By Martin Kelly

Passion for travel is the reason many of us got involved in the industry.  It couldn’t have been the money, right?

Yet passion gets you nowhere inside a corporate straight-jacket, where you’ve got to bury the animal within.

Still, the passionate traveller still lives in all of us … we all have opinions on what makes a good – or bad – travel experience.

It just takes someone to ask what turns us on or off.

This proved to be the case at Wired Travel Asia, when a number of high-profile speakers were asked which section of the industry could do with a makeover.

The results may surprise you.

As you would expect, the airlines copped some flak – let’s face it, they are such an easy target, particularly among frequent travellers.

“I can’t imagine a worse experience than I get with the airlines – I travel with them all the time and they treat me like crap,” said Jim Donnelly of IgoUgo.

Airports also came in for some feedback.

“I understand that airports have to balance safety and security, but as far as I’m concerned most airports are still stuck in the dark ages,” commented David Peller of ITA Software.

However, hotels fared worst of all.

They were continually chided by a wide range of speakers for a lack of product differentiation and poor service delivery – especially when matched with the advertising hype.

At least two speakers told anecdotes of waking up in hotel rooms and not having any idea of where they were staying – not just the hotel, but the city and country.

That’s because there were no regional reference points to be found, no personalisation of the destination experience, just relentless delivery of a corporate service ethic – a special bed or pillow complete with copyright – to the point of blandness.

Hang on, that’s probably the point.
Eureka, says the sales and marketing guru to his CEO, we have now ensured that our customers will get exactly the same product whenever they stay at Brand X … no matter where it is.

Just like McDonald’s.

To illustrate the point, Thomas Kraft from IFH threw up two slides of virtually identical hotel rooms, and asked the audience to spot the difference.

They couldn’t, until he revealed the rate and brand for each property – one was $100 more expensive (or cheaper, depending on your perspective).

Chalk one up for the suits in the back room, but is that what the accommodation industry is all about – price?

D’oh – of course it is.

Just look at boutique hotels, which you’d assume tick all the boxes when it comes to product differentiation and style.

Lovely, yes, we all agree, but increasingly hitting price points only the wealthy can afford.

In other words, you must pay through the nose for the experience otherwise you’re stuck at Brand X.

See, we’re returned to price because the hotel industry says the customer must pay more for differentiation.

Why? Differentiation is about imagination and that costs nothing (unless you leave it to an ad agency).

Indeed, according to Chairman of the Global Brand Forum, Karthik Siva: “Branding in the online world is all about the process (and) the first thing you have to understand is – are you different or are you the same?” 

I think he’s got a point, and suspect the worm may start to turn, particularly if you assume frequent travellers are voicing opinions that will, sooner or later, filter through to the mass-market.

Then there’s the fact that the hotel industry is full of legacy companies that have yet to face genuine competition from well-funded and well-run upstarts, as has been the case with aviation.

Bring it on seems to be the consensus.

November 8, 2006

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