If Airlines and Travel brands want to win in 2018, they have to incorporate the customer's preferences in their definition of "local."
In an industry as vast and complex as travel, part of the difficulty of engaging the customer lies in how a brand defines the popular term “local.”
I visited a small town in the Midwest of the US, last Spring. Every Thursday, following the inter-church softball league the entire town would descend on the only fast-food restaurant with a suitable parking lot: McDonalds. It was a chaotic weekly gathering of pickup trucks, belt-buckles and cheese-burgers, where the events from the evening's games were retold and debated.
It was the most "local" experience an outsider could have, and yet the ingredients of this experience (McDonald’s, softball, pickup trucks etc.,) could not be more generic to the American landscape.
In a recent survey* we asked travellers: How important are local experiences when you visit a new city?
63%: very important
35%: moderately important
3%: not important at all
The difficulty with “local,” as with any term that has bandied about an industry for too long is it begins to lose definition and takes on a brand of its own. (See Your Service is Not Personalised Enough)
Hence our follow-up question: How would you define “local”?
Approximately 80% of the travellers we surveyed defined “local” as that which was unique to a place and the natives that live there. The remaining 20% defined “local” literally, in terms of proximity.
The challenge is every city has many versions of "local," each tethered to the people who live in a specific neighbourhood or community. The modern traveller navigates the city by their interests and the districts that celebrate those interests–which is no different to the way natives navigate their own city.
Ask yourself “Where do I like to go in my home city, and why?” And you will see a specific route through your city emerge in correlation to your interests.
A native never asks what is "local" in their own city, that strain of self-awareness would be disingenuous. How the native lives is "local."
There is a tension in promoting "local" experiences. Packaging my Midwestern post-softball moment as an Experience on Airbnb's site would compromise the weekly gathering by the presence of an audience–where there's an audience a performance will ensue. "local" by definition is non-performative.
Airbnb attempt to solve the "local" problem by connecting the traveler with a native; whatever experience they have can (technically) be defined as "local," but the most important thing to note is the traveller still chooses the activity with a native based on their preferences.
As we enter a year where travel brands are seeking to uncover the goldmine that is "Tours and Activities," personalising offers for in-destination experiences is best achieved by understanding the traveller's preferences.
Discovering what is "local" is not good enough for most travellers. Every traveller has had all manner of "local" experiences they wish to forget and many "generic" experiences in a foreign land they found profoundly memorable, and the determining factor was their lifestyle preference.
The crux of brand loyalty and repeat business is delivering a positive memorable experience.
The difficulty with personalisation in the Travel Industry, is travel changes the traveller. If a local/authentic experience is largely determined by the traveller's preferences, what's considered "authentic" will grow and change with the traveller.
If you’re visiting New York City for the first time, you should see Time Square. It’s bold and brash and a complete assault on the senses. I challenge you to find a New Yorker that has not been to Time Square. Is that not the definition of "local" - an experience or place, or both that is part of the collective consciousness of the natives?
However, the idea of “local” changes with each moment of contact, with each experience of the destination. It’s unlikely you will consider Time Square a "local experience" on your third visit to New York City.
Everywhere and everything is local/authentic to someone. The term "local" is a marketing tactic that continues to convey meaning by appealing to a generation obsessed with consuming the authentic (Read: Will Banksy's Hotel Redefine Authentic Experience in Travel). To gain authority, convert and earn loyalty, airlines and travel brands should use these loaded terms, but do the hard work of getting to know their customers, so their recommendations are personalised and convert.
*Conducted August 2016