Virgin Holidays was launched in 1985 and initially offered holidays to New York City, Miami, and Orlando. Since then it has grown to become one of the largest and most successful long-haul scheduled tour operators in the U.K.
The brand is proud of the level of customer service it offers, and, in the experience era, its aim is to make your holiday the best you’ve ever had. Virgin Holidays’ Saul Lopes recently took on a new role within the business as its customer lifecycle lead, where he is responsible for maintaining the tour operator’s customer experience across the whole of the journey.
CMO.com recently caught up with Lopes to ask him how they were going about delivering exceptional experiences for their customers. (Of note, Lopes will be speaking at Adobe Summit EMEA, in London, 3-4 May.)
CMO.com: Everyone within the whole travel ecosystem seems to be vying to own the customer’s holiday’s experiences. So what makes Virgin Holidays different?
Lopes: Unlike TripAdvisor and Airbnb, who are both offering ‘experiences’ to their customers, Virgin Holidays is in this unique place where we are able to organise an end to end customer holiday—including flights, hotels, transfers, car hire, as well amazing personalised experiences—that come together to create the perfect holiday. It’s a one-stop shop for all their travel needs.
Our target audience isn’t the pure independent traveller. We’re after what we call “aspiring adventurers.” They think of themselves as being adventurous and are active by nature, but also want the security of having activities planned in advance that are informed by our extensive local knowledge of their destination.
CMO.com: How do you identify what experiences will work for each individual customer?
Lopes: We’ve done a lot of in-depth analysis around what people want when they’re researching holidays, and the amount of pleasure they get from the discovery process. One thing that came out loud and clear is that people still look for a human touch—that human reassurance.
In the past three or four years, our biggest growth area has been from our retail network and interactions with our customer service teams. Customers want reassurance that the adviser who’s building the experience for them has been to the destination and has in-depth local knowledge. This is a key differentiation factor when we compare ourselves with online travel agents.
We also organise our experiences through passion points, and have done extensive data modelling around customer behaviour. We have lots of different themes, such as culture or food and drink, but we also know customers like to mix and match those themes, so we can use our knowledge to advise them on what would deliver the best experience for them.
We also have holiday experience apps where we organise all the information so we can have something visual that we can show the customer, both online and in store.
This week, we’ve renamed our brand “Virgin HoliDOs,” instead of Virgin Holidays, for our new marketing and PR campaign because it’s not about where you go, it’s about what you do. This launch is the biggest product announcement from Virgin Holidays in years and marks a significant evolution in its business strategy as it promises to provide more curated holidays that cater to a wider variety of tastes.
CMO.com: How do you make sure that all the different touch points are joined up to deliver that seamless experience that customers seem to expect these days?
Lopes: We have done extensive work mapping out our entire customer experience and aligning all customer touchpoints through a common strategy and structure. The next phase was to build our experience from the bottom up—so we worked with the business on what experience we want to provide, and then we created the data structure required to deliver that experience. We have already started to consolidate our data from reservations, website behaviour, ecommerce, customer service, and customer interactions in one single place. All of these create a seamless experience across our digital touch points via a single customer view.
This has allowed us to create various nudges for our customers and retail staff to ensure we deliver a seamless experience across the whole of their holiday. Seven days post-purchase we introduce them to one of our holiday experts who will help them personalise their holiday experience. Fifteen days prior to departure our staff based in their holiday destination will call to introduce themselves and ask them if they need any help, which our customers really love. Then few days before they travel we’ll send them an SMS informing them where to meet their Virgin Holiday Rep at the destination airport. And finally they’ll receive a “welcome back” call from when they’ve returned from their holiday.
Our objective for 2018 is to give our front line sales staff access to that detailed customer view so that they are empowered with customer information and able to provide an even more personalised experience.
CMO.com: How easy was it to get buy-in from all the different departments and data owners across the business to develop the understanding of your customers?
Lopes: Virgin Holidays is quite an agile, customer-focused company, so getting buy-in to consolidate all our customer data in one place was very easy. We’ve had really strong leadership support, which has really helped. All the directors and senior leaders were aligned. They all wanted change and improvement as quickly as possible. Internally, we have a huge focus on the customer. For example, over the past 12 months, we’ve changed, so the whole organisation’s objectives now includes our Net Promoter Score and how we can improve the experience for our customers.
CMO.com: Are you exploring new technologies, such as AI, AR, VR, and voice?
Lopes: We have a different perspective on this when compared to other businesses. Our approach, to some extent, spins off from Harvard Business Review article, which stated that brands need to stop trying to delight customers but, instead, focus on doing what customers expect them to do well. We are always looking at new technologies, but only if they help our customers with the challenges they face.
For example, we are using VR in our retail stores, where waiting customers can have a virtual tour of Virgin Holidays’ destinations. We are also using AI in our marketing, which is helping us deliver more effective subject lines for our email campaigns.
What we are focusing on is ensuring that everything that we do each and every day is aimed at meeting our customers’ needs. However, it’s sometimes all too easy to get too hyped up on what’s new, rather than looking at which problems we want to solve for our customers, such as managing their booking, choosing their seats on the flight, or paying the balance on their holiday.