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Horizon scanning: Virgin Holidays CMO on travel’s focused future

customer travel journey customer travel journey
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Planning a holiday is as engaged as customers get, according to Claire Cronin, CMO of Virgin Holidays. What does that mean for the customer journey the travel sector requires?

Claire Cronin is the CMO of Virgin Holidays, and here she explains the effect of the customer journey she has created on both the company and its customers.

When considering a customer journey, I can think of very few examples when a process is as long, or a purchase as considered, as booking a holiday.

The customer journey has firmly placed the consumer as the center of a business, and as a barometer of health and growth, no matter its product or service.

Today, companies can ill afford to ignore the relationship between themselves and its users.

That relationship has been rephrased as ‘experience’, and the customer journey is the continual interaction of experiences, culminating at so-called ‘touch-points’.

These distinctions are important to understand: for a business to thrive in today’s connected, social and digital environment, it needs to be able to prove that it is of value within a customer’s life, and necessary over a long period of time.

To prove that, you need to fully map out each interaction you have with a customer, your touch-points, create ways to improve the customer experience, and finally promote and refine these strategies from beginning to end, also known as a customer’s journey.

It’s not simple, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

The customer travel journey

Most people start their customer travel journey with us online.

As stated earlier, holidays are very well considered investments for our customers.

We see that, on average, a customer will visit 38 different websites in the course of booking a trip, which isn’t including any time spent visiting physical stores, browsing brochures, or comparing holiday notes with friends.

It’s an important stage therefore, and we need to be on hand to help.

We’ve begun by setting out – and now nearly completing – our omni-channel strategy, where we want our customers to experience online and digitally the same level of contact that our 100 high street shops, and fully-staffed UK call centers, already provide.

We don’t want customers trawling through other sites, because it can be stressful and simply a pain toggling between different tabs.

Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for customers to find what they want in an effortless, pleasurable, way.

And we wanted to extend this experience across the entire customer travel journey, not just around the planning stage.

To help us conduct research on our customers, we teamed up with a boutique agency to find out exactly what customers wanted at key moments along their customer travel journey: from browsing and researching for a trip; to pre-departure experience, the holiday itself, and finally, the post-vacation blues.

Discovering these four distinct phases helped us to determine exactly where we could help bring the most value to our customers, for the first time.

For example, the research provided detailed insights into what information our customers sought before booking a holiday, and we have integrated those learnings into our website redesign.

They ask about plane configurations, how large plane seats can be, and the quality of the on-board entertainment system.

They like to be able to research into possible excursions around their destination, and are proactive in leaving and reading peer-to-peer reviews.

Among all this, they require increasing amounts of content on mobile platforms and from video formats.

Our site needs to match these expectations and we are now partnering with third party organizations to look at our digital interfaces to make then as slick and effortless as possible.

Digital and analogue balance

The customer travel journey and the digital experience are well entwined, but it would also be a mistake to ignore the role of human interactions.

Despite many customers opting for less contact time with staff, and more ways to automate services, there are still many out there who enjoy speaking to a knowledgeable, friendly, member of staff, and hence why we have chosen to invest in destination shopping malls.

Our new standalone V-room stores in shopping centers create a unique, immersive environment where customers can use Google Glass to “try on” different holidays.

In addition to our 6 standalone flagship stores, we also have over 100 concession stores across Debenhams, House of Fraser and Tesco which combine the offline and online experience.

We use iPads in-store for customers to explore the globe and interactive elements for children to play with whilst their parents research their trip – like our partnership with Disney that enables children to dress up like their favorite Disney characters.

Beyond the purchase experience, we are also one of the few tour operators that has staff on the ground in hotels that can be there to advise customers on how to make the most of their holiday whilst in resort.

Six weeks prior to departure our concierge team who are all based overseas, contact every customer to offer them assistance with making any reservations and tweaking any arrangements to suit their individual needs.

For consumers that favor technology, we are looking into a new companion app that will act as concierge or “holiday rep” in their pocket.

We also know that around 30% of our customers start researching for their next holiday within one month of returning from their initial trip, and this final stage along our customer travel journey is just as important as the previous three.

At this point the agent who helped booked a customer’s original holiday should know their preferences and experiences, and therefore can help them re-book.

Each of the four stages of the customer travel journey (Browsing & Booking; Pre-departure; In-resort and Returning) should be effortless and pleasurable, and to properly enforce that, we need full control.

As a result, you can now only buy a Virgin holiday through Virgin directly, which means we regain control of our holiday experiences, allowing us to personalize each trip depending on each customer itinerary.

Every stage offers great opportunities for us to experiment with the potential of digital technology on improving the customer experience.

The journey is circular

The last caveat is that the customer travel journey shouldn’t end.

A strategy to identify touch-points along a journey aims to improve the value of a business’ service to the customer, because not only does that improve their experience in the moment, but continual value helps to ensure customer loyalty.

The customer group, however, is constantly changing.

They will grow more demanding about what services they desire, and more savvy about where they find these services, and the travel sector in particular needs to be aware of any behavioral changes to its consumer group.

The more insight we have about customer expectations at each touch-point, and the better we listen to their questions, the more relevant information we can provide to maximize their holiday experience to take on the world, and go to any destination of their choosing.