‘Tis the season to be flying. This year, the TSA expects a “record breaking holiday season.” Between Thanksgiving and New Years, tens of millions of people will be traveling across the United States, with over 41 million travelers crossing state lines in the Christmas season alone. With all the waiting, spending, and flying, traveling can be stressful. Yet certain airlines, online travel agencies, and hotels are making it a little easier by making it easier to communicate — and they’re doing it with messaging.
For a long time, businesses were primarily using messaging for support. Now that the messaging floodgates are open, businesses are turning new touchpoints in the customer journey into conversational experiences. Travel and hospitality brands have found this to be a particularly fertile ground.
How travel brands use messaging
When we published our State of Messaging: Travel report, we came away with three major findings:
First, messaging is making its way into the travel industry, often at the hands of luxury brands and startups. Startups are treating their customers like luxury brands would, with attentive personalization. Messaging allows for fast responses and personalization, thanks to context and conversation history. Travel and hospitality brands are placing messaging at various points in their customer’s journey, before, during and after the trip itself.
Second, messaging makes personalization easy for travel and hospitality brands to carry out at scale. Airlines, hotels and online travel agencies are using messaging to strengthen their relationships with customers. It’s not just about support, and it’s not just about sales — these brands have realized that messaging is a powerful tool that makes it easier to deliver convenient and memorable customer experiences.
Third, messaging is becoming more popular. There’s a sense that consumers want it, but confusion about how to implement it. Some brands have messaging at their core, while others are opening messaging channels for the first time. The groundwork has been laid for excellent, messaging-first customer experiences by industry innovators like Four Seasons.
American Express, for example, announced the release of a 24/7 travel concierge service available to Platinum and Centurion members. The original concierge service was phone-based and accessed from the Amex app. Now tapping on the number will prompt the client to chat with the concierge in iMessage, built on Apple Business Chat.
Delta offers complimentary wifi to support iMessage and Messenger to flyers. This is the first instance of messaging occurring in-flight, as the report found messaging was more common in the booking, pre-flight, and during the hotel-stay phases of the customer’s journey. The only caveat is that Delta’s complementary messaging offer doesn’t support features like file sharing or SMS— but imagine how that could change once Rich Communication Services (RCS) replace SMS as the dominant standard for messaging? Following the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative announcement, RCS became available for all Android users in the US in December. Yay!
The chatbot debate
You can’t have a conversation about business messaging without mentioning chatbots, but travel and hospitality brands are still trying to find a fit for them. They’re most commonly used in the booking phase, automating sales or triaging support before making themselves scarce during hotel stays. A notable example includes Alexa for Hospitality, which allows guests to use the voice assistant as they would use room service. In this case, the voice assistant adds a layer of convenience and familiarity. A less talented bot might alienate the guest.
During one of my own trips, a rare in-stay chatbot created some unnecessary friction. Following the initial pleasant surprise of being greeted on Messenger, the bot didn’t do much apart from recommending I call the front desk when I asked for towels. After my stay, a live agent appeared in the same conversation to ask me if I still needed towels. The bot glitched and nobody ever saw my request. I understood why many purveyors of guest messaging are forgoing chatbots altogether.
Ryan Kileen, manager of The Annex in downtown Toronto, explained in the report that adding task-oriented touchpoints — including a phone in the room or over-automating guest messaging — went against his idea of luxury. “Luxury is a convenient and seamless experience. [...] Luxury can be accomplished through allowing guests to request what they want, when they want, from the comfort of their own devices.”
Luxury hotels like Four Seasons, which deployed guest messaging across all of its properties in 2018, always engage the customer in a conversation with a real human. While automation might be layered on to add functionality like routing queries to specific departments, guests are none the wiser — and it works. Four Seasons Chat, which was built on Zendesk’s Sunshine Conversations platform, has won awards from Hotel Tech while Four Seasons properties have received more five-star ratings from the Forbes Travel Guide than any other brand.
A report on chatbot penetration by CB Insights characterized the reluctance to adopt chatbots by brands as being a result of over-ambitious marketing. Rather than acting as hyper-capable digital assistants, chatbots released by Facebook and Microsoft left upwards of 70% of requests unanswered, while bots by Sephora and Levi’s saw longer standing success. Why? Because they automated simple workflows that typically resulted in a purchase.
“Rather than try to boil the ocean,” the report states, “companies are picking specific functions that it makes sense for a chatbot to solve — and they’re becoming increasingly useful doing it.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that when airlines and OTAs are using chatbots, they’re automating simple processes to help customers make purchases. SnapTravel, for example, aggregates affordable hotel rooms and sells them in a totally conversational interface. WestJet, Kayak, and Booking.com — just to name a few — similarly engage customers in messaging apps, allowing them to search for flights, hotels, or home stays in the conversation.
When you take off this holiday season, take note of how many brands you interact with are offering messaging to broaden their customer experience. Travel and hospitality brands push the boundaries of innovation because customer experience is their best asset. These brands are banking on offering great customer experiences to differentiate themselves. With more channels opening for business, messaging promises personalization and easy communication at scale.
To learn more about how to build custom conversational business experiences, check out Sunshine Conversations here.