How Flight Centre is mapping out a new kind of customer journey

Australian-based group's new head of customer experience reveals how the travel agent is transforming into a world-class retailer thanks to customer insights, a growing marketing function and content

It’s the destination every brand wants to reach: Personalised customer engagement. And at Flight Centre, the ticket is booked and the trip well underway thanks to investments in customer journey mapping, marketing resources, content delivery and omni-channel retailing.

Strengthening its marketing capabilities to better engage with customers across the entire purchase process is one of seven core pillars of Flight Centre’s strategy as it transforms from a 30-year old travel agent into a world-class retailer of travel.

Other pillars defined by the company’s CEO, Graham Turner, in its 2013/2014 financial report include developing brands that truly specialise in specific areas of travel through clear customer value propositions; launching more exclusive and unique products and services; building an expert customer service workforce; and driving an omni-channel, always-on approach to suit the modern traveller.

“As travel moves more into the digital landscape, there’s a big desire to continue the validity of the retail agent,” Flight Centre general manager of product, advertising and customer experience (PACE), Darren Wright, told CMO.

“What we wanted was move from being considered just as travel agent to being a retailer of travel. We capture a large percentage of the market but what we are looking to do is make ourselves more relevant to the different ways people book and progress through a travel-making decision.”

Flight Centre operates in 11 countries with 30 brands including Flight Centre, EscapeTravel, StudentFlights, and Explore Holidays.

According to Wright, being a retailer today is about understanding the customer experience as well as the service-centric processes that make up the travel purchasing process.

“You can’t just open your door to sell travel and expect people to come anymore,” he said. “We also know our business model with consultants who are there to help people along the way, aren’t always as experienced as some people expect them to be. As a retailer, you need to make sure the systems, processes, products and content are ready to sell from a resource point of view.

“The other key attributes are providing a retail area where different types of transactions can happen – whether it’s online, over the phone or in our retail store.”

Finding out what customers look like

To make this happen, a huge amount of time has been spent on the customer journey and value proposition and mapping that out, Wright said. The first step was gaining a better picture of what its customers looked like.

Wright said the intention was to understand customers’ behaviour, their profiles, purchasing patterns and general interactions across Flight Centre’s portfolio of brands. To do this, the company brought in an external agency to map its database against Roy Morgan’s Helix Personas, and also formed a customer insights team in Australia as well as the US.

“We broke this down into various customer segments, looked at our most valuable customer traffic, and also who was booking what product to what regions, and how they interacted with the business,” Wright explained. “We needed to understand and get a clear position of who our customers were, what formats they like to be spoken to through, and how they like to transact with us.”

Supporting this more targeted customer approach are six new senior executive roles across the marketing function, introduced last September. Wright was initially brought on as head of brand and marketing, having previously spent 12 years with Scott, AirAsia and Virgin Blue airlines. The role has since been expanded to include customer experience and loyalty team, with former head of customer experience, Keith Stanley, now responsible for product.

Another key recruit was first editor-in-chief of Flight Centre’s content team, Brian Crisp. Prior to joining the company, Crisp was travel editor of News Corp’s Escape travel lift-out.

“We know a lot of the travel journey – from dreaming to exploring, committing, finalising a booking, pre-and post-travel – is validated online, and many of these stages are based on content and people starting to research digitally,” Wright said.

“We want to be in that space and it’s what a lot of our content strategy is about – to serve up enough information that is ours and owned that we inspire and keep the traveller engaged with our brands. Having our own content creator allows us to get further through that purchase path, rather than relying on external content sources.”

Wright pointed out Flight Centre’s Infinity Holidays division already creates millions of brochures, meaning a lot of owned content is already available.

“It was how we distribute that content through different channels that wasn’t there before,” he said. “Putting a resource in who knows how to best utilise content through social, offline and online channels within the retail group is key. That’s where Brian has been focused so far – acting as a knowledge management role.”

Flight Centre has an internal commitment to “a story per second” by ensuring content appears in each brand’s social channels and digital presence around every destination globally.

“We’re a story per day at the moment, so we need to turn that up a few notches,” Wright added.

Flight Centre has also established an in-house creative studio, headed by Luke Wheatley and manned by 35 project managers, graphic designers and creative. The team is tasked with strengthening the brand across all media, content and digital streams and producing advertising content for print and TV ads, in-store branding, brochures and marketing collateral.

Other recently created senior roles include CRM and loyalty manager, Jeremy Medina; head of digital experience, Tiffany Apatu; and product analytics manager, Kuber Narula.

Complementing the unified and expanded marketing function is an innovation team established 12 months ago, led by global head of innovation and Web and former digital and multi-channel manager, Sean Sutherland.

“In many organisations, you’ll come against the fact that IT runs or owns critical elements of this picture that marketing should,” Wright claimed. “What we have done is to create a new area of the business to look at how to bring new technology into the company, with the core work done and delivered under the marketing banner.

“It’s a dynamic shift.”

Read more: Why the marketing and technology disconnect is hindering custoemr engagement

Data piece

Given the detailed customer insights now available to Flight Centre’s marketing team, it’s no surprise data utilisation is increasingly informing its marketing strategy. But Wright also warned against becoming too led by data.

“Marketing strategy takes the forefront and data informs, supports or rejects that strategy. If you spend too much time looking at insights from data to make decisions, you can be chasing your tail,” he claimed. “We see strong insights coming out of the numbers, which will help us move or tweak processes or strategic directions, but a lot of the time we’re about relying on data solely to make the key decisions.”

Where Flight Centre is already seeing significant improvements from its customer journey mapping work is in its regional advertising campaigns.

“We used the Helix Personas to understand who is in the regional areas and what type of people they are, then matched that with data from our sales partners on what they’re actually buying,” Wright explained.

For example, Flight Centre previously served mostly baby boomer product in the South Australian market. Through segmentation, it found the target demographic was actually a mix of Aussie achievers, families and those in their golden years.

“When we really looked at the numbers, we found what we thought the market wanted was opposite to what the market was really buying,” Wright said. “So we tweaked what products we were showing in regional campaigns and saw an increase in sales as a result.

“Without the data, we would have probably kept pushing products that weren’t as relevant to those consumers.”

The customer insights have also filtered down to the storefront, a vital part of Flight Centre’s omni-channel offering. “Now when we open our retail stores, the hard product appearing in-store and messaging is defined by local audiences based on our customer profiles,” Wright said. “We’d never done that before.”

In addition, marketing metrics are changing to reflect the shift away from pure customer acquisition.

“The old style of marketing was all about inquiries,” Wright said. “With our shift into retailing, it’s more about what the value of the transaction is. It’s the average or total booking value, which is a key metric change for the marketing department. We are now more focused on bringing out better and more tailored products to consumer segments where we’ll get a better share of wallet.

“There are high targets and volume levels to get and we have a considerable marketing budget to get there, but it’s about us delivering more value to the business as well as driving more inquiries.”

Technology innovation

Read more: CMO50 #26-50: Darren Wright, Flight Centre

Alongside the operational changes, Flight Centre is in the midst of improving its technology stack, both in terms of how internal tools like CRM support its more personalised approach, as well as media tracking and delivery.

It was in fact the desire to improve its targeting and retargeting media capabilities that triggered the split from its long-standing media agency, Carat, in January and the move to Ikon.

“We’re stepping up 1000 degrees into a whole new platform to retarget consumers more efficiently, smarter and better in the purchase process,” Wright said. “We have been playing a gunshot media strategy for multiple years now but the world has moved on... we have to get our media strategy to match the market.

“Ikon stood out with its ability to understand the new media landscape, understand our consumer modelling and getting the best efficiencies from that, and being more targeted and personal in our conversations.”

While Flight Centre will still take a mass market approach in TV, outdoor and print channels, it is spending a lot more resource and time in digital platforms. In all, Wright anticipated total marketing spend in digital to reach 50-60 per cent, a shift of 20-30 per cent on last year.

“This is about supporting and integrating marketing more closely with our big media partners in key channels and being able to retarget key individuals once they’re in that consideration stage,” Wright said.

Mobile is another focus, and Flight Centre has just launched its new mobile website, opening up booking capabilities online. The next step is a mobile app due in Q2, which will both provide products and insights into the travel opportunities a customer can book, as well as the ability complete bookings.

Through all of this work, Wright said hoped to breathe new life into the Flight Centre brand this year.

“A lot of our recent research showed that we are a trusted, well known and highly respected travel brand but at the same time, seen as a little aged,” he admitted.

“That will be one of the key shifts you’ll see in the retail environment to get more life into the brand. We’re having fun and bringing a little more personality into the brand. That’s not to say we will get rid of the red, the Flight Centre captain or our ‘lowest airfares guaranteed’ [messaging], but we’re enjoying it more and being more relevant to certain areas of the market.

“We are 30 years old as a brand, and a lot of the perception from different demographic profiles is that we’re a big, safe travel agent. But with Gen Y and younger demographics, we may not be an option for them as they do all of that online. So it’s creating relevance to those market segments.”

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