Richard Turen
Richard Turen

There is some new data from the think tank Mindtree that relates to what is really important for travelers in the digital age. It turns out we may be missing the boat when it comes to emphasizing highly experiential and authentic travel concepts.

It's not hard to see why we need to get this one right. Millennials will very soon be outspending any previous generation on travel.

Last year, Mindtree was interested in seeing exactly where most of our travel and hospitality organizations stand on the digital time line. Are they in tune with the digital travel-planning expectations for millennials, the largest travel class of all time? The study also examined expectations of present and future world travelers and their sense of the current state of digital experiences available to consumers.

My reading of the study, prepared by the marketing research firm Vanson Bourne, seemed to indicate the need for a new emphasis on what will drive all of those millennials, who we assume are craving immersive experiences and a sense of authenticity in their travels. Of course they are, but there is a more important concept that is not mentioned as often as it should be. More about that in a moment.

What we can say about these younger travelers is that they have a goal of about three years when they expect they will reach a kind of travel purchase nirvana. That will occur when they reach their ideal state: the ability to strike the perfect balance between online and offline travel purchases and interaction.

This balance actually has a name. It is called "phy-gital" and it is the merging of the physical journeys they intend to make with the digital journeys that might be a precursor to actual travel. They don't want to research a trip; they want to experience it digitally before plunking down hard cash.

This expectation has to do with control. Make no mistake about it, our clients, at least the millennials, want to control the entire purchasing experience. You either fight them for it, or you design a way to expedite their plans without making them feel like they are giving up this control they crave.

Understand that these digital travelers (a better term because it really encompasses more than a single generation) do not want to exercise their travel control from a home or office. They don't want to feel they need to be connected to a telephone. In fact, they love telling researchers that they do not "have a home phone." That is like having an AOL email address.

And here is where I think we find an important kernel of information about this important travel class. They want the companies they work with to have immediate access to their digital profile, and they want to receive recommendations based on their travel history and personal preferences.

So what does this really mean? I think we need to see, emerging from a great many research sources, that the digital traveler does not want a hotel to tell them about the three on-premises restaurants. They want and expect a curated list of local restaurants that serve the kinds of dishes that constitute their personal favorites.

When selecting where to stay, they expect to tour their potential room but would also enjoy seeing places in the immediate neighborhood where they might like to spend some time.

When selecting flights, especially longer ones, they would like to know which seat is being recommended to them based on their seating preference. But wait, there's more. They want to know a bit about the folks sitting in the seat next to them before finalizing their selection. They want the adviser, the app or the airline to help them meet interesting people midflight.

The new age digital traveler expects that three months from now they will be able to visit their cruise ports and have days planned for them based on their profile and preferences.

They wonder how they will dine aboard the ship and expect some direction in terms of confirming those venues that most closely fit their profile.

Then there is the destination itself. In the next three years, in order to achieve the merging of yin and yang, the "phy-gital" sense of travel, they will expect their adviser, their app and their airline to make recommendations based almost entirely on their personal travel profile and interests.

It is rather tidy to say that the new digital traveler is seeking experiences and authenticity. These have become our industry buzzwords going into the second half of this turbulent decade.

But experiences that are truly authentic are hard to find. It almost means that by definition they are off the radar. So the adviser is asking her consortium representative in Rwanda how her clients can track gorillas that have never been photographed by previous travelers. Our Paris office is besieged by requests to see all of the important neighborhood sights that are well off the traditional tourist track, and we need to feed our clients food that has never been previously digested by American tourists.

Authenticity is a tough concept because as soon as you identify it, some of the world beats a path to your door and you need to wait in line for a dose of that authenticity.

All of which brings me to my central point and one of the clear conclusions of the Mindtree study. The new digital traveler craves, above all else, a sense that everything coming at them from an adviser, an app or a supplier is totally personalized. They want, they need, to feel that what we offer is created just for them, and they need points of light in every message that serve to highlight the fact that we know who they are and know what they want.

You know that Facebook, Google, Twitter and all of the other social media sites have one valuable asset that inflates their stock value. They have tons and tons of Big Data. They have the raw ingredients for a golden age of personalization, and all of us will notice in the next 72 months huge gains in the area of truly personalized marketing. Travel will lead in this position because we deal largely in the market of dreams fulfilled, a product that lends itself to personalization.   

But how does the adviser keep up? If personalization is the real hot-button topic after all, how does the home-based adviser keep up with the onslaught of personalized marketing that will be aimed at our clients in truly colorful and creative ways?

I think the first step is to recognize that digital travelers want companies to understand their personal needs in ways that most hospitality-related companies are not ready for yet. I think we have about a 72-month head start. So the savvy adviser needs to start thinking outside the box, putting all of one's sales and marketing eggs into a larger box we can call "Truly Personalized Services and Planning."

Create your own invoices. Personalize them for the client hitting all of the things they look for in a travel experience. Use airlines, whenever possible, that are into digital profiles of each guest, and see how far you can go in terms of having a flight-monitoring team personalize your client's airline experience.

Speak to the person in charge of guest happiness at every hotel you book to see what kind of personal gifts, notes and genuine surprise experiences you can provide (I like a special pillow that is theirs to keep). Get the name and email address of the purser onboard the ship your guest is sailing and try to have a personal something delivered.

Develop profile information about every client that goes far beyond anything Google or Amazon can collect. Know what foods they most and least enjoy, as well as beverages, clothing and exactly the kinds of experiences they most enjoy when they travel.

No, we're not as fast as Facebook's computers. But we are humans with the ability to take personalization way beyond the digital playground. We can own it, making email contact from a nameless corporation seem more an intrusion than a caring concern for honest personalization. This is a battle we can win.

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