Why travel companies should spy on you

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

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.

They collect the little details

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, someone told me that their colleagues had heard I could speak Thai.” Later, when she asked for the location of the ice machine, she discovered that 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 and stores it in a guest-preference database. But it does this 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.

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

Your favorite side of the bed

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.

Luxury hotel chains such as Ritz-Carlton or Peninsula might collect a volume of data that could make an NSA agent blush. However, Sitch says the hotels gather it unapologetically, “as long as they use the data to make the customer happy.”

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

“I felt like a rock star,” she says.

Social media and surveys

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. (Related: Privacy? There’s no such thing on the road.)

Ethical questions loom

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. (Here’s what you need to know before planning your next fall travel.)

Some critics fear the industry would use this information to monetize you. 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.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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