Habits die hard … but there are ways to change buyer expectations.

What’s the easiest way to change time-honored expectations? With dollar signs.

Humans are creatures of habit. Even little kids gravitate towards the “patterns” of daily life such as bedtime rituals.

These forces are what make it so challenging for companies and brands to introduce changes that go against habit.

We’ve seen this play out recently in two segments of the travel industry: airlines and hotels.

Challenging in both cases … but the changes in one are being accepted, while summarily rejected in the other.

untitledLet’s start with the initiative that’s flamed out. This past November, Hilton Worldwide launched a pilot at a number of its hotel properties where it began charging guests a penalty of $50 if a reservation needed to be canceled any time after booking.

The rationale for the initiative was the notion that hotels should join the rest of the world when it comes to the way its products are sold. After all, for most any product, once someone purchases it they’ve committed to buy it.

Not so with hotel reservations, where über-flexible cancellation policies have been the modus operandi seemingly forever.

The way that some in the industry see it, the practice of hoteliers tying up inventory at no cost or penalty seems illogical.

It’s why some chains have introduced stricter 24-hour policies wherein the first night room cost is charged to customers who fail to cancel before midnight the day before their arrival, instead of the afternoon of their planned arrival.

hlBut Hilton’s pilot went even further than this, because the cancellation fee would be charged regardless of when the cancellation was requested – even if it was days or weeks before.

Predictably, customers totally hated it.

So much so, Hilton canned the policy less than three months in.

Putting the best spin on things, CEO Christopher Nassetta remarked that Hilton “did get some nuanced intelligence out of the experience.”

Perhaps that intelligence was not quite as nuanced as Nassetta infers! At the bottom of this customer fail is a fundamental axiom:  If you mess with time-honored practices that people have come to expect as the normal course of business, you do so at the risk of major blowback.

But we have another recent developing in the hospitality industry that points to a different result. In this case, it’s in the passenger airline segment.

last classDelta and a few other airlines have been successfully rolling out a new class of travel euphemistically called “basic economy” or “super economy” class.

[Others call it “economy minus” or “last class” air travel.]

Essentially, what the airlines are now offering are the lowest available airfares that will get travelers to their place of destination – and that’s it. All of the basic amenities available to traditional coach class travelers are missing.

If one chooses to travel “super economy,” here’s what’s in store for them:

  • Seats with less leg-room than coach (if that’s even possible)
  • No free snacks or drinks
  • No free in-flight entertainment
  • No free carry-on bags
  • No advance seat assignments
  • No itinerary changes or ticket refunds (even with a service charge)
  • No frequent flier miles

For giving up all of this, customers are being quoted prices for air travel that are so low, they rival ground transportation rates.

But for travelers who don’t have to worry about changes in their travel plans … don’t care about in-flight comforts … or don’t travel frequently and therefore find frequent flier programs irrelevant to their personal situation, the tradeoffs appear to be worth it.

Because the passenger airlines need to make physical adjustments to their planes in order to offer “super economy” class, a lot is riding on the consumers’ acceptance of these tradeoffs. So far, Delta Airlines has found sufficient success with its pilot program to plan for its expansion.  And United and American are now getting ready to offer their own programs.

The key difference between the airline and hotel pilots boils down to providing a price incentive.

Even with time-honored or habitual practices, if you make it financially lucrative enough, you’ll get the behavior changes you’re seeking. Bottom-line, that’s the bottom line.

Speaking personally, seeing as how I feel strapped for space on airline flights already, I doubt I’ll be traveling “super economy” class anytime soon, except perhaps on very short hauls.

But I know for a fact that I’ll never book a room that’s subject to a cancellation fee.

Frequent flyer programs: No longer going the distance.

What took so long?

frequent flyer programsDelta and United Airlines have announced what they hope will be an industry-pacesetting change in the way frequent flyer programs are administered by the world’s biggest airlines.

The two air passenger carriers are shifting away from awarding points based on flight distance, and instead will award points based on the actual airfare paid by the traveler.

The change in procedures will become effective in 2015 (in January for Delta and in March for United).

In retrospect, one wonders why it took so long for the big airlines to make this move.

After all, the very nature of loyalty programs is to reward a company’s best and most profitable customers.

Business travelers who book a flight a few days ahead – not to mention people who prefer to travel first class – are far more valuable to an airline than someone who books the “Cheapy Charlie” web-only fare months in advance.

Besides, prominent low-cost air carriers like JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin have been using revenue-based methods of calculating their frequent-flier points for a good while now.

As for which types of travelers will come out winners vs. losers in the frequent flyer program changes, it’s exactly who you’d expect:

  • Big Winners:  Business passengers traveling internationally and on refundable-fare domestic flights + first-class passengers.
  • Big Losers:  Leisure fliers in coach class + business flyers who travel on cheap fares.
  • In-Betweeners:  Business passengers who travel using a mix of business and economy fares.

The recent announcements by Delta and United leave only American Airlines as the last big U.S.-based global carrier that still maintains the traditional distance-based calculation for earning miles.

I wonder how much longer they’ll hold out?

Only a matter of months, I’m guessing.

What are your opinions about the changing policies?  Are there particular frequent flyer programs you love?  … Or love to hate?  Feel free to share your thoughts with other readers.

A surprise? Corporate reputations on the rise.

Corporate reputations on the riseWhat’s happening with the reputations of the leading U.S. corporations? Are we talking “bad rep” or “bum rap”?

Actually, it turns out that corporate reputations are on the rise; that’s according to findings from the 2011 Reputation Quotient® Survey conducted by market research firm Harris Interactive.

Each year since 1999, Harris has measured the reputations of the 60 “most visible” corporations in the United States. The 2011 survey, fielded in January and February, included ~30,000 Americans who are part of Harris’ online panel database. Respondents rated the companies on 20 attributes that comprise what Harris deems the overall “reputation quotient” (RQ).

The 2011 survey contained 54 “most visible” companies that were also part of the 2010 survey. Of those, 18 of the firms showed significant RQ increases compared to only two with declines.

The 20 attributes in the Harris survey are then grouped into six larger categories that are known to influence reputation and consumer behavior:

 Products and services
 Financial performance
 Emotional appeal
 Vision and leadership
 Workplace environment
 Social responsibility

Each of the ten top-rated companies in the 2011 survey achieved between an 81 and 84 RQ score in corporate reputation. (Any RQ score over 80 is considered “excellent” in the Harris study). In cescending order of score, these top-ranked corporations were:

 Google
 Johnson & Johnson
 3M Company
 Berkshire Hathaway
 Apple
 Intel Corporation
 Kraft Foods
 Amazon.com
 Disney Company
 General Mills

At the other end of the scale, the ten companies with the lowest ratings among the 60 included on the survey were:

 Delta Airlines (61 RQ score)
 JPMorgan Chase (61)
 ExxonMobil (61)
 General Motors (60)
 Bank of America (59)
 Chrysler (58)
 Citigroup (57)
 Goldman Sachs (54)
 BP (50)
 AIG (48)

Clearly, BP and AIG haven’t escaped their bottom-of-the-barrel ratings – and probably won’t anytime soon.

What about certain industries in general? The Harris research reveals that the technology segment is perceived most positively, with ~75% of respondents giving that sector a positive rating.

The next most popular segment – retail – had ~57% of respondents giving it a positive rating.

For the auto industry, the big news is not that it’s held in high regard (it’s not) … but that its ratings jumped 15 percentage points between 2010 and 2011. That’s the largest one-year jump recorded for any industry in any year since the Harris RQ Survey began.

What industries are bouncing along the bottom? Predictably, it’s financial services firms and oil companies.

But the news from this survey is, on balance, quite positive. In fact, Harris found that there were actually more individual companies rated “excellent” than has ever been recorded in the history of the survey. Considering the sorry state of the economy and how badly many brands have been battered, that result is nothing short of amazing