Last week, I had the pleasure of joining travel industry professionals from around the world at the Association of Travel Marketing Executives (ATME) 2013 Travel Marketing Conference in Miami. It was two-days chock full of networking with and learning from some of the smartest travel marketers in the business.

Not surprisingly, several key themes emerged as focal points during the sessions:

  • “It’s All About Me” is the New Travelers’ Mantra
  • We’ve Become Digital Omnivores
  • Change is Constant

It’s All About Me: Our Sharing Economy and the Customer Experience
I’ve always been a strong proponent of customer service and experience sharing. I have no bones about sharing my negative and positive experiences using any means necessary – both “old school” (comment cards) and “new school” (social media). I’m not alone, especially when it comes to travel.

Several great panel sessions were devoted solely to the importance of the customer experience, and just how mandatory it is to construct an experience (be it travel or otherwise) that is architected by the traveler, not for the traveler. GreGG Truman, VP of Truman Consultancy (and formerly with South African Airways) had one of the best quotes of the morning: “What we think the customer wants, doesn’t matter … it’s what the customer wants.”

It’s all about me. It’s all about you. It’s all about the customer. Provide the customer a negative experience; they will broadcast it to your (and their) social networks. It’s what you do with these comments that will make or break you as a brand, especially in a crisis.  A timely example of this: The American Airlines computer system issues that grounded more than 400 flights last Tuesday. American Airlines garnered high praise from many of the ATME attendees, and the media for their consistent use of their social media channels to communicate with their customers.

Far too often, we as travel strategists construct products and packages that we think will appeal to our target customers. And while yes, we rely on customer data profiles (both big and little data if you will) what we really need to do is listen to the customer. They will always tell you what works for them … and what doesn’t.

The same can be said for advertising. Says Baba Shetty, CEO of Newsweek/The Daily Beast: “There’s a lot of things marketers are doing to optimize things that people ignore.” To Baba, advertising is about providing the customer with a choice. “Physiologically, something powerful happens when a human being makes a choice. Too much of our advertising has no choice whatsoever.”

We’re a World of Digital Omnivores
I die a little inside when I hear brands (and some marketers for that matter) proudly announce that they indeed have a digital strategy in place … wait for it…because they built an app for smartphones and/or tablets.

To that I ask: What about your online advertising? What about your website? What about your digital content distribution? What business goals are your efforts contributing to? What metrics have you defined to determine success?  These questions stem off of stats like these, compliments of Noah Tratt of Expedia Media:

  • 88% of travel bookings in the U.S. are done via a computer and 12% from mobile devices
  • 48% of people use mobile devices for travel aspiration research
  • 86% of travelers know their destination before beginning mobile research

Just having an app isn’t going to cut it with numbers like that. In fact, travelers adopt technology 12-18 months earlier, on average, than the general public. That means brands need to be ready and present in the digital space – be in the right place at the right time.

We’re “digital omnivores.” At midnight, we’re on our smartphones. At 8 am, we’re on our desktops. At 6 pm, we hop on over to our tablets. Smart advertisers place content by the time of day that is best served to the respective device.

One of the sessions included a panel comprised of professionals from Google and Expedia, and while the original premise of the panel was to discuss mobile marketing, it quickly morphed into a larger discussion about the need for an integrated approach between smartphones, tables and desktops. To quote Noah Tratt again, “Integrated solutions trump individual strategies.” Precisely.

One of my favorite quotes from the panel came from Neha Khanna, Sr. mobile solutions specialist at Google. “Users are experiencing travel both simultaneously AND sequentially. It’s not about the device, it’s about the context in which it is used, and how we advertise on it.” Context-based advertising across multiple devices is essential.

Change is Constant: Don’t Be Left Behind
This may sound like an obvious statement, but I was flabbergasted at the various statistics that illustrate the lack of a continuous evolution in advertising (both online and offline), digital technology adoption and putting the customer experience first. Stats like these:

  • 37% of travelers stopped during the online registration process because of roadblocks and technology issues
  • 45% of travelers indicate that bad customer service/customer experiences will impact their brand decision

Now, having said that, there were a lot of great examples and case studies of brands that are doing it right. Kudos to just a few mentioned at ATME: Expedia (both Expedia.com and Expedia Media), Newsweek/The Daily Beast and JetBlue Airways, for putting the customer first, using technology to their advantage, and not being afraid to take a calculated risk.

As travel marketers, we’re in one of the most competitive industries, all fighting over the same thing: travelers and their discretionary spending funds. According to Henry Harteveldt, Travel Industry Analyst & Strategist at Hudson Crossing: “Travel is an indulgence, a treat to ourselves. Travelers are feeling better and their intent to travel…and spend money…is steadily increasing.”

The door for travel brands and travel marketers is wide open for us to sprint through and leave a long lasting, positive experience. Now, go forth and be awesome.

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