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Why travel & hospitality brands should sweat the small stuff when it comes to data

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Large, complex data sets have monopolized our attention for years, but big data isn’t the only kind that delivers value to companies.

While terabytes upon terabytes of data, both structured and unstructured, can be useful for uncovering overarching trends about your business, smaller data sets shouldn’t be overlooked — particularly in the travel and hospitality industry. Small data can be culled from market research, customer service interactions, social channels, sales records and more. This kind of data can be analyzed by humans on the spot, helping to deliver instantaneous service.

Not only is small data easier for companies to comprehend, access and manage, but it can deliver a wealth of information about your customers. For this reason, travel booking companies, transportation providers and hotels are discovering that when it comes to data, it’s well worth sweating the small stuff.

Small data and the customer experience

In order to maximize the value of small data, companies first have to understand how it relates to the customer experience. Small data can, for instance, convey how customers rank your hotel or travel service online, or which channels they favor when booking their trips. Each of these touch points represents an opportunity for companies to further strengthen their relationship with consumers.

Mining customer data is crucial, because competition in the travel space is stiff. Julie Hoffmann, head of travel and hospitality strategy at Adobe, put it like this, “There are a lot of disruptors coming into this space and taking a lot of market share, like low-cost airfare providers that can now offer international flights and room-sharing services that mean anyone’s spare room can replace a hotel room. The traditional providers are facing competition from new, unexpected sources, and they have to ‘up their game’ to stay relevant.”

In other words, when it comes to travel, customers have more choice than ever before — and that choice equals power.

Instead of a company owning its customers, it’s the customers who own the travel experience by deciding when, where and how to interact with travel brands, says Emre Mangir, president and co-founder of travel booking engine Mozio, which deals with ground transportation services such as taxis, limos, rideshares and trains. Today’s customers have a higher level of control, says Mangir, and that means, “companies need to adapt to customer needs faster and more judiciously.”

“When companies facilitate great experiences, they have an opportunity to grow. But if they don’t fulfill those experiences, the outcome can be negative.”

That’s where small data comes into play. Data that can be understood on a human level, rather than requiring the help of a machine, provides fast and easy access not just to facts about how your customers behave, but also to their state of mind. “Small data is fundamentally empathetic,” Mangir says, citing sources like customer surveys, social media comments and in-person customer interviews. All of these can help a company put itself in its customers’ shoes.

Interviews and surveys aside, small data can also come from customer reviews, Net Promoter Scores (NPS), transactions and data from customer support teams. Mozio uses all of this and more when assessing and enhancing its customer experience. “We’ve made several improvements as a result of suggestions from our own support teams,” Mangir says. “Many of the product features that improved our sales and operations were built on recommendations from people on the front lines. These are the insights gained by talking to customers and interacting with them frequently.”

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Identifying signals in small data sets

Using small data effectively isn’t just about knowing where to find it, but also being able to interpret it. One of the challenges associated with small data is detecting patterns within a limited amount of information and distinguishing between meaningful insights and “noise.”

To achieve this Robert Cole, senior research analyst of lodging and leisure travel with travel-research firm, Phocuswright, recommends going back to the source of the data to ensure the information you’re collecting is as clean as possible.

“Where a massive amount of behavioral data from a huge sample — a classic big data scenario — (can explain) why a traveler is taking a trip, small data is much simpler and more effective,” Cole says. “It can be as simple as asking the guest during the hotel-booking process, ‘What is the purpose of your trip?’ with some standard options to choose from and a blank field to fill in. Their response can then be used to provide a highly customized booking experience, filtering out all the unnecessary information that would not be relevant for that type of trip.”

Streamlining your requests for customer information and keeping questions as concise as possible can unearth signals that can be used for customization. Cole notes that hospitality companies can use booking confirmation emails to determine whether or not a customer’s hotel stay is associated with a business trip or a special event like an anniversary.

Additionally, questions such as, “Is there anything we can do to help you with your visit to our city?” can deliver a trove of action information, says Cole. “[It can] provide different opportunities for the hotel to not only surprise and delight the guest, but to legitimately improve their trip.”

While Cole notes it’s “critically important” for hotels to accurately capture small data and log the resulting action, he says companies must also track the outcome. “If the results are measured — what services, upgrades and recommendations produce the best outcomes — new and improved processes can be established to better and more proactively serve future guests.”

There is certainly a place for big data when it comes to improving the overall customer experience, but the more personalized nature of small data has the ability to get travel and hospitality brands closer to their target audience. That in turn allows them to refine each touch point, enhance the customer journey and create better travel experiences.

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