Do travelers expect too much? Yes, but …

By | March 27th, 2008

Here’s a question airlines, car rental agencies and hotels wrestle with every day: Do our customers expect too much from us? After the defeat of New York’s passenger bill of rights law earlier this week, it’s an even more urgent question. Are travelers too demanding?

I’m giving a presentation on this topic at today’s Central Florida Business Travel Association meeting, and I offer you the following preview …

Yes, customers often expect too much. (For example, I just received an email from a customer yesterday — and this is not all that unusual — that asked me to intervene and get her a refund on a nonrefundable ticket, simply because her plans had changed.)

Have customer expectations changed significantly in the recent past? No. There’s a segment of the traveling public that pretends the landmark Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which forever changed air travel, never happened. Don’t blame them for thinking that. Airlines continue to run ads that leave people with the impression that at 36,000 feet, it’s still “coffee, tea or me.”

No, most flight attendants don’t look like this.

There’s another segment — frequent fliers — where a culture of entitlement is keeping expectations artificially high. That’s a whole other problem.

But the bottom line is that customer expectation have remained pretty much the same in the recent past.

So what’s the problem?

Cost-cutting by both travel companies (certainly airlines and car rental companies, and to a lesser extent hotels) and corporate travel buyers have forced the travel industry to do more with less. And I think they’ve reached the breaking point. They just can’t cut anymore.

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I believe rank-and-file travel industry employees are horrified at the prospect of reducing services any further. It’s embarrassing. How much in-flight service can you reduce, and still refer to it as “in-flight service”? Their managers feel they don’t have a choice; either they make the reductions or they go out of business. The problem is exacerbated by CEOs who often don’t understand the airline or hospitality industry — they’re outsiders brought in to boost shareholder value.

Corporate travel managers are under similar pressure. Their VPs are asking them to get the same level of service for less.

Something’s gotta give.

I think a little honest dialog would take us a long way in bridging the expectation/experience gap.

That means travel companies should stop promising their customers, including corporate travel managers, the moon. If they’re airlines, they certainly shouldn’t pretend that deregulation didn’t happen.

Travel — whether it’s an airline seat, car or hotel room — is now fully commoditized. It’s basic transportation. Until the industry faces this reality, and until its customers do, the gap between what people expect and travel companies deliver is only bound to widen.

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