Why do we travel? For some people, it’s a desire to explore. For others, it’s about seeing friends and family, or doing business. For most of us, it is both. In Middle Eastern cultures, trust is the backbone and currency of business. It is not built over one meeting in the office, but is fostered, matured and sustained over a period of time, through face-to-face meetings and over a cup of coffee.
Today, things have changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has grounded planes, trains and automobiles around the globe; so while our desire to travel still remains, the travel ecosystem is experiencing a seismic shift. We are navigating uncharted territory, and brands will need to act with agility and modify their approach accordingly. This could be an opportunity for brands to reassess their offerings and get ahead of their competition.
Airlines, hotels, and every business across the travel ecosystem must rethink customer engagement. They must ask: How can we rebuild relationships and confidence today, to help champion the recovery the travel industry so desperately needs tomorrow?
Brands are responding to the need for action in inventive ways. Some businesses are bending ironclad rules in favour of more forgiving customer policies. Others are working overtime to fulfill unique customer needs that have suddenly arisen. Practically all companies are rethinking how they communicate at this complicated, ever-changing period.
There is much to learn from the best practices we are already seeing, namely how to engage travellers today to drive the eagerly anticipated travel recovery.
Empathy and flexibility
The outbreak of COVID-19 has left frequent flyers feeling frustrated and powerless. They are unable to enjoy the respite offered by travel , unable to plan for the near future and in many cases unable to do their jobs. In this context, it is imperative that travel brands act with empathy and flexibility when setting rebooking and cancellation policies. After all, the people who travel frequently are the heart of the industry – and it won’t keep beating without them.
The same is true for loyalty programmes, which have been inundated with concerns from members wanting to know how they can maintain their status if they’re unable to travel. Offering uninterrupted tier status is one important way to show members that they are valued and to demonstrate that loyalty goes both ways. While it may go against the norm – the current situation is anything but.
Many airlines and hotels worldwide, as well as tourism operators, have already waived cancellation fees, relaxed loyalty membership earning requirements, and introduced more flexibility on future bookings. Emirates, for example, is allowing customers with unused tickets to obtain a refund or travel voucher, or extend bookings for up to 760 days. It is also extending the status period of Skywards Silver, Gold and Platinum members whose tier status was about to expire, and prolonging the validity of expiring Skywards Miles until the end of the year. Etihad Guest members who were due to travel between March and July will receive up to 5,000 bonus Etihad Guest Miles when they exchange their booking for Etihad Credit. To help its members keep their tier status on track, all active Etihad Guest members are currently receiving monthly bonus tier miles. In Saudi Arabia, national carrier Saudia has extended member tier validity until December 2021 and any miles that were due to expire up until December 2020 will also be extended until December 2021.
From no-fee cancellations, to extra rewards, to discounts on future bookings, there are many ways a business can look forward to the eventual recovery via a policy that reassures customers now and encourages them to get excited for future travel.
Relevant, innovative offerings
With so many travellers not only grounded but also stuck inside their homes under isolation orders, travel brands are faced with a unique challenge: how to stay engaged and relevant during this completely unprecedented situation?
Loyalty is a coveted currency, and powers a mechanism to not only remain engaged with, but to also drive crucial revenue from travellers. Many brands already extend their loyalty currency into everyday life – with online shopping malls to earn and spend points, co-branded credit cards and so on – but now it’s time to broaden ancillary usage and revenue streams even further. Saudia, keen to remain engaged with their customers, launched a Flash promotion to all members of their Al Fursan loyalty programme. Members were asked to top-up their miles balance and then instantly receive 75% bonus miles to spend on upgrades or flights later. This kind of engagement will be key for travel brands and loyalty programmes to remain top-of-mind and wallet when their core proposition is not currently valid.
For example in the United States of America, Collinson is already working with partners to bring new offerings like meal kit and grocery home delivery services into the loyalty ecosystem, so that the travel brands we work with have more opportunities to connect with and reward their customers in a deeply relevant way.
Travel companies can also observe the best practices of organisations in other industries. The key is imagination – thinking outside the box to creatively engage with customers, and public at large. It’s not about pushing a brand’s own agenda, but rather addressing the wider narrative. Louvre Abu Dhabi is enhancing its digital offering by providing free access to more content through virtual tours, video, audio and downloadable activities. This ensures that the museum’s stories of cultural connections, as told by its artworks & exhibitions, remain accessible. Simultaneously, Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue art and design complex, launched alserkal online, offering 360 degree views of more than 15 galleries and 80 artists’ work in an attractive and responsive VR system, created by 3D data platform company Matterport. This is an innovative way to engage travel lovers and help them create a travel wish list for the future; and there is plenty more whitespace for airlines, hotels and other businesses to join in.
Honest, transparent and timely communications
Brands are on explorative journeys, navigating communications depending on when and how their business has been affected by the outbreak. The first step is baseline communications, to share the company’s own actions in monitoring the situation and putting safety first. After that, brands can get more creative with aspirational and even bold communications. Both types of communications are critical for travellers, who need reassurance and crucial information as much as they need a reminder that the joy of travelling is not forever lost. Abu Dhabi introduced a heartening Stay Home, Stay Safe but Stay Curious video leading to the virtual exploration platform called #StayCurious that allows you to get a little closer to its cultural roots, no matter where you are in the world. Dubai introduced the farewell sticker campaign with the heartfelt message, placed in passengers’ documents leaving the UAE, that reads ‘Have a Safe Flight, We’ll Meet Soon”. These are just two examples of how brands can use timely, aspirational communications to inspire people to keep their love for travel alive.
Transparency in communications reigns supreme, and brands can stand out from the crowd with an honest point of view on how the business itself is being affected by the outbreak. Emirates has posted regular updates on its response to the crisis, initially outlining details on its disinfection procedures and providing absolute clarity on its policies for unused tickets once flights were cancelled.
Etihad has kept its customers informed about repatriation flights through regular updates on its web site. Details are added as soon as necessary approvals are obtained and customers reminded of the procedures they must follow to guarantee boarding.
Transparency can help build kinship between travel brands and their customers, each of which are facing challenges. It’s also an opportunity to share other news, on initiatives such as cabin refresh programs and how airlines are redeploying grounded passenger planes. to increase global air cargo capacity.
Looking towards travel recovery
After COVID-19, the future of travel may look very different than any of us imagined. But there’s no going back; and every business operating in and around the travel sector must claim a stake in building that future.
The time to act is now. When it’s safe to hit the road and take to the skies, travellers will remember the brands that went above and beyond to reward and reassure them during the difficult times. From flexible policies, to unexpected offerings and transparent communications – travel brands must take a stand, be kind and be innovative. They must show their customers that they are valued and that their needs come first. Engaging travel lovers today is the only way to champion travel recovery tomorrow.