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Joining the dots with travel data

1024px-A380_&_Red_Arrows_-_RIAT_2013The travel industry has much to gain — and much to offer us, its customers — through smarter use of the data it already collects. This shouldn’t, as I’ve argued before, be a substitute for employing, training and empowering good people. But as an adjunct to what they can do, it has the potential to deliver experiences that are more profitable for the companies concerned and more pleasant and rewarding for the traveller. Even apparently embarrassing stories like this old one about Orbitz aren’t necessarily as bad as they first appear. There is no evidence that Orbitz was charging Mac users more for the same room. Orbitz was merely observing that Mac users tend to book pricier rooms. So what’s wrong with showing Mac users those rooms first? They would appear to be the rooms they’re most likely to pick anyway, so everyone wins. Nothing stopped the spendthrift Mac user from resorting the room list by price, and picking a cheaper one.

A small example from British Airways this morning shows some of the opportunity in the travel sector, whilst also highlighting the rather large gap between (my) expectation and (this trip’s) reality.

On Saturday, I booked one of my not-infrequent trips to the United States. I tend to build a picture of a possible trip gradually over a week or two, visiting several sites, comparing different options, looking at any ways in which status or points can sensibly be put to work, and generally working out how best to complete the trip. By the time it comes to the act of booking, I know what I want to do and will typically complete everything using a few sites in a pretty short space of time. Over about an hour on Saturday, the British Airways site sorted my flight,  Starwood Preferred Guest sorted my stay in America, Accor dealt with the pre-flight night at Heathrow, and East Coast (a UK rail company) dealt with getting from home to London and back. All the confirmations, of course, routed straight into TripIt.

Today, this arrived in my inbox;


Joined up thinking at work. Upsell, partnership, mining of data for insight, and all the rest. Superficially, at least, it’s a pretty good example of putting existing data and relationships to work.

And yet, this particular message fails on a number of levels. Some were within BA’s control, others are quirks of my behaviour that the airline might (possibly?) not be expected to fully understand.

First, let’s take a look at the mis-steps that BA could (and should) have been able to avoid…

  • “When you’re in Los Angeles,” the message opens. Erm. My booking is for a return trip from the UK to San Francisco. On the outward leg, it happens to work out more than 60% cheaper to fly from London to Los Angeles and then catch a shuttle for the short hop from LAX to SFO. My booking with British Airways is for the whole journey by air. They know that I connect to an American Airlines flight to SFO, a couple of hours after reaching Los Angeles. They know that my journey home is from San Francisco to London, direct (and, in another odd pricing quirk, in a Club bed for about £50 more than the Premium Economy seat I was originally looking at). So which particular bit of their workflow decided that I needed hotel accommodation in Los Angeles? Do they know something about connections from LAX to SFO that they’re not telling me? Is this a subtle hint that my stay in Tinseltown may be longer than the quick trip to the Lounge I’m expecting?
  • “You’ll need to become a HHonors Member. But that’s easy. Join and book now.” Erm, again. I am a HHonors member. I have been for years. My HHonors account is already linked to my BA account, and I already earn British Airways Avios points for Hilton stays. Shouldn’t the British Airways marketing machine know that? I might be unhappy for it to know how often I stay with Hilton (much less than I used to, for various reasons), how much I spend with Hilton, or other details of the internal workings of my relationship with Hilton… but I’m perfectly happy (and, presumably, not alone in this?) for them to know that there is an existing relationship between the me known to BA Executive Club and the me known to Hilton HHonors. Indeed, large parts of that relationship are very visible in the movement of points in and out of my Executive Club account.

And now, the personality quirks which made this message less powerful than it might otherwise have been…

  • The biggest of these is timing. As I mentioned, I booked my flight on Saturday. This message arrived on Monday. It’s possible, of course, that BA has masses of data to suggest that people book hotels two days after they book flights, but I don’t work that way. I doubt I ever have. My hotel was booked within about 30 minutes of the flight, maybe even less. This message should have been in my inbox on Saturday, alongside or very soon after the booking confirmation email for my flight. Two days is too long. I’ve moved on to the next trip.
  • The call to action seems off. The message is triggered by a known booking of a trip to a specific (albeit wrong) place at a particular time. Where are the suggested Los Angeles Hiltons for my consideration? Where’s the teaser of the benefits I could expect (“enjoy a complementary room upgrade and breakfast by the pool at the Hilton blah blah”)? Where, even, is the link back to the BA hotel booking service and it’s roster of SoCal Hiltons?
  • For me, at least, a message like this sent after I booked my flights came too late. I already knew where I wanted to book, because I’d done my research. Some of that research is still visible on the British Airways site, as some of my searching there over the past couple of weeks included considering combined flight and hotel packages for this trip. That, presumably, is visible to BA’s back-end systems as they go about their analysis of the way that I and other users of the site behave. This message might have worked better if it had come during or after some of that research. Failing that, it could have been worded as something to consider for my next trip?

Smarter use of data offers travel companies the opportunity to better understand their customers. It also offers them the opportunity to sell and upsell in a far more targeted and responsive fashion. For the traveller, there are plenty of benefits to be gained as our travel providers target us with offers and options which might actually meet our needs or improve our journey.

British Airways is doing an awful lot to better understand its customers, especially its premium and frequent fliers. There’s usually some small example of that data at work on every trip with the airline… which makes me that much more likely to keep choosing them. But emails like today’s clearly show that the systems behind the scenes aren’t yet as joined up or as smart as we sometimes like to believe.

Image of British Airways A380 and the Red Arrows from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to user ‘Airwolfhound.’

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Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database.

He blogs at www.cloudofdata.com.