Why travel companies should spy on you

SMA/Shutterstock
SMA/Shutterstock
It’s probably a matter of weeks, if not days, before yet another round of troubling National Security Agency leak stories hit the news.

I’m sorry to disagree with a majority of Americans who are outraged by their government’s reckless data dragnet, but I think surveillance is good, at least, if you travel.

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Airlines, car rental companies and hotels ought to spy on their customers more often. Collecting information about you to improve customer service — and only for that purpose — could return the American travel business to greatness.

Yes, even airlines.

Lauren Bear speaks a little Thai and likes her hotel room stocked with ice — two facts you wouldn’t know unless you paid close attention.

When she stayed at Peninsula Bangkok, the staff quickly figured it out.

“I don’t know how they knew,” says Bear, a small-business owner from Minneapolis. “In the spa, I was told that they heard from their colleagues that I could speak Thai.” Later, when she asked for the location of the ice machine, she found her room was always fully stocked with ice.

That’s no coincidence, says Offer Nissenbaum, managing director of the Peninsula Beverly Hills. Like other luxury hotels, the Peninsula collects a cache of information about its customers, which is stored in a guest-preference database. But it’s done with only one purpose: to upgrade the experience. It contains information about your favorite food, your preferred room and what side of the bed you sleep on.

“If you collect all the little details,” says Nissenbaum, “you can meet and exceed a guest’s expectations.”

Actually, figuring out which side of the bed you sleep on seems to be one of the hottest data points in the hotel business. The Ritz-Carlton, which also delivers above-and-beyond service, notes your preferred side, says spokeswoman Allison Sitch. Why? Because that’s where the staff will place a water bottle and other amenities, which means a lot when you roll out of bed in the morning.

The volume of data being collected by luxury hotel chains such as Ritz-Carlton or Peninsula might make an NSA agent blush. But the hotels gather it unapologetically, “as long as the data is being used to make the customer happy,” says Sitch.

And it does. When Mary Ellen Adamson checked into the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, she was floored when everyone greeted her by name. She’s no celebrity; she’s a consultant based in Atlanta.

“I felt like a rock star,” she says.

Why can’t the rest of the travel industry leverage the data it collects to offer better service? Experts will tell you it’s unfair to compare a hotel with a few hundred guests with a chain with tens of thousands. Maybe, maybe not. La Quinta Inn & Suites recently used a feedback-management platform to harvest information through social media and surveys to determine what guests thought of its breakfasts, which are included in the price of their stay.

The insights were sent directly to front-line employees and managers for their feedback. La Quinta responded by adding signs and more prominently displaying the healthy foods they already offered, and customer approval rose.

There are plenty of examples of the travel industry failing to effectively use the information it already has. For example, David Valade, an information systems manager from Melrose, Mass., can’t understand why Delta Air Lines consistently can’t manage to e-mail him fare specials for his home airport, Boston. “They know where I live,” he says. “But Delta regularly sends me special fares from places like Atlanta to Detroit.”

Maybe Delta isn’t paying attention, he says.

Airlines want to do better. The industry is asking the Transportation Department for permission to create a standard that would allow them to collect more information about you and serve up a special fare available to you alone. Among other things, it would know your name, age, address, marital status and frequent-flier information, which would give it complete access to your previous travel patterns — a data goldmine.

Some critics fear the industry would use this information to monetize you because it could better determine what you’re willing to pay for a ticket, but not necessarily to improve the travel experience.

Talk with information experts, and they’ll tell you that surveilling customers just to raise profits is ethically troublesome. Instead, companies should do it for the benefit of guests, says Deirdre Mulligan, who teaches courses on information technology and law at the University of California at Berkeley. The data collection has to be “properly disclosed and agreed to,” she says.

It’s a small but important difference. Use the data to make guests happy, and you’ll be profitable. Use the data to earn money without regard for the satisfaction of your customers, and you’ll just earn their ire.

Should travel companies spy on customers?

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21 thoughts on “Why travel companies should spy on you

  1. I really do not care to pay Peninsula room rates just for a bellboy to greet me as Mr. A., or have the right number of ice cubes in a bucket.
    There are a lot of cheaper hotels or inns that have excellent service and give me the anonimity I deserve because I am really nobody.
    I do not travel to be treated like a king for a day. I travel to be with family, to learn more about a culture, food, or the history of a place, or to enjoy the scenery.
    I have a feeling there are lots more people like me than the characters used in this article. We don’t care to be treated like rock stars or celebs.

  2. Creepy. Being greeted by name, given an extra bottle of water, or special offers makes me uncomfortable. Then again, stores do the same with their loyalty cards on a less personal level. Shopping habits, like what foods one buys, are tracked and catalogued. Customer specific coupons print out at the register and the cycle continues each visit.

    Fact remains, companies already store all the information Chris mentioned. Just seems the usage of personal information becomes less and less benign. I think the above goes beyond a good level of tact and risks alienating people who desire a “facade of privacy” when traveling.

  3. Simple niceties comparative to “Hello, Goodbye, How Are You, Any questions on the area, etc” go a long way. I believe the “rock star treatment” risks creeping out more people than helps. Look, the hotel spies on you and knows your every desire! Sounds bad when I write it and sounds bad in practice.

  4. Initially, I say yes. Guests choosing to interact plesantly with hotel staff do receive sincere exchanges. Hotels do appreciate genuine customers just as genuine customers appreciate a sincere staff.

  5. I *know* that I read this article much earlier in the week, probably in one of Chris Elliott’s regular columns on Mint or some such. @Chris Elliott: My suggestion: When the story is re-published here, add a “Previously published in _____________. See ___________ for other stories of interest” or something like that. Eliminates the “didn’t I already read this article?” comments *and* might increase readership at supporting sites.

  6. Thanks. Many of my stories are reprinted elsewhere. For example, Monday’s story also ran on Huffington Post and LinkedIn. Wednesday’s story appeared first on Mint.com. Friday’s story was in about 50 newspapers. This story originally appeared in USA Today, and tomorrow’s story was first published in the Washington Post. But … you can find it all here, too!

  7. When detailed information is gathered, there is always the temptation to sell that information to others. For example, I know someone who works for a magazine whose target audience is wealthy people. Through the use of questionnaire cards and tracking people when they log on to the magazine’s web site, they have built detailed profiles of many of their subscribers. Let’s assume that a real estate developer in Arizona is constructing luxury vacation villas and wants to market these as second homes to people living in cold states in the mid-west. The developer could contact the magazine and tell them that he would like to purchase a list of people who live in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin or Minnesota who don’t own a second home, have annual income in excess of $400,000 or a net worth of over $1.5 million. The magazine searches its database and finds 10,000 names that match those parameters. A price is agreed to and the detailed information is transmitted to developer. The developer’s sales force starts contacting all of these prospects. If the prospects show interest, they are offered a free three day trip to see the villa community. Once there, the developer’s sales force uses high pressure techniques to get these people to purchase. If they go home without buying, they will receive multiple phone calls offering even lower prices and special interest rates if they buy within a certain time period. After six months, the developer gives up on those who haven’t bought and resells the information to luxury car dealers in the states where these people live. A new round of sales phone calls now starts.

    I don’t want my personal information being bought or sold this way without my express permission.

  8. I’m conflicted about being greeted by name. I frequent certain hotels and the hotel staff know me and I know them. So It doesn’t bother me when they greet me as Mr. Farrow. Although, personally I’d rather them call me Carver, but I understand the rules.

    Its a little disconcerting for someone that you don’t know and have never seen before to know your name.

  9. So, how do hotels know which side of the bed you sleep on. Do they ask you? Do they have a pressure monitor in the mattress? Do they merely watch the video cam that is aimed at your bed? How do they know what bathroom amenities you like?

  10. I’m happy that a hotel chain knows I like a room on the higher floors away from the elevator and vending machines and that I prefer decaf coffee in the room and non feather pillows – if I provided that information to them when making my reservation.

    It is creepy that when I check into a higher dollar hotel everyone knows my name even though I have never been to that hotel before. I prefer to just be greeted with a smile and be addressed as “Sir”.

    I do agree that knowing more about each guest does make for a better stay for the guest. I just hope that no one finds a way to sell this info.

  11. If I sleep alone, it’s pretty obvious on which side of the bed I slept, even though I do make my bed after I get out of it. The bed linens are just a little more wrinkled on that side of the bed. That’s true at home and on the road. Bathroom amenities are also easy to figure out – I’ve opened this bottle, left that bottle alone, etc.

    I just can’t figure out how the housekeeping staff would tally and report that information. Seems that they have plenty to do already,

  12. In addition to annoying marketing there is something far worse – misinterpretation of the data. I’ve seen this far, far, far too often. Someone that lacks critical thinking skills thinks correlation is causation. They then make wrongful assumptions. Someone that lacks critical thinking believes that because something is “A” then “B” must **always** be true. In both of these cases misinterpreted data can cause a lot of problems and can actually be harmful to the person that it was collected from. And once its in the “system” good luck getting it out – often its been propagated to other systems so that deleting it in the first system doesn’t mean it is deleted in other systems.
    In short, data collection has a very high potential of being used and abused. Someone in favor of it hasn’t taken the issue through to the very end of the consequences.

  13. I don’t mind the person at the front desk looking up a reservation or getting to know me through interaction. What I would find awkard is a pseudo warm welcome based upon a profile. It smells fake and is fake.

    Maybe some people enjoy that kind of hospitality but Id take a free pass.

  14. It’s no different from seeing those personalized ads on Google for items like the camera lens you just searched for product reviews on.

  15. But if you stay at their hotels and prefer hypo-allergenic pillows, extra blankets, no chocolates, are allergic to certain flowers (they do have in the rooms at nicer hotels), and are a late riser (so not a room facing sunrise), this is great not to have to go over and over again with the front desk. And does let you feel like a guest, and not just a number.

  16. Actually, being greeted by name is to make you feel welcome, and I appreciate any business going to that level. And if it means all my favorites/needs are taken into account in advance, only means a better stay. LOVE the Four Seasons and Ritz for that very reason! Even if I forget to tell them something, they’ll know it anyway!

  17. No need to “spy” ask and you shall receive seek and you shall find this is the information age get with it

  18. WestJet collected information from passengers on two flights prior to their departure. Information, such as what they wanted for Christmas (they used a video Santa). Then, whilst the passengers were flying, airline volunteers, along with retail partners, wrapped the gifts and they were delivered in the baggage claim. There is a link to a youtube video (and no, I don’t work for, nor even fly this airline).

    http://youtu.be/zIEIvi2MuEk

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