Richard Turen
Richard Turen

Sometimes you need a statistical reality check to see your way past the trees in the travel forest. One of my most impactful revelations came in 1983. I was working for a major cruise line and was visiting corporate headquarters in Los Angeles for a few days. I wandered into the customer service office and asked if they had any numbers they could share that would break down what our customers were complaining about the most? What aspect, I wondered, was so distasteful that it generated the most letters and calls?

The records had been carefully kept by a small staff dedicated to details. I was able to go quickly to the bottom line. Ninety-one percent of the formal complaints our cruise line received in the preceding year were all about transportation to and from our product. They had nothing to do with the product itself.

I went through the numbers several times. Could that possibly be true?

It was.

Think about any of the major name ships sailing in Alaska or Europe at this moment. Think about their size and the complexity of their operations. Think of all the things that can possibly go wrong with a small city that is also a hotel that happens to move from country to country. Ships have jails, human resource officers devoted to crew comfort, waste disposal plants and more restaurants than you might find in a typical small town. They have technologists, engineers, housekeepers and entertainers. They need to be crime-free, illness-free, stress-free portable hotels. And yet, with all of that, the No. 1 complaint about the product, despite the scale and all that can go wrong, has nothing to do with the product itself. It is all about getting to and returning from the product.

How frustrating must that be for cruise line management knowing that all their intricate planning can be upset by a delay at Heathrow or a flight cancellation in Newark. Stuff that is out of their control.

Years later, when I began thinking about a plan to design a hybrid travel agency, everything I thought about was built around the idea that I would never invest my efforts to helping that portion of the industry that was generating 91% of the complains. I've never done air for any client. I refer that business to the best sources of such foolishness.

I started thinking about the airlines. What do their best customers complain about? We know that just over 50% of all flyers say they base booking decisions on price. Price comes significantly ahead of comfort. Every airline executive can site those figures. It is what airline chiefs know and reporters don't.

Last March, United Airlines president Scott Kirby admitted candidly in an interview with TravelSkills that the No. 1 complaint these days from passengers is poor WiFi service. It turns out that while flying, most passengers want to get their minds off the design of the seat they are in, and the best way to do that is to escape somewhere else. And that requires WiFi that works well.

Cruise line guests will still complain about the line's air/sea programs. But, hopefully, as the airlines listen to their most frequent flyers, passengers will be more properly entertained while headed to or from their ship.

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