Are Beacons The Next Bright Light In Travel Marketing?

All of us in marketing are constantly searching for the next big thing and location-based technologies are fueling a lot of excitement in an industry like ours that’s driven by geography and unique experiences.

Over 70% of the global population uses mobile phones (with 40% of those being smartphones), so it’s easy to understand the growing fascination to use these devices in delivering highly personalized, relevant and actionable marketing messages, in real time, based on your physical location.

Enter beacon technology.

For the uninitiated, beacons (or iBeacons, Apple’s brand name for their beacons and related platform) are wireless sensors that use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology to transmit a signal stating their location, which can then be received by an app that a customer has installed on a smartphone or tablet. These apps “listen” for the specific signals assigned to each beacon and can respond and capture data when the phone is within range. 



This BLE technology effectively replaces the GPS system to identify your location, and has the advantage of working in buildings and other environments that often limit GPS functionality, plus it consumes far less of a phone’s battery life than the GPS system would. It also allows you to push your messaging and services with micro-location accuracy, facilitating huge volumes of data capture on user transactions, preferences, motion patterns and much more.

The technology has become a game changer in how travel brands can communicate, service and interact with customers, particularly at the property or business unit level.

However, as exciting as beacon technology is, it’s important to understand that beacons don’t track users. Rather, users track beacons. A beacon is simply a piece of inexpensive hardware that typically costs anywhere from $5 to $50 per unit. Which one is right for you depends upon your intended use, as they come in all shapes, sizes and colors; are typically powered by a USB, battery or a plug-in outlet; and can even be waterproofed for outdoor applications.

But while all the talk is about “beacons,” the true power of the technology is found in the software that powers the apps and helps you effectively harness and leverage the location data that the beacons provide. 

With the advent of these software programs and the location intelligence fueled by the beacons, you’re able to bring together a powerful mix of physical location, activity, time and personal interests. It’s an intoxicating blend that has travel brands racing to explore the possibilities.

Among the early adopters has been Virgin Atlantic, which last year installed the iBeacon system at London’s Heathrow Airport, and Marriott Hotels, which created a “LocalPerks” program to deliver geo-targeted mobile offers in select properties during a guest’s stay.

Both of these brands are admittedly just dipping a toe into the beacon arena, but it’s exciting to envision the possibilities. When you walk into a hotel it could alert the front desk and share your loyalty program information and preferences. It could facilitate keyless entry, help you explore and navigate a property, entice you with bonus points and rewards for visiting the spa or booking tee times, let a restaurant know if you had dietary restrictions or menu favorites, push your boarding pass to your screen as you approached for boarding, and so much more. It can also be used to address operational challenges and staff productivity like monitoring if housekeeping has visited a room or looking at when a bathroom was last cleaned.

Of course, as with anything new, there is still much to be learned.

In a recent conversation I had with Michael Gambino, the COO of RoamingAround who has developed their own platform leveraging location-based technology in the travel industry, he offered up some important considerations for anyone looking to deploy beacons in their travel business:

  • It’s not the beacons, but rather the software behind the beacons that makes them powerful and effective. It has to be easy to use and help you readily make the decisions on how your brand interacts with the user. So look at various options and choose one that has the capacity to support your business as your sophistication and needs grow. 
  • Ideally your platform should be hardware-agnostic, meaning that it can take location-based data from BLE, wifi, NFC, RFID, GPS and anything else we haven’t thought of yet. You want the maximum flexibility so you can deploy whatever technology is right for you now and in the future. 
  • You need to create a compelling reason for someone to download the app; otherwise, the beacons are powerless. The more information about the user you can get them to share or garner, the greater the personalization and relevance you can create. But you also have to be extremely sensitive to how creepy and intrusive this technology can be if not used wisely and selectively.
  • Usability is critical. Ideally, you want a system that doesn’t require deep IT expertise or programming skills from your staff. You want a software platform and content management system that is simple to use, intelligent, adaptive and can learn, as these are the essential elements for delivering a unique, enjoyable and frictionless experience for all.
  • Start small and begin by keeping things manageable. With so many possibilities, people often try to do too much too fast with their system. It’s important to test and learn and collaborate with your guests and operations staff to build something that really works and becomes a valuable and natural part of your experience and operations.

While our industry is just starting to recognize and harness the potential of beacon technology, all signs indicate that it can be a bright light in how we can further personalize and enhance the travel experience.

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