Executive View: Audrey Hendley, American Express

Audrey Hendley is president, American Express Global Travel and Lifestyle Services

We went into 2020 with record bookings. We had the highest January we ever had. And then things came to a standstill.

We've invested a lot during 2020, and will continue that investment next year, particularly in technology and tools to help agents [in the American Express Representative Network] do their jobs better, new digital tools that'll enhance the booking experience for customers when they're calling to inquire about their trips. We continue to invest in personalization; the more we know about customers' travel preferences and travel patterns, the better we can serve them.

We've made some large enhancements in the owned network, too, and next year, we'll be rolling out new tools so colleagues can be even more focused on service.

We're thinking a lot about customers' desire to travel as we get into 2021. In our Amex Trendex Survey, 84% of customers across the U.S., U.K., Mexico, Canada, Japan, Australia and India say that travel is at the top of the list of the activities they miss right now, and 66% are dreaming of booking a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

What's interesting is how the numbers change over time, and the survey has helped us take advantage of opportunities when they come along. A small window of opportunity opened up in September, and our customers were able to book shorter trips closer to home and got some deals.

We've seen month-over-month increases in bookings since September, but I will say the majority are being made within a 30-day window and for more local, domestic travel. Our phone volume is very strong; a lot of inquiries are around, "What do you think is going to happen? When should we start to book some travel? Can I socially distance and still have a good time?"

Safety is the major factor impacting decision-making. Twenty-five percent of customers say that Covid-19 cases at the destination they're considering is the most important factor, followed by flexibility, refund and cancellation policies. They're willing to pay more for health and safety and are seeking travel that allows them to socially distance: road trips, national parks, beaches.

For U.S. customers, the most sought-out destinations are Miami, Las Vegas, Colorado and Cancun. U.S. customers are typically very cross-border-focused, and they're asking about London and Paris, but they're not necessarily making those bookings yet.

We've seen the airlines change policies on fees, on booking windows, and I think that flexibility is something we'll bring with us into the future. Travel consultants are really going to have to make sure that they're up to date on policies and procedures and what's going on in destinations. Knowledge and the recognition that information has become very dynamic is very important to the front line.

I think our first six months, we'll still be in these shorter booking windows. Hopefully, as it gets to the back half of the year, we'll get into the bigger, longer trips. But let's see.

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