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How Travel Pressed The Self Destruct Button

Introduction by: Peter Marshall
When Ivor Smith submitted this blog to me, I was in two minds whether to publish or not. Yes, it’s certainly going to rattle a few cages, but on balance there is a lot of substance in the content – which I happen to agree with – and that is why I am giving it space on trunblocked.com
This industry needs to get a far better grip on what it needs to change to match today’s customer requirements. We all understand that it has been a perfect storm of factors that have contributed to the travel chaos that we see in a number of key airports around the world. With Covid, whether it’s the knee-jerk reactions from airports to lay off a disproportionate number of staff, the Covid illness itself, the indecisiveness, confusion and lack of support from governments, the extraordinary losses incurred by airports, the cost of fuel, the time lag in training and finding staff as airports reopen closed terminals, cancelled flights, the weather, the Ukraine war. The list is almost endless. We get it.
But Covid has also provided the opportunity for a change of mindset, and there is no real evidence that that is the case. And it is all about mindset, because this industry needs to remind itself that it is in the service as well as the operational business. A little more humanisation would go a very long way. Profit generation, whilst important, can simply no longer be the determinant factor. So, too, tech should add to the customer experience, not damage it. Perception is often reality and, right now, the perception of many airports (and, to a lesser degree, airlines – although chatbots remain a major issue), has hit a new low.
Sure, things will improve, but the chaos we are bearing witness to now is a reflection of excessively poor planning and management at the very top level at some major airports. Many senior executives knew the likelihood of the demand for travel before Easter. The question is begged: could they have done more to avoid today’s turmoil? You already know the answer.
The plain fact is that all travelling passengers simply deserve better. Things need to change.

For 28 days I have been playing the phantom KLM contact-me Whatsapp game, being run around in circles by a Bot, perfectly designed to ensure that I can never talk to a real person. I just wanted some basic info before I spent my money, but Bots really don’t like doing selling.

I tried and failed to clarify the airport transit Rules for my wife to travel from Brazil to the UK, via Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Lisbon. Emails to the Airlines and Airports have yielded a cynical response, all offering a simple url link, which basically says “go find out for yourself, we can’t be bothered to sell to you, do it yourself online”.

Meantime, the so-called Covid-19 information algorithms, provided by the likes of Lufthansa, KLM and TAP, just forgot to accurately incorporate any airport transit rules into their searches.

When I was a lad, such enquiries were known as “a buying signal” – one that showed somebody was thinking about spending money. I was trained in sales to recognise these signals, to understand, respond and engage, so to capture the sale. 

No more. Digital now knows best how to efficiently sell with their urls – allegedly!

Nowadays, the Travel Industry modus operandi is structured by a Tech template that completely forgot the basis of selling: “overcoming objections by real people”. Today, the Masters of our Digital Universe just send us a link, and that’s it!

I just wonder, if developers are so good at selling, why are they not salesmen, rather than techies?

I’d love to talk to you about the eventual refund received from my Credit Card provider for a cancelled flight back in early 2020, but I was forced to sign an NDA before they would agree to reimburse me.  What I do know, is that the carrier doesn’t have the first idea that I had already got my money back! A valid Voucher showed on the account and finally, after two years, I got paid twice for the same credit. Super-efficient Big Tech transacting…. not! 

And even when writing to them both, so as to reassure that I didn’t wish to profit from their failures, this turned into another mammoth email saga.

Don’t even mention airports, the core business for Travel Retail, with their long lines to go in, out or anywhere beyond.  At what point did airports not realise that their only business model is the efficient movement of happy, contented, relaxed people? So relaxed, that they will browse the multitude of revenue generating outlets and spend, spend, spend?

Or look at the Rent-a-Car business; staggeringly, people have been arrested and charged for theft, for allegedly stealing vehicles which they had actually returned weeks before.

Why has all this happened? 

Well, it is not directly about the Pandemic as claimed. It’s about the fact that Global Travel was caught out when a Black Swan came round the corner and destroyed their preconceived thoughts that everything can be done digitally with super human (or lack of) cost savings.

Covid-19 has since joined the annals of history as the world’s best excuse for hiding behind your own failures, whilst screwing over your customers to recover. The Covid-19 excuse line has taken over the top spot from: “the cheque’s in the post”!

I spent 10 years trying to build my Travel Retail online informational Portal, solely designed to allay the many consumer fears and confusion, and to help them spend.  

It was an abject failure for many reasons, but mainly because I didn’t grasp the fact that airports, their retailers and less so the airlines, had sold their soul to digital marketing, one that doesn’t want to employ real people to sell to their customers.

They certainly didn’t want to indulge in the costly process of training staff to convert that “buying signal” enquiry into sales. Why? Because they got sold on how digital could cut their costs, but maximise their revenues.

That said, at least Travel Retail sees the instore need for sales people to sell those perfumes or cosmetics. But online, it’s not quite the same.

Whatever possessed the Revenue Managers to think that more could be sold and achieved by not employing online staff to talk to their customers? Digital Inflight Retail is a classic example of this maligned strategy.

The truth is that Travel, in all its facets, knows the exact hole they have dug themselves into. Yet nobody, apart from Micheal O’Leary, seems to have had the bravery and commercial skill to dig themselves out of it. (Apparently, Ryanair have shown much better planning, resulting in less cancellations, by intelligently retaining staff before the upturn).

Ryanair gets its planning right. A big contrast to Heathrow Airport and others

Certainly, airports lead the field in being caught out with their alleged monopolistic, pedestrian and singularly profit-driven mindset. One so flawed that all their revenue streams have been totally compromised by their assumption that “people get on a plane to go to an airport”.

Methinks: the good old days are over. Why, because all consumer trust has been lost and they have finally realised that they are pawns in a game that many no longer wish to play.

Will anything change? Yes, because “what goes round comes round” and those revenue managers might finally realise that the old methods could work better when Travel finally realises that the Customer is King.

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Footnote: Ivor Smith worked in the Duty Free industry in Liquor and Tobacco for over 15 years. In 2009 he launched www.dutyfreeonarrival.com which, like many similar projects, never quite made it.