Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Can one make a leap in progress without also making a leap of faith?

That question occurred to me last week in Singapore, where I spoke at two very different travel-related conferences.

The Asia Travel Leaders Summit, organized by the Singapore Tourism Board, was a day-long gathering of about 60 Asia-Pacific travel CEOs. I was on a panel titled "Excellence Around the Customer Experience," which followed a 30-minute presentation by Christopher Luxon, CEO of Air New Zealand.

Luxon credited much of the airline's success with having a "lighthouse identity"; that is, it dared to stand out. A relatively small carrier on a distant island, it has attracted outsized attention with in-cabin seating innovations and, most notably, by embracing the Hobbit movie franchise (which was filmed in New Zealand) and incorporating Middle-earth themes into humorous safety videos.

Its most recent safety video, released just two weeks ago, already has almost 10 million views on YouTube.

The second conference I spoke at was tech-focused Web in Travel (WIT), which featured dozens of Asian (or Asian-facing) travel distribution companies, from start-ups to behemoths. (Web in Travel is owned by Northstar Travel Media, which is also Travel Weekly's parent company.)

Over two days at WIT, dozens of speakers explored 10 tracks. Brands well-known to Westerners, including Google, Facebook, Expedia, BCD, Kayak and Skype, were represented side by side with Asian powerhouses such as China's Qunar and India's MakeMyTrip.

Whether it's possible to make a leap in progress without also making a leap of faith occurred to me during that conference as I listened to several speakers discuss how their superior manipulation of data was going to bring them closer to customers and help them rise to the top of their competitive set.

In essence, they were describing technology that produces marketing in its leanest form: Stay exactly one step ahead of a consumer's intention in order to be at the right place at the right time with the right offer.

One can't argue with that approach, but after considering Air New Zealand's positioning and success, it seems strikingly modest in ambition.

A Big Data strategy has become the cost of admission to online sales, and execution that's superior to a competitor's might well offer an important advantage.

But because innovation in this area occurs behind the scenes, it goes largely unnoticed by consumers. In fact, the goal of this technology is to operate subliminally: Yes, one wants customers to notice that your company presents prescient options, but one doesn't really want to draw attention to the Big Brother overtones of why.

Compare data-driven strategies to Luxon's "lighthouse identity." Whereas Big Data follows consumers -- tracking past preferences and buying behaviors, sniffing for clues about impending purchase decisions -- the lighthouse approach draws consumers to it and impresses them with personality and experience. One is stealth and darkness, the other is illumination.

Perhaps this is why there's so little loyalty in online travel sales. When consumers buy because they have been successfully hunted, it's doubtful they even remember how or why they ended up on a particular site in the first place.

None of this is to suggest that a lighthouse identity and data analyses are incompatible. In fact, it's probable that a data-driven marketing strategy alone could be more successful than a lighthouse strategy without any data follow-up.

But, well-executed, the lighthouse has more raw power. Data analysis looks back at trends and tries to capture the very recent past to influence the immediate future. But a lighthouse strategy, at launch, is intensely future-focused. It creates something attractive to draw consumers somewhere they hadn't even thought of going before. Once they've come to you, they will never confuse you with anyone else.

Everyone's favorite example of a lighthouse identity is Apple, which created the products we never knew we wanted until they appeared before us, fully formed. But I think there's a great example in the travel industry, too: the Westin Heavenly Bed.

Former Starwood chairman Barry Sternlicht said that before the introduction of the Heavenly Bed, more comfortable beds would never make it to the top 10 in surveys asking what guests wanted. As a result, something as central to the hotel experience as a bed --something used by every guest -- was overlooked by hospitality marketers. They were data-driven, and if it appeared that guests didn't care about beds, why should they?

I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the meeting where a brave marketer at Westin proposed that, despite the research, an expensive, 900-coil bed should become the primary symbol for the brand. Sternlicht was, and is, a numbers guy. But he accepted a pitch that, at heart, argued it's much more powerful to attract customers than to follow them.

The panel I was on at Web in Travel looked at why traditional travel agencies did not, for the most part, morph into today's online powerhouses. That question is particularly relevant in Asia, where most travel is still sold by traditional agencies, which are now worried by the rise of online travel agencies (OTAs).

I cited one agency that successfully swapped its brick-and-mortar roots for an online profile: Avoya. It's not going head to head with Priceline or Expedia, but in the past 12 years it rose from $50 million to $300 million in sales.

Interestingly, Avoya is an extraordinarily data-driven company that markets exclusively on the Web.

Its "lighthouse"? Well, more like a thousand points of light. Or, to be exact, the 500 agents it hosts. People who buy from Avoya began the buying process on the Web, and ended up buying from a live travel adviser. What it lacks in scale compared with large OTAs, it makes up in loyalty. Its clients know from whom they're buying. And they return.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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