Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Last week was not a particularly good one for people traveling domestically in several regions of the U.S. From tornadoes in New Orleans to a polar blast that gave about 40 million people on the East Coast a snow day, the weather created difficulties in getting around.

But it also motivated a lot of Americans stuck at home to think about booking a trip to ... anywhere else.

Snow days trigger thoughts among skiers about time on the slopes and inspire nonskiers to ponder an escape to warmer climes.

A winter storm is a serendipitous call to action. And there are other events, seemingly unrelated to travel, waiting to be exploited by marketers who see reasons to book travel in the patterns of individuals, societies and nature.

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Have you ever wondered, for instance, why in ethnic neighborhoods across America, small neighborhood storefronts often provide multiple, seemingly unrelated services? I'm not sure why barbers in some neighborhoods also change watch batteries and buy gold, but I learned there is a specific, rational reason why some income tax preparers also sell travel.

Akshay Shah, vice president of marketing for air consolidator Sky Bird Travel & Tours, explained: Who is in a better position to suggest how a tax refund might be spent than the person telling you how large it will be? And what better way to spend your annual windfall than on a vacation?

(Upon reflection, those accountant/travel agencies also tend to sell lottery tickets. These are entrepreneurs with a natural talent for vertical marketing.)

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If accountants can sell travel, it got me wondering whether travel sellers could borrow marketing tactics from accountants.

H&R Block promotes a "Second Look" tax review, offering to check tax filings from the previous three years to search out deductions your former accountant may have missed.

I could imagine a parallel campaign by a travel adviser, offering to review a client's previous vacation as a way to demonstrate a range of expertise. A good travel counselor might uncover ways the client could have saved money, or point out missed opportunities and trip options that could have been taken.

Clearly, buyers' remorse wouldn't be the agents' primary goal, but such a discussion would not only show off their expertise; it would also be a great way to qualify clients and unearth their behaviors and preferences, ranging from energy levels to lifestyle choices to budgetary considerations.

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The examples above speak to two critical factors in selling travel: timing and actionable insights. While many small-scale travel counselors promote a personal touch and bring their own experience, industry knowledge, insights and relationships to bear during the sales process, suppliers and mega-agencies scour data, looking for timing and behavioral patterns that can increase the success of automated sales processes.

I recently heard a presentation from Heike Birlenbach, a senior vice president of sales for Lufthansa, in which she declared 2017 to be the "year of digitization," with a focus on ways to "increase personalization." This is not as oxymoronic as it might first appear, and she gave a good example of how data analytics can be used to meet customer needs, as well as Lufthansa's commercial desires.

A longtime default online marketing strategy has been to tempt a buyer to upgrade to a premium seat at the time of purchase. If that didn't work, airlines used check-in kiosks and advance check-in protocols to prompt passengers to consider moving into a forward cabin.

But through data analytics, Lufthansa discovered that the decision to upgrade is often made somewhere between booking and check-in, and the airline is now timing upgrade offers based on previously untracked passenger behavior patterns. Exploiting Big Data, the carrier is honing in to the optimal time to make an automated, personalized upsell pitch.

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When it comes to human insight and machine insight, it's not an either/or, John-Henry-vs.-the-steam-drill situation. Both can succeed on their own terms, and both have the same cause for potential failure: hitting the average and missing the target.

It's not uncommon for both individual salespeople and marketers who create algorithms to make assumptions based on the past and subsequently misread the future.

The reason that silver bullets and magic words are elusive in sales is that human beings are not one-dimensional, and trends don't fully define the individuals participating in them. I recently had a conversation with Azamara Club Cruises CEO Larry Pimentel in which he gave a good example of how pigeonholing people can lead to missed opportunities.

"Grandparents may go watch their grandkids play soccer in the morning and take them out to a fast-food restaurant just after the game," he said. "They'll have a great time."

But don't read too much into their eating preferences based on that. It doesn't mean they won't have a reservation at a three-star Michelin restaurant for a quiet dinner that night.

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It shouldn't be a surprise that travel is predicted to be the largest industry in the world. Trip options are as varied as individuals, and marketers continue to refine their understanding of consumer behavior and its connection to our multifaceted world. Any profession that can find opportunities in both weather and taxes is, by definition, eternal.


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