How chat is changing travel

Jesse Martin, trends analyst at Smooch, tells us how airlines, hotels, and other travel entities are embracing messaging now that customers are ready to chat. Facebook’s planned backend integration of WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram has animated the tech world, with many drawing comparisons to China’s do-everything-messaging app WeChat.

Facebook’s pivot from public news feed to private messaging comes at a time when messaging apps have superseded social networking apps in popularity, while Conversational Commerce gains traction in retail, healthcare, and finance. But nowhere is this more true than in the travel industry.

Jesse Martin
Jesse Martin, trends analyst at Smooch

In travel, messaging has surfaced in the CX strategies of big and small players alike, whether that’s hotel chains with a global presence like Four Seasons, or with indie startups like Snaptravel.

It’s happening with airlines, hotels, and online travel agents (OTAs), popping up during the customer journey where it wasn’t previously possible, and creating new opportunities for personalised connections between travel brands and their customers.

Pre-getaway

Today’s savvy traveller could plan a whole trip inside messaging channels like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger if they wanted to. Kayak’s Messenger integration compares flights and hotel deals, and answers questions like “Where can I go for $500?” (The answer? Fargo, North Dakota. Any time of year.)

WestJet’s famously compassionate chatbot Juliet can book flights and send updates in a persistent conversational thread. While the company’s bot doesn’t offer the comparative benefit of OTAs, WestJet can maintain a relationship with its most loyal customers on their favorite channel.

Hotels with web chat on their sites can answer questions, provide support, and move the conversation into messaging apps, enabling them to stay on top of their leads. Receiving a notification on their preferred channel allows customers to get an answer while they go about their day rather than waiting around on a web page.

On the hotel’s end, transferring the conversation from their website to the customer’s preferred channel allows them to extend the relationship and nurture the lead until they’re ready to convert.

In-stay? Text the desk

Guest messaging has taken off in hotels, pioneered by global chains like Four Seasons, which maintains conversations with guests across its 110 properties, and by providers like BookBoost or Okkami. Four Seasons guests can use pretty much any channel — from WhatsApp and WeChat to mobile chat and in-room iPads — to message the front desk with the same convenience as messaging a friend.

Guests can ask for a number of other services, like ordering cars or asking for recommendations of things to do. Unlike messaging a friend, the front desk doesn’t expect anything in return when they send food up to your room or judge you when you ask for photos of Jeff Goldblum on the nightstand.

Meanwhile, smaller hotels are turning to innovative startups like Bookboost to provide their guests with messaging-based digital concierge experiences.

“They can’t afford the smallest inconvenience here”

Bookboost’s Lucas Höfer underscored the important role guest messaging plays in strengthening the relationship between the guest and the hotel. “Loyalty can mean coming back to your place or visiting the same hotel in a different city,” he said.

Messaging inspires loyalty that leads to increased time on the property, and guests that are grounded by solid relationships to their hotels will stick around to try the on-site restaurants, bars, and entertainment.

Höfer says that hotels think of their guest relationships as the most valuable asset they have. “They can’t afford the smallest inconvenience here,” he says.  

Nick Daniels, co-founder of Alliants, which creates luxury guest-messaging and digital concierge services for travel brands, understands that messaging is key for brands who want to personalise customer communications at scale without sacrificing experience. “Messaging is truly the only way you can handle that volume,” he says.

“Luxury customers are paying for that recognition. Messaging is a simple method of creating a more inclusive, less formal communication structure where you can capture that information more easily.”

What comes after?

Ido Arad, co-founder of Servicefriend, which creates customer service hybrid AI solutions for selected industries, explained that while it appears that travel industry brands are slow to adopt omnichannel messaging strategies, they do recognise the benefit — especially when it concerns extending the lifetime of a customer journey.

“One-to-one personal relations that go beyond the traditional offers”

“OTAs do see the value in messaging,” he said. “Messaging kicks in after the booking is completed, so in a way they bridge the offline and the online and continue being with the traveler. While the OTA app / website is a commodity today, messaging allows them to provide one to one personal relations that go beyond the traditional offers and creates brand locality.”

The message? Customers expect brands to be available to chat. Even more, they expect personalised, modern messaging experiences. This isn’t to signal the death knell of websites and apps — those are great starting points for messaging. Meanwhile, chat apps are surging in popularity and fast-moving startups and legacy brands alike are already adopting messaging to manage personalised conversations at scale.

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