How to drive active engagement between travel brands and traveling customers in 2020 (and beyond)

Consumer-facing businesses around the world are all looking to seek out, attract and nurture the largest catchment of high-value customers that they possibly can. While brand loyalists represent the most profitable source of revenue for a business, they are also typically willing to positively share their affinity for the brand with their friends, families, and networks, which can drive new opportunities. But these customers don’t just give away their loyalty freely; brands must earn it.

In the travel and tourism industry, in particular, customer expectations are centered around core needs: give me back time, give me choice and make my life easier. These basic needs have led brands to apply their focus toward technology, and a seamless, meaningful experience both online and in physical locations. Travelers expect to have an active voice in the design and delivery of the brands they love. They do not just expect to be heard, but to influence meaningful change that impacts communities beyond the brand loyalists.

This dialogue between brands and customers is what I call “active participation,” a mutually beneficial outcome that stems from trust, connection, and engagement that goes beyond any transaction. As the industry adapts to modern realities heading into 2020, here are eight key actions brands can take to thrive in this new travel and tourism landscape:

1. Discover your brand purpose
It’s critical to uncover the inner truth of your brand, product, or service, and articulate your higher purpose. Modern traveling consumers want to associate with brands that reflect their own values. And they expect positive action in pursuit of an impactful societal outcome. Sometimes that can lead to a competitive advantage that distinguishes the brand whilst other times, it can mobilize an industry to act as one to tackle issues that matter to many.

In order to truly stand for something, brands need to place corporate values, reputation and financial resources behind the chosen mission. In practice, this can take the form of building a dedicated in-house team that works on initiatives ranging from organizing staff volunteer days to improving corporate recycling processes across offices, partnering with and/or donating to a relevant charity, and setting public goals (decrease carbon footprint by 30 percent by 2030, for example) to enhance brand credibility and build trust with like-minded consumers.

Not only does it authenticate your brand promise, it mobilizes your own organization and rallies colleagues around a meaningful legacy that builds a strong internal culture.

2. Create an always-on, customer-centric culture
The more intuitive the brand is about customer needs, the more inclined a consumer is to engage with that brand. When every experience, interaction, and communication centers around the customer and their needs, then brands can earn the right to a conversation, relationship, and sustained revenue.

And the catalyst for this cultural shift is curiosity along with a sharp focus on customers and what matters to them. Emotion is at the heart of brand loyalty and marketing, along with connection and, ultimately, engagement. Brands will be more successful when they have a deeper understanding of a customer and what moves them.

As marketers, we must be advocates for the customer and bringing to life the value of the brand we represent is at the heart of what we do. Understand and articulate the customer experience that we need to create, deliver it creatively and flawlessly then the commercial outputs will follow – with a lot of data to keep our journey optimized.

3. Value the power of experiences
Loyalty means more than simply introducing brands, products and services to members and encouraging them to spend a good share of their wallet with you. Although a commercial imperative, brand loyalty in today’s world must span far wider than transactional marketing.

Real success is about being able to offer experiences that matter to valued customers, and that means well beyond the transaction. Experiences can take on many forms, including innovative ways to redeem points, partnerships that offer access to something valuable and unique, or small but unexpected ‘surprise and delight’ gestures to simply ‘thank’ a customer or member. That’s how relationships are built in a contemporary loyalty world and why experiences matter, both when traveling and between journeys.

Today’s consumer expects reciprocity from brands who are willing to invest in the relationship in meaningful ways. In exchange, consumers will witness more reasons to engage which helps to solidify a bond with the brand.

4. Produce truly relevant content
The world of loyalty is poised to look like look very different going forward. It certainly won’t be in the form of miles or points or any currency alone to simply recognize buying behavior and allegiance to a brand or portfolio of brands. It will be in the free exchange of data between a brand and its consenting customers.

Brands earn true loyalty when their consumers knowingly surrender valuable data that the brand then turns into even more valuable information that the consumer can personally advantage from. Real-time content, curated to align with customer behaviors, interests, preferences, and trends, helps brands remain relevant and compelling.

It takes a balanced combination of the right technology, marketers drawing on inspiration, trends and insights and an obsession with testing and learning to achieve the desired outcome. The oft said, rarely practiced marketing holy grail – the right content, served up to the right customers at the right time through the channels where they consume content – couldn’t me more apt.

5. Forge partnerships that resonate and amplify
Loyalty brands need to be more akin to lifestyle brands, inextricably linked to their customers world well beyond the product or service they offer.

Partnerships provide that extension, driving revenue and amplifying brands. Above all, consumers expect a partner ecosystem that is defined and designed by the behaviors, preferences, and needs of valuable customers. Brands should take stock of current partnerships to determine which deliver the best return on investment and consider forging new ones to showcase consumer relevance, corporate growth and brand adaptation to new industry realities.

Great partnerships are a key ingredient to any loyalty marketing strategy and customer value proposition but not all relationships pass the litmus test. Partnerships should be brand amplifiers. Consumers expect it. An irrelevant partner that doesn’t complement the brand proposition and generate additional consumer benefit is judged by a savvy marketplace to be centered around the needs of the business, not the customer. That turns people away from a brand. That’s what accentuates a great brand and delivers significant returns for all.

For travel and tourism brands specifically, it’s important to strike a two-pronged approach to partnerships to capture the attention of customers where they live (‘origin’ partnerships) and where/when they travel (‘destination’ partnerships).

6. Deliver a local experience in a global marketplace
Today’s consumer expects a locally authentic experience from international brands. Equally, brands seek to deliver scaled marketing, efficiently at lower costs and effectively, producing outstanding results. Brands that operate across borders and global markets should invest in delivering brand experiences that look and feel local but are powered from the center.

The foundation is built around a universally understood creative idea, sophisticated programs and platforms and the intelligent use of customer data. However, it is often the forging of great internal relationships, clearly defined swim lanes and open dialogue between global and regional teams that create the differentiating factor for any marketing organization in search of success and competitive advantage.

Cultivating strong relationships within a business can never be under-valued, inextricably tied to the centralized technology, tools and techniques fundamental to today’s marketing world. Engineering the perfect balance – between platforms and people – is what helps accelerate marketing success in a globalized marketplace where consumers expect a local experience.

7. Maintain a balanced customer ecosystem
A healthy customer base, supported by loyalty programs, is fueled in equal doses by active, productive members and a constant flow of new enrollments. Nurturing existing customers should always be a fundamental priority. That said, brands need to balance staying loyal to loyal consumers with constantly working to reach new audiences.

Healthy customer loyalty is fueled in equal doses by active, productive customers and a constant inflow of new customers. The latter is often undervalued yet essential to the vitality of a program that is both intended to drive near-term revenue and longer-term customer engagement. The harsh reality is that no matter how strong the value proposition of a given program the natural attrition rates require a regular shot of new enrollees. If you subscribe to the logic that your most valuable members spend more, come back regularly and are likely to use lower cost direct channels to buy your products and services, then they should receive the greatest focus and resources.

Of course, nurturing existing valuable customers will always be a fundamental priority, but perpetually finding new ones to build a stronger core is what protects and sustains success.

8. Pursue simplicity at all costs
Business is by nature ambiguous and ambiguity can unlock fresh thinking and ideas. However, it’s inevitably clarity that enables solutions. It’s the artful way that we interpret such situations and go in search of that simple solution that make good businesses great.

Designing a simple, efficient way for customers to engage with a brand is key to keeping customers engaged and building loyalty. As more customers value convenience and choice above all, there’s more pressure on brands to demonstrate respect and appreciation of the time and energy people spend interacting with them.

Brands looking to attract more consumers should commit to clarity in all engagements with audiences and launching initiatives that help prove their dedication to customer service. After all, the travel and tourism industry rely on trust, safety and people to flourish.

To be an innovator, disruptor or entrepreneur in the global travel and tourism industry, embrace complexity to unearth ideas. From there, pursue clarity by finding the simplest, most rudimentary and easily digestible answers you can possibly find.

Bruce LaHood is a Senior Partner at ICF Next.

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