State of Messaging: Travel

How travel brands are getting conversational

Introduction

Personalized conversations. Concierge chatbots. Five-star customer experiences. Messaging is taking off. ✈️

How we communicate with customers has changed.

The messaging channels we already rely on to chat with our friends and family are quickly becoming places of business. In the past year, WhatsApp has made its API available to large enterprises, and Apple and Google have embedded business messaging in mobile search results and maps. Meanwhile, the emergence of conversational marketing and support tools have brought modern messaging to hundreds of thousands of company websites and mobile apps.

From local businesses to global enterprises, brands are feeling the gravitational pull of conversations.

This is especially true among travel and hospitality brands, where delivering personal and frictionless customer experiences is key to building customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.

As messaging becomes part of the travel experience, chatbots are popping up as fast as boutique hotels and budget airlines. Luxury hotel guests are messaging the front desk rather than calling. Airlines are routing customer concerns to messaging channels — both owned and OTT (over-the-top) — before phone and email.

We gathered insights from leading travel and hospitality brands and software makers to understand how messaging is transforming the travel experience. This report looks at the entire travel customer journey, from pre-booking to post-trip, unpacking the various opportunities messaging creates to offer personalized, convenient, and frictionless CX at scale.

Bon Voyage!

Pre-Stay

Lookers to Bookers Airlines, online travel agencies (OTAs), and hotels are automating their booking engines for billions of WhatsApp, Messenger, and WeChat users while deploying chat on their own digital properties.

Hotels and OTAs have been adding chat to their websites for years. But session-based live chat is giving way to a modern messaging experience that is persistent, asynchronous and omnichannel.

By allowing customers to start conversations on the web and carry them through to their favorite chat app, agents can respond when they’re ready without dropping the lead or compelling customers to wait around for a reply.

Booking Flights

Online travel agencies and airlines are classic frenemies, competing on price and convenience. For customers, OTAs might offer the lowest prices, but booking directly with an airline cuts out the middle-man in case there are issues — like lost luggage, seat changes, and requests for alternative accommodations.

Canadian airline WestJet allows travelers to book flights with Juliet, its Facebook Messenger chatbot. Juliet finds flights, answers questions, and hands travelers off to live agents for more specific queries.

westjet-interface

Malaysia Airlines allows customers to book flights with the MH Chats Messenger bot. Research, booking, and payment are all conducted without leaving Messenger. The whole process is contained in the conversation.

malaysia-interface

Kayak’s chatbot brings the OTA’s capabilities to Messenger. The bot searches for flights, hotels, and activities while factoring in budget and dates. Many of these steps are executed without leaving the conversation — a phenomenon akin to WeChat’s Mini Programs (or Smooch’s Conversation Extensions).

kayak-interface

During the initial search stage, messaging allows for very quick and precise search. Instead of navigating through menu options and filters, one can type in natural language — "next weekend in San Francisco close to my office with Free WiFi under $300" — and instantly get the results they are looking for.

Hussein Fazal
Co-Founder and CEO of SnapTravel

46%

of surveyed customers would pick chatbots if it meant faster service

Source : Phocus Wire

Booking Hotels

Booking rooms directly from the hotel via chat is still relatively uncommon. Brands are reluctant to exchange sensitive information over channels that aren’t encrypted end-to-end or where user authentication and payment are difficult.

Most brands want to know who they’re talking to before closing the deal.

In Europe, 75% of hotel rooms are booked through OTAs, who typically offer lower prices (Infor).

While WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption by default, Facebook Messenger does not — though that might change with the planned merger of Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram’s backends. Next year’s much-anticipated release of the Facebook-backed cryptocurrency, Libra, is an attempt to make payment easier, cheaper and more secure.

In Sweden, Hotel Tylosand is embracing web chat as a way to qualify and secure leads. A prospect can chat with the staff about availabilities, then opt in to receiving a notification in WhatsApp or Messenger when the staff member responds.

In China, do-everything messaging app WeChat’s Mini Programs allow hotels and resorts like Club Med to drive direct bookings with guests across Asia.

tylosand-interface
clubmed-interface

Booking with Online Travel Agencies

It’s more common for travelers to book their accommodations through OTAs than directly with the hotel. It’s also more common for OTAs to automate their global distribution systems into conversational booking assistants than it is for hotel chains to do the same.

Booking.com’s chatbot, deployed on WhatsApp and Messenger, compares hotel rooms at competitive rates alongside homestay properties.

Kayak’s Messenger bot handles rooms, homestays, flights, car rentals — stopping just short of restaurant reservations.

SnapTravel, a Toronto-based startup that raised $21 million USD in their series A (from basketball star Steph Curry, among others), is part of a growing breed of messaging-first companies tapping into the conversational commerce zeitgeist. Users choose between discounted hotels in Messenger and WhatsApp after sharing details like city, dates, and budget preferences with a chatbot.

UK startup My SWFT helps travelers organize group trips through WhatsApp and Messenger. Customers interact with a mix of bots and agents in order to craft an itinerary, sorting out details like hotels, ski trips, beach visits, and restaurant reservations.

88%

of travelers will switch apps if it doesn’t meet their needs

Source : Google

OTAs are terrified of the idea of cannibalizing their website or their app. They're invested so much in every pixel. Introducing the idea of a new vehicle to divert customers means a lot.

Ido Arad
Co-Founder of ServiceFriend

The Chatbot Factor We all know the story: Bots reduce friction when they work well. When they don’t, chat becomes a burden instead of a convenience. While Gartner suggests chatbots are poised to handle 85% of customer requests by 2020, the best chatbot experiences involve some combination of automation and real human interaction.

When it comes to the travel journey, bots are used most frequently during the planning and booking stages. Reservation and booking engines can be automated, but travel is complicated and most bots aren’t smart enough to deal with the frequent complications and frustrations that arise for travelers — at least not yet, and not without a little help from their human friends.

myswift-interface
booking-interface
snaptravel-interface

Pre-Flight

Airlines are also getting in on the conversation, using rich new channels to share flight info and boarding passes while turning routine communications into opportunities for long-term engagement.

Delta is the first US-based airline to use Apple Business Chat, which allows brands to chat with iOS users within iMessage. In Delta’s case, conversations are mostly automated to reduce strain on agents.

Lufthansa Group is experimenting with a Messenger chatbot that allows flyers to look up flight routes, check their flight status, and direct service inquiries to human agents for Lufthansa, Swiss Air, and Austrian Air.

While travelers toil between airport checkpoints, they can show agents the boarding passes that were delivered to their WhatsApp accounts, courtesy of airlines like FlySafair and KLM.

I think conversations and chat open up a world of white space that may not be about making more money but may be about making things more valuable.

Anthony Zebrowski-Rubin
Co-Founder, GuestDriven

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was the first airline to have a verified WhatsApp business account. After opting in during the booking process, travelers can receive flight updates and boarding passes and create group chats for family and friends to receive automated updates.

Verified business profiles are becoming common on business messaging platforms like Apple Business Chat and RCS, the next generation text messaging technology that Google is integrating into all Android phones.

Verified profiles make it more likely for customers to trust the message and reply, turning transactional messages like boarding passes and receipts into opportunities for customer engagement, retention and rebooking. Contrast this with SMS, where customers receive messages from anonymous numbers and are often unable to respond — a CX dead end.

70%

of travelers prefer to be notified via messaging

Source : LivePerson

FlySafair boarding pass

flysafair-interface

KLM boarding pass

klm-boarding-interface

KLM group updates

klm-updates-interface

In-Stay

This is the stage of the travel journey where we’re seeing the most customer conversations happening, and for good reason. According to Walker, a CX consulting firm, 2020 will be the year customer experience will surpass price and even product as the key competitive differentiator.

For hotel brands who care about providing personal, authentic and emotionally-impactful customer experiences, messaging is the ideal medium.

At the front of the guest messaging pack is Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. The 58-year old hospitality brand built a complete messaging-based concierge service across its 118 global properties.

Starting with a live chat feature embedded into the brand’s mobile app, the Four Seasons Chat experience has been extended across numerous consumer messaging apps, including Facebook Messenger, WeChat and WhatsApp.

The service ensures that customers can reach out to the hotel from any channel at any time, with messages intelligently routed to local staff at its global hotels, resorts and residences. For instance, if a guest at the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco contacts the company on WeChat looking for restaurant recommendations, the message would be sent to that property’s concierge who can respond personally.

Source : Bookboost

Guest messaging increases Revenue per Available Room (RevPAR) by

12%

Alexa for Hospitality was adopted by Marriott hotels in 2018. With Amazon Echos in their hotel rooms, guests are able to dim the lights, play music, and request room service from the comfort of their beds.

Jumeirah, a luxury resort chain based in Dubai, released its E-Butler service in June on WeChat and WhatsApp, after an initial roll-out at its Burj Al Arab location.

Small hotels have gotten in on the game too.

The Annex, a luxury boutique hotel in Toronto, eschews a physical front desk altogether in order to “eliminate non-essential communication.” Their guests text the staff — available 24/7 — from their own phones, or use an in-room iPad.

Luxury is a convenient and seamless experience. Why add task-oriented touchpoints like a front desk, a phone in the room, and a number of archaic add-ons, just because? Luxury — by definition, "the state of great comfort and extravagant living" — can be accomplished through allowing guests to request what they want, when they want, from the comfort of their own smart devices.

Ryan Killeen
General Manager, The Annex

With Four Seasons Chat, guests have access to room service - with the ability to ask for recommendations, make restaurant reservations, and even order cars.

fourseasons-interface

Our guest relationships are the most valuable asset we have. We can’t afford the smallest inconvenience here.

Willem Rabsztyn
Co-Founder and CTO, Bookboost

Post-Trip

The traveler's customer journey continues! Whether they’re contacting support because of lost luggage or — in the best case scenario — rebooking, there are numerous opportunities for customers to reconnect with brands they’ve traveled with.

People are wary of being marketed to in their private messaging inboxes, and most channels (not to mention jurisdictions) have strict anti-spam rules and regulations that prevent brands from sending outbound messages to customers after the trip is over.

Brands using the WhatsApp Business API have the ability to send outbound notifications — but only if the customer has opted in. If the customer responds or initiates a conversation, a 24-hour support window is opened, after which brands need to send pre-approved messages to re-engage.

Post-flight or post-stay, the primary reason customers reach out to brands is to resolve customer service issues.

WestJet customers can keep the conversation going with Juliet the chatbot, who can connect them to agents to deal with lost luggage or other issues.

The saying is ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, but actually at the luxury end it’s familiarity and being like a family with that person that actually breeds rebooking.

Nick Daniels
Co-Founder and Client Director, Alliants

54%

of young people prefer messaging than calling for lost luggage

Source : LivePerson

The post-trip phase feeds back into the discovery phase. Keeping the channel open for communication — and coming to a positive resolution — increases the chances for rebooking and customer retention.

Post-trip is also pre-trip.

Onward and upward

With travel becoming more affordable, and messaging becoming available wherever customers are – from their favorite chat apps to Google search to your own mobile apps and websites — personalized customer experiences are no longer just a luxury. They’re the new normal.

Smooch by Zendesk makes it easy to bring engaging messaging experiences into your business, at every step of the customer journey.

Our crack team of messaging experts is here to help you build custom omnichannel messaging experiences your customers will love. Let’s keep the conversation going.

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