Suffice it to say that when Samantha Taylor started her role as CMO of Sunwing last March, what she walked into was the polar opposite of the relaxing tropical vacations for which the company is renowned.
The COVID-19 outbreak almost immediately brought a halt to all but the most essential travel, with countries soon shutting their borders and long-planned excursions postponed or cancelled entirely.
For Taylor, who joined Sunwing from the retail sector as CMO of Indigo Books & Music, what followed was less an exercise in brand-building than a mission to completely rethink the customer experience her new employer would have to offer.
“You don’t get the chance very often where the jets are off and you can say, ‘How are we doing things today, and how can we do better, or reset this experience?” Taylor told 360 Magazine. “We looked at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Late last month, Sunwing offered a first look at how Taylor and her team have pursued that opportunity with what it described as “re-platform” of its flagship web site. This includes a Vacation Finder designed to help sun-seekers find the vacation that’s right for them based on their preferred dates, inclusions, facilities, destinations and budget.
The site also includes a more comprehensive Sunwing Account Profile, where customers can view and manage their upcoming trips, upgrades and preferences to enjoy a seamless booking experience from start to finish. Next month, the company will launch a reimagined app which customers can use throughout their trip, from boarding a plane to checking into their hotel rooms.
Taylor said the CX strategy is not simply to provide more digital options to its customers, but to showcase its strengths as a vertically integrated company. In other words, one of Sunwing’s points of differentiations is that it not only owns the planes you take to a vacation, but it also runs its own destination management company and a chain of hotel properties.
“In a post-COVID environment, having everything covered by a single company — we wanted to look at how we could translate that into an experience where they really feel that difference, and that sense of reassurance,” she said.
Where Customers Navigate
Getting to this point required a considerable journey mapping exercise, but also first-hand conversations with customers through focus groups to clarify needs and rank priorities. This helped because, as with any tweaks to a web site, she said there was plenty of input from functions across sales, marketing and beyond about what should be on the home page.
“When we heat mapped it and went through the data, though, no matter how a customer navigated through our site, they only wanted to come to three different places,” she said. “So part of the process was removing the other voices from the table so that the only voice was the one that matters, which is the customer.”
Sunwing is also rethinking its CX at a time when the nature of its key customer base may be undergoing a shift. As Taylor pointed out, the families who traditionally would have booked a vacation might want to wait until children can be vaccinated against COVID-19. Over the past winter, there was a noticeable rise in younger customers, as well as seniors.
“We have to be sensitive to who will put their hand up and dip their toe back in the water to travel again,” she said. “I do think, overall, what we’re going to see is a return of our existing customers. I don’t think you come out of the pandemic and say, ‘I’m going to roll the dice and try a whole new airline.’”
Staying Grounded (In Humanity)
That said, Taylor is also mindful about striking the right balance between proactively marketing to its most loyal customers vs. seeming opportunistic or desperate.
“How we approach everything is if a customer is willing to come into our sphere — if they are looking for a vacation — then we want to show them all the options to them,” she said. “It’s also about being responsible as members of the Canadian team to not go out and purchase media and suggest anything that is not within public health recommendations.”
Taylor said she also wants to ensure that increased use of digital tools doesn’t detract from the human element that is often deeply embedded within the tourism sector.
“I like to say ‘high tech, high touch’ — for those who want to self-serve and the ease and convenience, these tools are there as a complement,” she said. “But we are a people business. We help people experience their travel dreams and it’s people moving people. If you have questions while you’re in a destination and want to chat with your local rep, it’s not a bot that’s answering you. It’s an actual Sunwing rep who can have someone at our hotel in 30 minutes if that’s necessary.”
As the re-plaformed site and app are rolled out, Taylor said engagement metrics will inform a lot of her thinking on whether Sunwing’s CX is where it needs to be. This not only includes how often they use the app while travelling and a post-trip survey that gets sent out, but whether customers keep the app on their phone. Traditionally, she said, customers don’t give travel apps that coveted smartphone real estate for long.
The other important principle, she added, is to prepare to keep changing, regardless of how entrenched previous tourism practices and processes at Sunwing had become.
“We often say to the team that this is a startup,” she said. “Anything that happened pre-COVID doesn’t really matter now.”
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.