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OPINION

The death of loyalty

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaWhatever happened to frequent flyers, returning guests, smiling faces, in-flight coffee, and lobster buffets?

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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AS TRAVEL wobbles and spending declines, hotels and airlines the world over are fighting to hold on to customers. Loyalty, the buzzword for much of the ’80s and ’90s when marquee brands strove to understand and closely identify with their audience, is being replaced by price incentives and a grab-all approach.

It is increasingly evident in the sorts of offers available online and the ‘best price guarantees’ offered by many players to induce customers to stay with them on the basis of a slashed price rather than the excitement of enjoying a superior experience, perhaps also at a decent rate. Price has muscled out the product.

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It is something Facebook and Google encourage with relentless single-minded zeal, focusing on clicks rather than the ‘value’ of these clicks, many of them fake and instantly manufactured through ubiquitous click farms. The entire structure is a bogus pursuit based on the mythical power of ‘quantifiable’ clicks.

{Hospitality – once based on warm human relationships that created powerful bonds – is now an anonymous industry crunching numbers...

This is not to ignore the many bookings that come through valid clicks. But here are some other universal facts. Kids click. Bankers don’t. A great deal of business, especially at the more finicky luxury end, relies on face to face contact and relationships built over the years. Weddings are not booked through an anonymous banner click. Nor are corporate meetings or large MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) events. Luxury travellers would never click and book because breakfast is free. They book through their own trusted human channels. They use something called a telephone. Some people may remember these. You speak into the device rather than massage it with your finger.

Yet, in the online space the click storm has created a blizzard of booking messages at the expense of brands. In the ensuing tumult, entirely caused and encouraged by Google and Facebook, brands are forced to pay per click to advertise their specials on page one of search while it is patently clear fewer clicks are directed at these sponsored placements. Fail to do this at your own peril. Facebook posts appear to reach fewer and fewer people unless you back them up with a plump wallet. And once you spend if you don’t go through the fine print you may end up exclusively dealing with Indonesia or Vietnam where responses (read clicks) are highest.

What this all means is, the way a three-star hotel competes for customers online is largely similar to a five-star. Visit any posh website and the first thing to leap out at you is price, an exclusive special if you only click on the box that relentlessly pursues you like a bellboy’s outstretched palm. Try to find a specific hotel on a corporate site and you will be asked to pick a hotel and destination to book first. How? Why? It is a ludicrous assumption when the entire point of the visit is to find out more about hotels and locations. Research always comes before retail and unless a brand is visible, understood, appreciated, and cherished, quality bookings will never follow save at vastly reduced rates.

On the product side, the ROI and click regime has meant less money for quality control and maintenance and fewer frontline staff interacting with guests to represent their brands. Beaming general managers and gracious public relations executives are being replaced by automatons churning out spreadsheets and obsessing with TripAdvisor ratings. Hospitality – once based on warm human relationships that created powerful bonds – is now an anonymous industry crunching numbers and least interested in guest foibles and interests. PR, so vital for a hotel’s personality, is being outsourced to vast impersonal companies in London and New York. Is it any wonder loyalty has all but disappeared in this free-for-all?

To add to the chaos, much-in-demand young millennials who want to know where their salmon was caught and whether the beef was grass-fed and enjoyed the latest shows of Saturday Night Live, are romping at budget inns and brightly caparisoned boutique addresses where they are willing to accommodate uncomfortable knee-banging furniture and crazy lights and mirrors never right for shaving, as the price is right. Yet, these very same travellers are growing up and, in their mid-Thirties, emerging tired of crackpot psychedelic doll’s-house hotels. They want a decent bed. They come looking for brands and luxury and quality (something they are less familiar with)… and find ever more booking options and prices.  

Hospitality is in full blown retreat. Along with diminished breakfasts, limited dining times, and declining buffets where the lobster and prawn have been yanked off the menu due to the ravages of overgrazing by recklessly chomping tourist hordes, airline in-flight meals are shrinking and coffee has become an endangered species. The last time I asked a stewardess for my de rigueur green tea I got a startled annoyed glare like I had arrived from some other planet.

On a recent Bangkok-Singapore sector on a premium international airline, I was served ‘lunch’ on a plastic tray where – to the delight of calorie counters – lunch was conspicuous by its absence. No bun or butter. No salad. No side dish. Just a main dish and empty neat square depressions where food once proudly pirouetted as the plane dove through air pockets and passengers clung on to their precious goodies.

Airline frequent flyer loyalty programmes have morphed into big spender programs designed to all but eliminate regular travellers. You may have the miles but you will never get the points. The net result is huge numbers of flyers have broken away to try other cheaper airlines.

To revive loyalty there is one simple mantra. It is something our readers tell us constantly. Travellers are looking for Personality, not just Price. As with any perfumed bar companion, if they base it on price it will likely be a one night stand. If the personality appeals and makes them comfortable, they may embark on a relationship. Travellers want a ‘wife’ who welcomes them and makes them feel safe. That is the secret of repeat guests. And no algorithm will ever crack this.

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