Forrester Research travel analyst
Henry Harteveldt points out in "Humanizing the Digital Experience,"
a report released last week, that the travel industry's early
embrace and dependence on certain technologies may, paradoxically,
be limiting our ability to provide better customer experiences
reliance on computerized reservation systems, yield management and
database marketing has forced travelers -- whether or not they want
to -- to bend to the industry's technological reliance," he
mind-set regarding technology in many industries, not just travel,
has been to improve efficiency, cut costs and, in as opaque a
manner as possible, generate more revenue. As examples,
reservations systems achieve the first of these goals, supplier Web
sites the second and yield management systems the third.
But success in each
of these areas has led some travel companies to ignore the utility
of technology as a powerful customer service vehicle. The focus has
been on exploiting technology to achieve specific, internal
corporate goals. And despite the orchestral volume of lip service
to the contrary, a company that truly believes customer experience
can be a significant driver of profit is still the exception, not
interpretation of his company's survey numbers on customer
satisfaction is actually more pessimistic than mine. For example,
the performance gap (the percentage who agree with a goal-focused
statement minus the percentage who believe travel Web sites meet
those goals) is lower than I would have thought. In the majority of
cases, it's in the single digits.
But as the title of
his report suggests, Harteveldt believes that travel Web sites can
narrow the performance gap by "humanizing" the digital experience.
I don't disagree with this, but what interested me most in his
report were examples of Web sites that are doing well. In these,
one can see lessons not only for travel Web sites but also for
offline travel sellers. In other words, the human experience can be
humanized by looking at some digital models.
Travelocity's Flight Navigator goes beyond departure times and
fares. It also displays features that consumers might find very
useful in choosing a flight, such as comments about legroom and
whether there is satellite TV.
that has occurred here has nothing to do with a machine's
replicating what a human can do. In fact, a travel agent could not
gather this type of comparative information nearly as quickly. But
it humanizes in the sense that it anticipates human
best examples of this type of "humanization" are in the realm of
selling airline tickets, something travel agents tend to regard as
a time-consuming chore with little or no financial
Harteveldt does touch
on what hotel Web sites are doing, specifically with regard to
providing channel-switching options, but he doesn't comment on the
digital sales of cruises or tours.
All this suggests
that the sales-channel divide between offline and online might fall
into natural channel buckets. Commodities (e.g. coach-class air and
any hotel below midrange) are served both efficiently and
effectively by Web sites, while cruises, tours, better hotels and
premium air seats fall into the domain of offline
In reality, the
divide will not be nearly so clean, because human behavior is not
so neatly divided. The same consumer who books coach seats for her
family's leisure vacation may be flying to a luxury resort. In the
future, consumers will gravitate toward an agency that offers it
all: best-of-breed online options (including via handheld devices)
and knowledgeable agents for trips with any complexity or that
involve the expectation of service.
In other words, the
human and digital worlds ultimately both need to be better
humanized and digitized.