What personalization means for the travel industry

All signs point to personalized marketing being the way to go. That’s particularly relevant in the travel industry, where people aren’t typically brand loyal.

As a consumer, I generally know my tastes. I like Kenneth Cole shoes, Chobani yogurt and Walgreens’ brand of dental floss cartridges. But when it comes to travel, I’m a bit more of a fair-weather friend to brands. During my (almost) two years at ClickZ, I’ve traveled 13 times, on seven different airlines.

I’m not alone there. Only 9 percent of travelers will book a trip according to brand loyalty, according to 2014 Capital One research.

Countless studies have shown that personalized marketing works better. Personalized emails are more likely to be opened. Relevant ads get more clicks. Within the travel industry, could an increase in personalization engender more loyalty from more customers who are more likely to be more fickle?


The airline

That’s the plan for WestJet. A 2014 holiday campaign – employees delivered Christmas gifts in an impoverished Dominican village – gave the Canadian airline a huge brand lift, as well as an 86 percent increase in revenue that December. The brand has been working on keeping that momentum by creating more personalized experiences.

It’s a difficult mission, given WestJet’s millions of site visitors. According to Ahmed Elemam, senior digital strategist at WestJet, being diligently attentive on social media is the one part of making the travel experience more personalized.

“We don’t even call our guests ‘customers,'” says Elemam. “Our keyword is care: anything we can do to make the customer experience better.”

Any airline is guaranteed to gets its fair share of social ire, just by virtue of travel being a stressful experience. People like prompt responses and WestJet’s Twitter feed is an unceasing stream of them.


But Elemamsays nailing social is the easy part of personalization. The hard part is combing through millions of people’s search data to present relevant flights and vacation packages.

“Whatever you do with predictive technology, you’re never going to be 100 percent. Humans change so much; we think we know everything and all it takes is one job change to disrupt the prediction,” he says.

“People don’t necessary go for the cheapest, but they go for the best value. Every group, whether it’s business or leisure, has its own storyline. You’ve got to understand who you’re talking to,” continues Eleman. “The goal is to understand someone’s intent.”

The hotel

Nielsen research from last year found that 85 percent of the time people spend on their smartphones is in-app. The data gleaned therein is invaluable because apps’ login information give them a “unique identifier” status that can’t be matched by the web.

WestJet relies on its app data to figure out its customers’ intent, a strategy matched by Best Western. The Phoenix-based hotel chain has more than 4,000 properties all over the world, which translates to a lot of data on a lot of guests. App and loyalty program data give the brand a much better sense of who’s who and what they’re looking for.


“If I’m a business travel going to Miami, I need to stay close to wherever the convention center is. My decision-making criteria is mostly about location, and possibility a little bit about price and where I have loyalty programs,” says Felipe Carreras, director of ecommerce at Best Western. “If I’m a leisure traveler, the story the hotel is much more attractive to me.”

Best Western is currently working on integrating a messaging platform into its app. It’d be like dialing 0 on a hotel phone and asking the operator for extra towels or room service. Carreras points out that it will give customers the chance to have personalized communications with the brand, the way they choose to.

That extra layer of personalization could help Best Western stand out in the hotel space (it’s currently the seventh-largest chain in the world, behind Marriott, Hilton and Wyndham). That’s important for the brand, given how irregularly it sees even its regular guests.

“We’re not Starbucks; nobody is staying at a Best Western three times a day, so we make the most of [our communications],” says Carreras.

The resort

Nobody is staying at a MGM property three times a day, either, so personalization-based loyalty is also a tactic used by MGM Resorts International. It’s particularly important for the brand to stand out, given how many of its hotels are literally surrounded by the competition.

Based in Las Vegas, MGM owns some of the Strip’s most iconic properties: MGM Grand, Luxor, The Bellagio. The latter is next to Caesars Palace, and directly across from Paris and Bally’s, all three of which are owned by Caesars Entertainment.


According to Adobe research, 40 percent of travelers will gladly hand over their data in exchange for personalization. MGM does experiential filtering on its websites, first asking you what you’re going to Vegas to do, be it work, party or relax.

“Particularly for Vegas, people want deals. We want to make sure you understand that if you come to [one of our sites] you can find a relevant offer, but it’s a balance: we just have to make sure to do the best we can to prioritize the right offer for you,” says Geoffrey Waldmiller, vice president of enterprise analytics at MGM Resorts International.

MGM geo-fences its properties to target people who are on-premise. If you’re an MGM guest, the brand already has an idea of the purpose of your trip and therefore, isn’t likely to send a business traveler any deals around tickets to see a DJ at Hakkasan.

“We are an entertainment company at heart, so we want to give you the digital experience that matches the experience you get when you come to Vegas,” says Waldmiller.

The summary

People respond well to personalized marketing, so it’s smart for brands to go down that route in hopes of creating more loyalty. It’s particularly smart within the travel industry, where people are more inclined to just go with whatever’s cheapest.

Could more personalization result in more loyalty? Representing three different facets of the travel industry, WestJet, Best Western and MGM Resorts International are all trying that tactic. And they’re surely not the only ones.



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