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Seton VermaakHead of StrategySapientRazorfish
After the November 2016 merger of SapientNitro and Razorfish to form SapientRazorfish, eMarketer’s David Green spoke with Seton Vermaak, the digital agency’s head of strategy in Hong Kong, about driving loyalty in Asia-Pacific’s travel market in 2017. Seton discussed how travel and hospitality brands are re-creating the idea of loyalty.
eMarketer: You’ve just completed a round of research that included interviews with 100 CMOs on the outlook and challenges facing travel and hospitality brands in the Asia-Pacific region. What were some of the salient points?
Seton Vermaak: The online travel agencies [OTAs] have taken traffic away from the traditional airlines and hotels, and now everyone has to work harder to find and keep a traveler. The (quintessentially Asian) quest for self-improvement, coupled with the disruption of the sharing economy, is driving a new era in loyalty.
Travel and hospitality brands can win in Asia’s changing loyalty landscape by using data to create more personalized, “premium-ized” experiences for travelers. Often in the service industry, frontline staff deliver these next-generation loyalty experiences. It’s the experience on the ground that truly makes or breaks a traveler’s intention to recommend a brand and be loyal for future trips.
eMarketer: What’s an example of a suitable premium loyalty proposition?
Seton: It’s no longer good enough to just give rooms for rooms, or flights for flights, like the old transactional rewards programs. So airlines and hotels are trying to broaden their earn-and-burn opportunities into food and beverage, leisure or entertainment.
So for rooms, it’s a bottle of wine or a fast track, or a secret menu for planes with extra leg room. They’re all looking at frontline staff and digital innovations that can help on-the-ground properties deliver an exceptional experience.
The Starwood Preferred Guest [SPG] loyalty program is an excellent example. It gives a millennial traveler, for instance, access to a concert, a VIP happening in Thailand or Bangkok or Shanghai.
eMarketer: And does that mean brands should entirely yield acquisition to the OTAs?
Seton: It’s a two-sided approach. Content is a powerful differentiator for travel brands. Industry leaders understand that content is a very specialized craft, but many companies simply don’t have the resources to build an in-house team.
Expect to see more strategic partnerships with content experts and collaborations with media platforms for extended reach. Travel and hospitality decision-makers will partner with media platforms to motivate travelers and distinguish themselves from competitors.
eMarketer: In your research you mention wellness as among the most sought-after travel experiences in the region. Is that where the greatest opportunities lie?
Seton: Wellness is a massive opportunity, and I don’t think anyone has taken advantage of it—not just in food safety but more in cultural empathy, like wellness, body, mind and soul, especially for the Chinese traveler. There might be some small players who give you an opportunity to go on an eco-tour, but no one has, on a large scale, made that appeal yet.
eMarketer: There is also a suggestion in the research that people in China are more loyal to brands than their counterparts elsewhere, particularly in Hong Kong.
Seton: Luxury brands have lost their traditional loyalty because millennial, younger-minded consumers have moved on. But the fact is that the Chinese are still the most open to loyalty programs, whereas in the other markets, people are completely jaded and mistrusting.
eMarketer: There’s some interesting data from iResearch Consulting Group on the gender split of Chinese millennial travelers—two-thirds are males and one-third are females. Do you think there might be a missed opportunity there?
Seton: I totally agree that within China itself, never mind Asia, the primary target has to be women, because it’s women who are the decision-makers on behalf of the family who is going to decide where the loyalty and the revenue lie for the next year or two.
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