Regular readers will know that I'm no fan of travel sites, and so it wasn't a huge surprise to find out, via Netimperative this morning, that about half of UK travel customers feel let down by sites. It's a massive letdown because only 4% of Brits say they now book a holiday solely through a high street travel agency, and only one in ten will have a conversations with sales executive at any stage of the process. The takeout. Online travel is now the de facto standard for information and booking and it's letting people down.
Having just gone through the holiday season, the failings of travel companies are firmly in my mind. You would think it would just be cut price operators who let people down, but go book a flight with BA and then try to look up the details. Got the reference number as well as your name? If not -- and although it is probably the only flight you have booked with them under that name -- you can't see the itinerary.
Want to research flights? Then you'd better know the airline's routes by heart. The thing is, you can put in Heathrow first and select a destination that appeals, filling half a dozen other criteria and then after some whizzing and whirring you are told the airline doesn't fly there. Would it be rocket science to only offer destinations the UK airport you've chosen actually flies to? Even if you get this right, if you search too far in advance, you're told you have gone too far. OK -- so why let me choose that date when I've already told you the route I'm interested in?
The list goes on and generally requires people to know flight numbers and booking references. It's a massive problem that the airlines should just deal with. Although I must say, for balance, BA's new automatic bag check-in service at Heathrow's Terminal 5 is a triumph. A rare glimmer of hope set against social media stream full of people being bumped off flights, delayed because nobody will accept a night in a hotel to free up a seat, or even worse, a customer being dragged off screaming so the flight crew can make a connecting flight.
Accommodations are no better. Room descriptions vary from one site to another and even within a site. Want a view? Well, sorry -- unless it's a generic "sea view" room, there's no real control over where you go in the hotel and no explanation of how it runs. Do I bring towels? Where will the kids go if we're sharing a room? How much will a cab cost from the airport? Is there a bus stop that will take us to the nearest city for a tour of the local attractions?
Book an apartment or house online and you're into the same territory of unveiling whether the owner will be living in part of the property, or whether you really have sole use of the pool. I recently had one guy defend a lie in which he said we'd be the only people renting a property by saying the level where the owner lives is owned, so is not rented. Another defended a policy of charging for the pool he said renters had sole use of by pointing out that this restricted the hours his family could also swim in the pool that guests have "sole" and "free" use of.
Yet another property owner delisted from a well-known property site after taking a deposit from me, meaning that the transaction then had to be handled away from the site -- exactly what they say you shouldn't do. When I questioned the site and owner about this by me, both just shrugged and said there was nothing they could do. The property is now back on the well-known site and will no doubt take deposits and then delist for when it comes to taking next summer's final payments it wants to keep all to itself, with no cut for the site.
The one saving grace is the user reviews that highlight the poor service, inaccurate descriptions and contradictions the traveling public are faced with.
In all of this I have come across a glimmering light of hope online. Sign up with Avis for a Preferred card and they do this crazy thing -- they remember you. No need to fill out online forms and then hold up a queue at an airport revealing the same information. I staged a coup at Rome Airport this year and led a bunch of people to the desks in the car park, away from the terminal, so we could get served. We had already queued for nearly three hours after a flight that only lasted two!
So you can see why I believe the travelling public is seriously let down by travel sites and operators. The hotel chains I spoke to are huge names in luxury travel, and each pointed to being able to pick a seat and pay for luggage options as new customer experiences. Really? Paying extra to pick a seat so your family isn't separated on a flight is a bonus? Having a ticket that doesn't allow me to take luggage is all part of digital transformation? A few years ago I just bought tickets, got allocated seats together and each seat came with a baggage allowance. How is charging me extra for these things a leap forward?
It's funny because the banking industry is always held up as the arch villain of holding onto legacy systems that hold them back. The funny thing is that I can do everything I need to with HSBC with a thumbprint on my iPhone.
If you ask me, it's the travel industry that is held back by legacy brochureware, a complete avoidance of customer service and prioritising a new revenue stream over delighting customers whenever they revisit the customer journey.