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Virgin Holidays CMO on the future of smart vacations

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Hotel Zora

Claire Cronin, Customer and Marketing Director at Virgin Holidays, sits with Mark Choueke to discuss how voice recognition and smart-phone apps can improve customer experience.

As a single person or young couple with disposable cash and time on their hands, booking a holiday is one of the most fun jobs of the year.

It’s a far more arduous and risky task as a parent. With the pressure for every holiday to be special and a host of key requirements – a cot, a baby seat, perhaps a second adjoining room and proper activities for older children – there’s a lot that can go wrong.

Crucially too, parents have scant time to properly research the 40 plus websites that average customers view before buying a holiday.

Creating a greater vacation experience

Claire Cronin, Virgin Holidays’ customer and marketing director since 2014, is part of a team driving a host of smart, customer-focused experiments to find a faster approach to “a frictionless, fun and digitally-led” future.

“Before I arrived Virgin Holidays had already embarked on a strategy to look at the entire business and see where the big opportunities for customers are, “ says Cronin, “especially where perhaps needs weren’t being fully met by us or any of our competitors.”

A 360-degree review of the customer journey actually involved Cronin and colleagues joining customers on holiday she says, laughing.

She describes flying a cross-functional Virgin Holidays team to Florida and Barbados to conduct ethnographic research.

“We wanted to see everything the customer experiences – every single touch-point from the moment they start browsing for a holiday to the point they return.”

Cronin adds: “The aim was to reimagine the experience; to see how technology could play a role in better delivering on our brand promise.”

Such deep research drove not just digital but also structural change. In 2015 Virgin stopped distributing holidays through third-party travel agents. The company wanted to own the end-to-end customer journey but realized it was losing visibility of the customer at a key point in the buying cycle.

“In order for us to build highly personalized experiences and be able to tailor as we hoped to,” says Cronin, “we needed to be able to hold that data ourselves. If we’re distributing our product through a third party we don’t see it.”

Virgin Holidays saw how much better it could serve its key demographic of ‘Smart Families’ by ensuring a seamless relationship with customers from start to finish.

“As parents,” she says, “you have to be absolutely sure when you book a holiday that everything is in place for it to go brilliantly. It’s the biggest disposable spend of the year after buying a car and it’s an emotional purchase too; you want your children to build precious memories.”

“For customers that still value a face-to-face conversation, we’ve got nine ‘V’ Rooms in destination shopping malls where they can come in to chat to us, have a drink at the bar and ‘taste the holiday’ as it were.

“For busy parents who find it hard to get to a shopping mall, we’re providing something akin to that online.

“We’ve built a conversational search prototype for the actual mainframe web experience enabling customers to talk or type in phrases in the way that they would actually say them.

“We’re testing it with customers at the moment and want to see if it helps them get to the perfect holiday choice for them sooner. Normally you would arrive on a holiday website to face all the classic filters and a series of drop-downs: ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘When? ‘How many nights?’ And so on.

Instead, you can type or say out loud: “I want to go somewhere hot in June. Give me some advice.”

How ‘Alex’ improves the customer journey

Virgin Holidays, says Cronin, recognizes the role that voice activation is set to play in digital customer engagement but has lean budgets and a need therefore, to develop in an agile way.

“We test small prototypes and measure the customer appetite before we build massive business cases and pile huge amounts of CapEx investments behind something.”

This startup style test-and–learn approach was behind another recent innovation in the brand’s Alexa-driven app.

Declan Newman, senior developer with the company, attended a Las Vegas conference and saw the Alexa technology showcased. Newman felt sure he could build a basic prototype to see if customers are comfortable talking to an app to search for holidays. He developed the app for Alexa and called it Alex.

Cronin says: “You can tell Alex ‘I want you to find me the best deal in Las Vegas’ and it will search 3 million different data points to generate the best result for you. We know that voice search isn’t ideal for every scenario but we also know that for a family looking to go away it’s a great experience to be able to talk to somebody and get that advice.”

But what if dad is asking Alex about budgets and the kids are asking about ice-cream at the same time? Can it handle multiple people contributing to the conversation?

“We’re testing all of those capabilities and using this and other innovations to inform where we take technology next. We’re reaching a place where Alex can understand which question is most important, who it should answer first and what data points to use to rank priorities.”

Beyond the discovery and purchase phase, Cronin and team are also focused on where technology can add value within the customer journey and holiday experience itself.

“We used to do the quaint thing of putting a leaflet under customers doors on arrival; letters from reps saying ‘Come and meet me in reception’ so we could talk them through all the excursions on offer.

“We know though that customers aren’t interested in sitting in reception. They want to be by the pool sipping pina coladas and playing with their kids.”

That insight has driven a new partnership with Google to create an app Virgin is calling ‘Rep In Your Pocket’. It will enable all the information customers need on excursions and anything else with a swipe of a smartphone screen.

“That takes a huge amount of technology investment and we’re in the very early stages. But we know customers love and value the capability the Disney app provides [Virgin Holidays flies more holidaymakers to Disney than any other operator].

“We know chat bots is likely to be the next big trend in our industry and are starting to look at how we use those overseas to help customers get the best in class service throughout the entire journey. We’re not there on all of these things yet but it’s absolutely the future and where we’re going.”

Cronin’s customer and marketing director role was new for the company when she arrived at Virgin Holidays. The merging of a number of disciplines – “marketing was more of a comms function before this” – was about ensuring someone had an end-to-end view of the customer journey. This, says Cronin, reflects the operator’s obsession with building around evolving customer needs.

The journey, she says, has only just begun.