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For the airline industry, big data is cleared for take-off

Very interesting to read about how airlines are taking advantage of big data within their customer offering

Fortune

When a customer checks into a flight with United Airlines [fortune-stock symbol=”UAL”], there is typically an array of potential add-on offers to navigate through: flight upgrades, access to the airline’s United Club, and more.

Under United’s old “collect and analyze” approach to data, the airline would use information about customers’ choices about those items, in aggregated fashion to “see what the most successful products were, and market with those [insights] in mind,” said Scott Wilson, the company’s vice president of e-commerce and merchandising.

That approach has changed. As of the beginning of this year, “collect, detect, act” is United’s new data-focused mantra, and it’s changing the way the airline serves its customers.

“Now we look at who the customer is and his or her propensity to buy certain products,” Wilson explained. More than 150 variables about that customer—prior purchases and previous destinations among them—are now assessed in real time to determine an…

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The hotel mini bar saga

Something I pay close attention to whilst staying in hotels is the mini bar. In fact, one of the first things I do when I check into any hotel room is suss out the mini bar situation. This has become a kind of ritual as I settle in and familiarise myself with my temporary ‘home’, despite the fact that 95% of the time I wouldn’t actually buy anything from it. We’ll come onto that.

The contents of a mini bar can tell you more about the hotel brand and the location you are staying in than you might realise. For example, I stayed in a quirky boutique hotel in Moscow a couple of years ago called the Golden Apple and was amused to discover that vodka was cheaper than water. Got to love the priorities in Russia!

This mini bar in the Eros Hotel, New Delhi also intrigued me in its dominant offering of British branded alcohol:

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Coincidence? Or a reflection of how prominent British culture is in modern India?

And this picture below taken of a mini bar in the Zetter hotel where I stayed a couple of weeks ago in Farringdon London, has moved away from your typical classic ‘open-the-cupboard’ mini bar to having all the tempting snacks in full display on the unit next to the bed. What is more interesting is the hotel’s choice to supply a product called ‘Faust’s potions’ – a relatively new product on the market, described as a ‘recovery pack aimed at professionals to help you feel your best’… or in other words, to help ease the hangover. Says a lot about the clientele… I had in fact just come from an evening of wine tasting!

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So we have lots of different types of mini bars offering a range of different products. But who is actually buying the contents? Apparently very few of us according to TripAdvisor who shared results from a research study conducted for them by Ipsos earlier this year which suggests that mini bars are soon to be a thing of the past. Only 14% of global travellers consider the mini bar an important amenity whilst 63% of global hoteliers have already done away with the mini bar.

This made me question why I very rarely take anything from the mini bar and I came to two conclusions. Firstly, the majority of snacks in a mini bar are loaded with carbs and covered in chocolate. Although I love to indulge, especially when I’m on holiday, I tend to do my indulging when I’m out and about. Snacking on crisps and chocolate is often the last thing I want to do when I come back to my hotel room after a heavy meal, or when I leave the room first thing in the morning. Mashable, in its 15 ideas that would vastly improve travel suggests that healthy vending machines offering olives, dried fruit and organic foods would go down well in hotels and I have to agree…not just for corridor vending machines but within mini bars in bedrooms too.

Secondly, there’s the guilt thing. We all know that the prices of products in mini bars are likely to be at least treble the prices of the same products in the shop just outside the hotel. We have also clocked onto the fact that mini bars are designed to catch us at our weakest moment, with some hotels now (like the Zetter) having their mini bar products in full display, eyeing up their guests and luring them in. As tempting as the display might be, I think that travellers are outsmarting the system and realising that popping down to the 7-11 to stock up on water and snacks for the room is the way to go. People just can’t justify the current cost of products from a mini-bar, even business travellers using the company credit card. We want to feel smart about the choices we make when we travel and spending over the odds for a bottle of water, a packet of crisps and a shot of whisky doesn’t seem so clever. So we’ll apply control, restrain ourselves and resist temptation…or be shrewd and come armed with pre-purchased snacks.

Perhaps if hotels considered significantly lowering their mini bar prices to a level that guests are more likely to be able to justify (with less margin but still enough to make some profit) the impending death of the mini bar might be less of a reality. Oh and they should look to supply some healthier product options. Personally I think it would be a shame if mini-bars ceased to exist. They are an iconic feature within hotel rooms and, like I said earlier, having a look at what’s on offer helps ease us into our temporary ‘home.’

I’ll finish this post with a story of a mini bar incident that occurred on a business trip earlier this year which still makes me chuckle. We were in New York, staying at the Intercontinental Times Sq. One of my colleagues, the newest member of the team who was excited to be on his first trip away for work, started getting to grips with his room. He was intrigued by the bright coloured packet on top of one of the cupboards and upon closer inspection, realised this was a condom pack. He then realised that attached to this pack was a wire and that wire ran back behind the cupboard connecting to something else. By the time he had registered what it was connected to – the mini bar – it was too late. He had nudged the condoms and they had now been out of position for over 10 seconds. The sign next to the bar said that anything out of place for 10 seconds or more would be charged – the bar had a sophisticated sensor system so could recognise this. The panicked expression on his face and shaky explanation to our team of what might be appearing on his room bill at checkout is something I’ll never live down.

Larry David’s take on the travel customer experience

I am a massive fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm. While some may find him irritating, I can’t help but think that Larry David’s experiences in hotels, restaurants and on aeroplanes beautifully capture some of the anxieties and inconsistencies we endure as customers of travel.

If, like me, you think Larry David hits the nail on the head, take a look at some of my favourite LD clips here:

Larry David on tipping a bellboy

Does a thorough tour of the room really deserve a $20 tip or is it an unnecessary waste of time?

Larry David on sticking to your cabin
The unwritten rules around sticking solely to toilet usage in your own cabin.

Larry David on how the chosen attire of other passengers can affect the in flight experience
How the hairy legs of the guy next to you can be a rather unpleasant distraction on board!

Larry David on sample abusers
How far is too far when it comes to ice cream samples?

Fighting Jetlag

Tomorrow I’m off on a business trip to New York. I feel (just about) prepared for the week ahead and am looking forward to what will hopefully be a successful few days with a little time on the side to enjoy one of my favourite cities. However, one menacing element of travel which is currently lingering in the back of my mind and threatening to accompany me for the next few days is Mr Jetlag.

I’m sure many will agree that, when travelling, there is nothing more irritating than jetlag. It’s every long haul travellers enemy. For leisure travellers who have limited time to spend at a destination, jetlag eats into precious holiday time and can often prevent us from really making the most of a trip. When recently arriving in Adelaide, Australia at midday after what seemed like an eternity in the air, I tried my best to fight the beast and stay up as late as possible. This resulted in falling asleep standing up in the middle of a busy street at 6pm whilst en route to a restaurant, with a very hazy memory of what happened after that. Needless to say, I didn’t make it to dinner and consequently sacrificed one of my precious evenings to then find myself wide awake at 2am. Is there anything more frustrating?!

For business travellers jetlag can take the enjoyment away from any spare leisure time and seriously hinder the ability to think and function during meetings, presentations and conferences. When in Los Angeles on a business trip in November I experienced what felt like mini earthquakes the evening we arrived. I kept asking my colleagues if there was an earthquake happening as my head felt all over the place and I soon realised the swaying feeling was indeed one of my jetlag symptoms. Thankfully we had incorporated a day to ‘acclimatize’ into the schedule otherwise I’m not sure how I’d have been able to work productively.

I asked a few friends about how they deal with jetlag and thought I’d share some of their words of wisdom to help anyone else who wants to overcome the jetlag blues:

1. Choose a destination with limited time difference. As good a solution as this sounds, we don’t want to restrict ourselves from travelling afar and experiencing the likes of Asia, the USA and Australia. However, there are some fantastic holiday destinations if we fly South from the UK and visit places like Cape Town which is only 2 hours ahead. Some friends did exactly that over the Christmas period and only spent a week there which (for a long haul leisure trip) seemed a bit ambitious. But, due to not suffering at the hands of jetlag, they were able to really make the most of their time away and could fully enjoy their first few days without feeling like death.

2. Cut ties with the homeland. Small things like adjusting your watch when you’re on the plane and not checking Facebook to remind yourself that everyone in the UK is fast asleep can help get you adapt to the time zone of the country you are visiting.

3. Don’t fly in economy. I know most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to afford a premium cabin. However, for business travellers especially, if budget allows it’s always worth going to your boss with a case for flying in business class or even premium economy, emphasising that being more comfortable on the flight will help with productivity at the destination. For leisure travellers, it’s worth sticking with one airline and earning points with their loyalty scheme to then use as an upgrade treat for that long awaited long haul trip.

4. Acclimatization time. Be sure to factor in allocated time to acclimatize when arriving at a destination that has a time difference of 5 hours. Where possible, it’s worth having at least a day in the place you are visiting prior to any business events. When travelling for leisure, it’s worth considering the first day/evening as a write off and then if you do happen to feel more alert than anticipated, there’s a bonus time reward. Don’t forget about your trip home too. Jetlag can be at it’s most powerful on the return leg, so it’s always worth having a day to recover at home before going back to work.

5. Make the most of it. If you do find yourself awake before sunrise cursing the clock then why not use the ‘can’t beat em, join em approach’? Treat it as bonus time to catch up on work emails on a business trip. Have a work out in the hotel gym. See if there are any activities you can organise prior to your trip that require an early start and plan this in advance for the first day. WARNING – this is not advisable beyond the first day of a trip otherwise getting over jetlag will be hard to achieve in the long run.

Some airlines have acknowledged the pain and frustration their customers experience as a result of jetlag and have measures in place to try and help their customers deal with it.

On a recent Cathay Pacific flight from Sydney to Hong Kong they purposely blacked out the inside of the cabin to help passengers get to sleep. In theory this was a good idea as it’s difficult to get to sleep in a fully lit cabin. However it didn’t particularly help my situation when arriving in Hong Kong fully alert at 10.30pm after a good sleep on the plane…so it might have been better for my specific travel requirements if the entire duration of the flight was not in full darkness.

British Airways have a page on their website dedicated to helping their customers plan for jetlag. They advise on the best approaches to minimizing jetlag, such as how much light exposure you should get prior to a trip in accordance with Britain’s leading sleep expert. I’m not sure yet how viable this is, but the calculator has instructed me to seek light between 21:00 pm and 23:30  pm this evening and avoid light between 23:30  pm and 2:00 am – so will see how that goes!!

The Curious Incident of the dog on the tube

Something special happened on my commute home this evening. Something involving a dog in my tube carriage. I will come on to this shortly.

Firstly, over the past few weeks I have dedicated quite a lot of thinking time to the impact that other customers have on our experiences, especially when we are travelling.

It seems there have been an increasing number of articles in the press recently where people have claimed to suffer at the hands of others whilst on their travels. Take the recent incident of blogger Rich Wisken for example, who saw his angry post about having to sit next to someone who he described as an ‘infant hippopotamus’ on a four hour flight go viral. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/01/01/rich-wisken-writes-incred_n_4527086.html Whether we agree with his views or not, the simple fact is that this story was shared by thousands of people across the globe and therefore exemplifies something that people clearly relate to… a travel situation which has been negatively affected by another traveller.

Moments like this can be encountered in many ways, shapes and forms. Whether it’s the prospect of someone coughing and spluttering over you, talking loudly about things you couldn’t care less about or invading your personal space as you try to get from A to B, the reality is that despite wanting to give you the best experience possible, travel companies will always struggle to control the role their ‘other customers’ play in your journey. Yes they are certainly aware of these situations and we can see examples of where they are trying to accommodate different needs…such as quiet carriages on the train. But as much as someone like Richard Wisken might like the idea of an ‘obese only’ airline, we all know that’s never going to happen! And in the meantime the likes of Mr Wisken will continue to place blame on and demand compensation from the travel company (in this case Jetstar) who he deems should take full responsibility for his ‘physical pain and mental suffering’. This means that, with the sheer power of social media in mind and the potential damage it can cause, airlines such as Jetstar and other transport companies will need to think carefully about the implications ‘other customers’ can have on overall customer satisfaction.

On the other hand, there are examples of where ‘other customers’ can have a really positive affect on experiences when it comes to travel. I have been in situations recently where I’ve argued with staff at airports over inconsistent information and then been backed up by the people in the queue behind me. That felt good! I also spent a day going to see the Blue Mountains whilst in Sydney a couple of weeks ago and paid what felt like quite a lot of money to see quite a lot of nothing – yes the hubby and I happened to pick the one rare day where the Blue Mountains were completely covered in fog! However, what started as a miserable day filled with resent and bitterness towards the heavens turned into one of the most enjoyable and entertaining days of our trip and that was largely down to the other tourists who had made the same unpredictable error as us. We met some really interesting people from all over the world and at some points got so lost in laughter and conversation that we forgot the actual reason we were on the trip in the first place.

‘Other customers’ can even have an impact on your travel experience without you realising it (unless you’re like me and devote strange amounts of time to thinking about these kinds of things)! For anyone who has been through it, flying from the UK to Australia is the Everest of all flights and it’s essential that you find ways to help you physically and mentally survive. I didn’t realise it at the time, but one of the small interactions I had with a lady in the queue beside me whilst checking in baggage at Heathrow Airport (she made a joke about how much luggage we had) became one of my coping mechanisms. I noticed the same lady again at security where she gave me a nod of acknowledgement and then again at the gate. Whilst in transit at Hong Kong I happened to see her again out of the corner of my eye going into a shop and then started to wonder whether, out of the thousands of people who were present at that time in the busy realms of an international airport, I might see her again… and low and behold I did… five hours later to be precise! Whilst making my way in a zombie state towards the next gate I recognised her in front of me on the moving carpet. Now before you start to think I’m some kind of psycho stalker I guarantee that when facing 28 hours in limbo with minimal sleep your brain will start to fixate on things as a way to help you get through…perhaps you can think of examples of where this has already been the case? For some reason my brain decided to target a random lady who I knew absolutely nothing about and I eventually started finding myself wondering about her life, where she was travelling to and even inventing imaginary relatives that I pictured her going to visit… all because she made that joke about my luggage way back in London. I haven’t quite figured out the reason behind this…there could be many. Perhaps it’s the fact that she was going through the same enduring experience as me and on some level there’s a ‘travel mentality’ where we all feel ‘in it together’ and her little joke at the beginning helped to kick-start that mind-set and trigger a connection…or I just liked her handbag! Either way, I’d like to thank this random customer for helping to somehow positively affect my journey.

And now onto the dog on the tube. So there was a small Dachshund dog in my tube carriage on my commute home this evening. I didn’t notice the dog at first, it was only when some strange noises started erupting from under the seat next to me (which I soon translated into barking) and I think this was the case for the other commuters surrounding me. Admittedly the barking took me by surprise. It’s not every day that you see a dog on the tube, especially a cute one in the aftermath of rush hour where the trains are still relatively busy. What I witnessed next was nothing short of a miracle. I started looking around at fellow passengers and people were smiling. Smiling at the dog. Smiling at the dog’s owner. Even smiling at other passengers as they smiled at the dog! Now for people reading this who aren’t familiar with the unwritten rules of the London Underground system, the manual clearly states as rule number one that eye contact with other passengers is forbidden unless there is an emergency of course. However, what I saw tonight was rule breaking at it’s very best. And all because another customer (in this case the non human form) had provided a disruption to the monotony of the daily commute and changed the way customers interact with each-other, making the journey home a lot more enjoyable than it normally is. So is there a benefit in encouraging more people to take dogs on trains? perhaps (and as a dog lover that would certainly appeal to me!) But I think the dog could be replaced here by many other things…Someone wearing a giant nappy? A B list celebrity? (some friends did once bump into Tom from McFly on the Met line and I have witnessed ‘out of the ordinary’ fancy dress attire which has also triggered a few smiles). Either way… when other customers disrupt an experience and shake up the norms in unique ways (i.e. by not coughing and spluttering all over you) that is where an experience can potentially be changed for the better.