby and restaurant on their Instagram page?
Alternatively, even if your clients don’t use social media, the hotel they are staying at most likely does. Nothing prevents you from looking at a hotel’s Instagram page. Notice the beautiful holiday decorations and remind your clients “not to miss the opportunity to take a photo in front of the gingerbread house.” You can take it a step further and use a hotel’s geographical location on Instagram to see what other guests are posting – if you notice beautiful pictures of a popular dish, you can suggest to your client that “the dover sole is a must have”.
Only curiosity and human insight can connect digital and physical world, but technology certainly helps!
Ana Brant serves as director of global guest experience and innovation for the London-based Dorchester Collection, having previously served as the quality manager for The New York Palace and the area director of quality for The Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air. Brant started her career with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. Brant’s public speaking engagements have included the Harvard University Graduate School, the Malcolm Baldrige Awards Recipient Conference, and the 2014 Cornell Hospitality Research Summit. She’s on twitter at @AnaMaritaBrant.