Last week I took my first international air travel business trip in more than 15 months. While it was wonderful to get ‘back on the road’, it also highlighted the tremendous challenge facing the travel industry. While reports of the death of business travel are likely to be exaggerated, the industry needs to consider what it will take to get people travelling again and provide a flawless/excellent experience– it is facing a collective ‘moment of truth’.
Back in the 80s Jan Carlzon took the helm at Scandinavian Airlines. The business was struggling and in response Carlzon implemented his ‘moments of truth’ philosophy. Customers were placed at the heart of the airlines business model and every interaction (moment of truth) was improved to optimise the customer experience. It seems this thinking needs to return. While a relaxing of regulations and a pent-up desire to travel will stimulate some return in traveller volumes, the fact remains that business travel today is not always the most enjoyable experience. Unlike tourist travel, where people are often prepared to take the rough with the smooth, business travellers are less tolerant and now have a very viable video conferencing alternative at their fingertips.
As the travel and hotel industry emerges from its pandemic-induced paralysis, focusing on the customer experience is critical. It is challenging. Finding the right staffing balance in low-utilisation periods and integrating new staff is complicated. Too many people and the costs become prohibitive; too few and the customer experience diminishes. After a number of false starts over the course of the pandemic, it is understandable that businesses are struggling to predict what is needed. This emphasises the challenge of restart, particularly in sectors that have been in virtual hibernation for over a year. However, a slow start is not a restart, and businesses reliant on large numbers of business travellers need to put the customer experience and ‘moments of truth’ high on the agenda.
If my own experience of returning to international business travel is indicative of where the industry finds itself then restimulating demand may prove challenging. The cautious return feels like a slow awakening from a forced slumber; it needs to spring back. Long wait times, neglected hotel rooms, generally clunky operations - none of these is a significant problem on its own but combined it will make wary and cautious business travellers soon return to video calls if, like me, they are met with an experience that we know could be better.
These are big and complex questions, but those that begin to make the experience of travel as frictionless and, dare I say it, enjoyable as possible are likely to be well positioned as the new normal just becomes the normal.
On July 7th I will be joined by a panel of travel industry experts to discuss ‘Post-pandemic business travel: is the end really nigh?’ Please join us in what promises to be a thought-provoking discussion. You can register here.