From free range to battery travel: has the industry lost its human touch?

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Losing the human touch? How can travel brands step away from battery?

‘To travel is to live’. So said Hans Christian Andersen. And that still rings true today. This year, UK consumers are investing in holiday and travel plans more than ever, to the detriment of high street retailers and fashion brands. Sterling might not be the currency of flavour right now but we're making darn sure that doesn't spoil our holiday plans. But how are the travel industry reacting to our increased emotional and financial investment?

Unfortunately, not as well as we’d like. In many areas, the tailored, travel experience of old has been replaced by a ‘one size fits all’ commodity.

Just as anything that becomes mainstream, it feels like travel has lost its glitzy sheen. A holiday rarely ‘starts the moment you step onto the plane’ because that aisle is now a well-trodden path. We’re regularly shepherded off the plane and past the next set of battery flyers, so that low cost airlines can keep on top of their schedules. ‘Service with a smile’ has been replaced with military like precision. As service efficiencies and the bottom line become the key drivers of airline experience, it feels like we’re losing alot of the humanity that used to sit at the heart of our travel experience.

However, all is not lost. Indeed, outside the journey itself, the experience economy goes from strength to strength. So let’s consider the A to B, taking A to start with… and BAA more specifically.

Whilst on the one hand, heightened security measures are resulting in more complicated pre travel processes, on the other, the security and pre-boarding experience itself has gone from strength to strength. The military operation is appropriate. It’s reassuring. And slick. With a positive dose of human interaction. The shopping and dining experience that then welcomes you on the other side of security with open arms, is a serious upgrade. Whether champagne and caviar or designer shopping is your thing, everything you need and more, is literally on the plane threshold.

Now this is by no mean feat. The team at BAA have got their data smarts about them. They’re using shopping data and consumer insight to help inform who to stock and how to inspire shoppers. No lounge access? No bother. Another hit to the airline industry. And it’s the same in a number of the newly refurbished train stations, like St Pancras International. Set up as destinations in their own rights, pre travel experiences have become a positive part of any journey.

But that’s not to say the pre journey is perfect. For the entrepreneur or business traveller making last minute work calls, there’s no quiet co-working space on offer. The arrivals process still lacks an authentic UK welcome. Showers, a click and collect fridge stock, or the best of British music and entertainment during the passport control and baggage reclaim process would all help to allay the holiday blues that little while longer.

Not perfect. But a grade above the A to B experience. And the BA experience more specifically.

Until recently, BA still felt clearly set apart from their low cost, budget airline peers. But just as Tesco experienced when they downgraded their loyalty point offering, cutting a longstanding service can create major backlash. Dubbed ‘British Unfair-ways’, the culling of inflight drinks and meals in BA short haul economy from January 2017 has created a groundswell of dissatisfaction and a questioning of the value that BA offer their customers. We know from recent research undertaken at RAPP, that for today’s consumer, value is synonymous with choice, control and being part of something. By taking away one of their key service differentiators and uniting their customers in general dissatisfaction, BA have inadvertently undermined their value exchange.

But how hard would it be for any airline to introduce a pre boarding dining service? To put responsibility in the hands of the travellers themselves by introducing a digital shopping wall or a click and collect service post check-in, thereby freeing up time and expertise for real inflight entertainment. Enabling the cabin crew to revert to authentic ‘service with a smile’ – maybe a few tips and advice on local food, along with helpful language phrases and local knowledge inflight? A little more travel magic from the moment a traveller steps onto the plane.

And a more relaxing arrival in B. So let’s talk B, and Airbnb specifically.

Living like a local is the adventure that today’s traveller seeks. A desire to create authentic, personal and shareable memories. And companies like Airbnb are giving hoteliers a run for their money, pushing the hotel industry to review, revitalise and regenerate. Which means travellers are benefiting from a vastly improved experience. Their demand for a home away from home, local recommendations, and experiences off the beaten track are being met and delivered to a high standard. A far cry from today’s airline experience.

So maybe it’s time planes, trains and automobiles take a leaf out of A and B’s book and layer the service back onto the current commodity product offering. For airlines in particular, positioning their cabin crew as the skilled linguists, customer service and security experts that they’re trained to be, rather than the cashiers and dinner ladies that they’ve become, will help put the magic back into the experience.

The skills, the appetite and the opportunity exists.

Maybe it’s simply a matter of wrestling the customer experience decisions out of the hands of the bean counters, and putting them back into those of the service experts.

Aimée Bryan is planning partner at RAPP UK.

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