Virgin-Alaska: Passion vs. Performance

The New York Times: The Alaska Airlines takeover of Virgin America may test whether passion or performance is paramount when it comes to creating customer loyalty. “Although Alaska has been a perennial leader in best-airline rankings, its allure comes more from its reliability than mood lighting or funny safety videos. Like Virgin America, it inspires loyalty among customers, if not the same passion.”

However, travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt thinks Virgin America “failed to capitalize on its San Francisco hub or to build on its early innovations … The airline compensated for its financial losses by cutting flights in recent years, even as it added routes to Hawaii and elsewhere. While passengers may love the ambience of a Virgin flight, they love the ability to get where they are going more.”

“The combination of hip and practical could give the new company a competitive advantage, Mr. Harteveldt said. The smartest thing Alaska could do … would be to combine the characteristics that have made each airline popular.”

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Connie: Hilton’s Concierge Robot

“Concierge is getting a robotic makeover at one Hilton Hotels location,” reports The Christian Science Monitor. “The McLean, Va., Hilton is the site of a pilot program featuring a robot concierge. The new hire stands in at two-and-a-half feet tall and has been placed on the desk beside human reception staff. More than just a shiny piece of equipment, the robot’s brain is packed with artificial intelligence.”

“Connie, named after Hilton founder Conrad Hilton, is a partnership between Hilton Worldwide and IBM. The brains behind the robot are IBM’s artificial intelligence program Watson and another partner program called WayBlazer, imbuing the new concierge with enough AI to carry on conversations with guests and answer questions about the local area.”

“Connie’s body, though small, is also designed to help it serve. The body is based on the Nao robot designed by Aldebaran, with fully functional arms and legs and eyes that change to express humanlike emotions … Is the future of Hilton concierge robotic? Definitely not, according to Jim Holthouser, Hilton vice president of global brands.”

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Ryanair & The Value of Being Nicer

The Wall Street Journal: Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary “once defended Ryanair’s €70 (about $75) penalty fee for passengers who show up at the airport without a boarding pass, saying they were “being so stupid.” … He has in the past proposed a standing-room only cabin and a charge of one British pound (about $1.41) for using the in-flight toilet … The no-frills model, once novel but now widely mimicked, turned the 32-year-old Ryanair into Europe’s second-biggest airline by passengers flown.”

“In 2013, a price war with full-service carriers and upstart budget airlines alike threatened that success … To win back customers, Mr. O’Leary relaxed onerous hand-luggage restrictions and redesigned Ryanair’s cumbersome website. It cut fees and told staff to be less confrontational. The airline also made headlines by dropping its trademark bugle call, which it blasted through cabins each time a flight arrived on time. The practice, amusing at first, had started to annoy passengers.”

“’Standing room only and charging for toilets was a great PR wheeze when we were young, dumb and growing rapidly,’ Mr. O’Leary said in an interview. But after rivals started painting the moves as cheap and nasty, ‘the laddish noise was displacing the great fares, brilliant punctuality and new aircraft,’ he said. ‘If I had only known that being nicer to our customers was good for business I would have done it years ago,’ Mr. O’Leary says.”

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Unbound Collection: Hyatt & The ‘Anti-Hotel’

“The Unbound Collection is a curated list of what Hyatt calls ‘stays,’ which for now means boutique hotels that are co-branded with Hyatt,” Fast Company reports. The short list includes Austin’s haunted hobnobbing space, the Driskill, and a restoration of the Hawaiian resort made famous by Elvis Presley, Coco Palms. These hotels will both advertise and operate as themselves, but they’re presented in marketing as ‘by Hyatt.’ The hotels pay a percentage of their revenue to be involved, while Hyatt offers them a customer base, a booking back end, and the sort of purchasing power a business the size of Hyatt can get.”

Maryam Banikarim, CMO at Hyatt: “What you’re seeing is the idea of travel has changed, and people want to explore and develop and have new experiences. On the flipside, they are creatures of habit—human nature wants things that are familiar.”

“For now, the ‘stays’ Hyatt is offering will take the form of boutique hotels … But in the future, the Unbound Collection will be a place where Hyatt can experiment with its own identity in the travel experience. ‘We’re not limiting ourselves just to hotels,’ Banikarim says … So while Hyatt is bullish on expanding outside of conventional hotel stays, it’s not renting out single-family homes just yet. But ‘a river cruise down the Nile?’ Banikarim suggests. That’s a distinct possibility.”

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Hotels: Where The Bedbugs Bite

“The worst hotel experiences can be caused by an insect smaller than a fingernail clipping,” The New York Times reports. Bedbugs “are causing headaches for hotel owners who not only have to figure out how to get rid of them, but also now have to respond to online accusations of bedbug infestations … those complaints have high stakes for hotels. A University of Kentucky survey of nearly 2,100 travelers in the United States found that a single recent review that mentions bedbugs lowers hotel room values by $38 for business travelers and $23 for leisure travelers.”

“There is no national data on bedbug complaints at hotels, but exterminators around the country report a growing problem. In Houston, Phoenix and St. Louis, for example, exterminators have reported recent increases in bedbug infestations, many of them in hotels. And nearly two-thirds of exterminators in the United States polled by the University of Kentucky and the National Pest Management Association last year said bedbug complaints were increasing.”

“Experts suggest that travelers check hotel beds thoroughly before sleeping and that they keep luggage in the bathtub to prevent the bugs from coming home with them. And storing luggage in plastic bags between trips can prevent travelers with home infestations from bringing bedbugs with them to a hotel … In addition to complaining about bedbugs on Twitter and sites like TripAdvisor and Expedia, travelers use more specific sites like the Bedbug Registry.”

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Routehappy Scores Flights on the Experience

Routehappy has found a business in scoring air-travel options when you shop for tickets,” The Wall Street Journal reports. Routehappy’s website ranks flights by specific scores that compare not just prices but onboard amenities. It even compares different flights on the same route offered by the same airline.”

“Routehappy has eight attributes that it tracks for each flight offered for sale by 225 airlines: aircraft, seat, cabin layout, entertainment, Wi-Fi, fresh food, power outlets and duration. The criteria weigh basics like legroom and often overlooked but important factors like seat width … seat and duration are the biggest factors in a score.”

“More factors are coming—likely on-time performance will be the next to be included … though finding accurate information about flights is a challenge because airlines routinely change flight numbers. Routehappy also hopes to someday let users pick what’s most important to them and customize scores.”

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Pretzel Logic: Airline Snacks Make a Comeback

“After 15 years of near austerity, U.S. airlines are restoring some small perks for passengers crammed into coach,” reports The Washington Post. “Don’t expect ample legroom or free checked bags. But fliers will find improved snacks, a larger selection of free movies and — on a few select routes — the return of free meals.”

“This month, American will start offering Biscoff cookies or pretzels to passengers flying between New York and San Francisco or Los Angeles. By April, those snacks will expand to all other domestic routes. In May, American will bring back full meal service for coach passengers between Dallas and Hawaii.”

“These are token investments in the passenger experience that will not cost airlines a lot of money but are small ways to make passengers a little bit happier,” says Henry Harteveldt, the founder of travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group. “American and United realized: We don’t let other airlines have an advantage on price, why let them have one on pretzels.”

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Going Mental At The Car Rental

Customers can have very different car-rental experiences at Payless and Budget even though both are owned and run by Avis Budget Group, according to The New York Times. David Segal, writing in the newspaper’s “Haggler” column, relays two high-contrast anecdotes. The first, involving Payless, is the story of a 50-minute wait and then driving off in a “filthy” car only after arm-twisting a supervisor to get any car at all.

Filing a complaint afterwards via Twitter yielded no response, an email resulted only in a bounced message, and an online service-desk inexplicably pronounced the issue “closed.” An apology was received and a full refund promised only because The Times intervened.

Meanwhile, a Budget customer who was given “a car smaller than the one he reserved” didn’t have to make a fuss or ask for anything. He simply described his bad experience in a routine customer-satisfaction survey. The next day, he received an email with an apology and promise of a refund check for the price difference. In other words: “One part of this company is taking care of consumers; the other is ignoring them. The secret to good service is no secret to the Avis Budget Group. It is just a secret that nobody bothered to share with Payless.”

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How United Airlines Became “Less Awful”

Bringing back free snacks in Economy class and upgrading the coffee are central to United Airlines’ efforts to reintroduce itself to customers, reports Bloomberg Business. “More fundamentally, United is reexamining the way it boards planes.” The airline “came up with a system with only two main lanes: one for the group currently boarding and one for the group that was next. To preserve the prerogative of late-arriving priority passengers, a ‘bypass’ lane was added.”

United is also re-designing its routes, moving from “linear routing” that “maximizes the hours each aircraft is in the air full of revenue-generating customers, but bad weather at one airport can cause delays and cancellations among numerous routes.” It now uses more “out-and-back” routing and “also increased the amount of time budgeted for turning planes around.”

“Recent months have seen marked improvements in United’s performance. Its on-time and missed-connections metrics over the past few months have been the best since the merger. Its rates for mishandled baggage are also sharply down … New planes have steadily been replacing older ones. And fliers are happier: Internal customer satisfaction scores were better in 2015 than in 2014, better in the fourth quarter of 2015 than in the third, and in December were the highest in two years.”

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