By Suz Tucker
Ever thought about the fact that in order to escape we need to go somewhere? Is that ironic? There seems to be a muddled convergence of irony and inevitability in the notion, and it begs the question: Is the process of escapism about the act of getting away or is it about the destination we’re heading toward?
It’s the 21st Century and those of us living in a major metropolis know all too well the choking overburden of things - screens, devices, gadgets, all manner of tangible consumerist ephemera… So is travel about ridding ourselves, temporarily, of all these incessant things? These days? Heck no! On the contrary.
This phenomenon of ‘thingery’ has become woven into the travel experience. More than that, it’s become embraced now we’ve actually acknowledged, however reluctantly (I’m looking at you, Mum), that it is these things and how we interact with them that elevate and upgrade each step of the travel journey. Even before booking the ticket.
Curbed on a several-hour stopover at the Dubai Airport I was taken by how it operates as a stunning symphony of stimulants and sensory buttons constantly-yet-subtly getting nudged. It’s a triumph of immersive retail. A four-story waterfall elegantly crashes in perpetuity behind a row of elevators. An airline customer service officer rendered in Tupac-definition hologram welcomes you through the post-check-in clutter. Screens guide our every move - and we’re grateful for their presence! “Want to learn more? Press here!”... “Hungry? Why, allow me to show you the way!”... “Login here for free Wifi - now do you want an app with that?”
The senses crackle and our synapses fire. These are the things that give us pleasure.
Even the process of checking bags has been almost gamified thanks to digital kiosks; and independently printing a boarding pass complete with self-selected seat preference can give travellers a modest sense of victory.
It’s no surprise that the travel world, much like the fashion world, has embraced the interactive, participatory digital experience unlike almost any other leisure market. Consumers are eschewing the service of personal travel agents in exchange for exploring the online booking realm for flights, accommodation, event tickets and more - it’s the thrill of the chase.
Moreover, the ability to hold everything from a concierge, city guide, navigation system, language translator and international weather updates in the palm of our hand means a reduction in stress, time-wasting and potential for encountering trouble when we’re outside our home city.
In travel, it’s no longer enough for a brand to simply provide a functional product or service – such as a directory for where to stay, or a map to get from A to B. Usability (or ease of use of a website, app or digital kiosk) and efficiency (how quickly customers can achieve a specific task) should be accented and enhanced through content and interactions that provide additional value for the user and make their experience all the more memorable. Take entertainment value, for example. It can occasionally be overlooked in favour of that aforementioned functionality – and yet it’s what can make the difference between whether or not a person connects positively with the brand - or, better yet, whether they are actually interested enough to care at all. Never underestimate the all-important give-a-shit factor. These are the extras that kindle brand loyalty and increase user-return rate.
Airbnb has a unique proposition in that a percentage of the brand’s community are actually stakeholders in the business. However, from very early on, Airbnb ensured it offered more than a directory for accommodation and a promotional platform for aspiring landlords.
The brand’s careful curation of properties into niche travel experiences capture the imagination and provide content that appeals to the ‘interiors porn’ lover in us all. For instance, while you might not necessarily want to stay in an inhabitable windmill in Portugal or an underground bunker in Rio, you still want to see what it looks like.
It’s this well-considered strategy for pulling in an audience outside the moment of transaction through useful, entertaining or interesting content that can make a huge difference in earning brand preference and the attention of an audience in a category as stacked as travel.
In the analog world, airlines and rail companies looked at the handy pocket in front of every seat. It’s where travellers tuck the newspaper, a magazine, novel or a book of crossword puzzles. They eventually saw that space as an opportunity, and now some of the most lovely publications are made to provide the in-flight or on-rail audience with the information, entertainment and distractions travellers crave.
Ultimately it’s those marketers who are prepared to look outside their own brand goals and flip the focus to align with the interests of their audience that successfully and meaningfully connect in the digital landscape.
A large part of that? Using all those things - the screens, devices, gadgets - and putting them to work to aid the act of escapism, to encourage exploration and discovery and play in every part of the consumer journey.
That’s how to improve customers’ experiences with brands, the actual journey itself and with their future travel experiences.