Mind the gap! Does your online user experience measure up?

I LIKE to travel, whether it’s for business or leisure, and I’m also a very social and online savvy traveller.

If there’s anything that can be done online to make my travel experience smoother, I’ll probably do it. I usually book my hotels and flights online or at least use the airline’s online check-in functionality to print my boarding pass and select a good seat.

I also like to go to the cinema and, yes, I usually buy my tickets online. What do cinemas and online travel arranging have in common? In the United Arab Emirates and, I’m sure in many neighbouring countries, too, both sectors are often struggling with providing consumers with easy to use and worthwhile online experiences. Cinemas in the UAE recently stepped up their game. I’m hoping that airlines in the region will follow suit.

Buying a cinema ticket online is easy enough and it saves time queuing outside the cinema’s ticket counter. Yet, until recently, I was being charged 2 Dirham extra for the pleasure of saving the cinema a lot of work – no need to allocate me a seat or fiddle with change, I’d do it all for them.

Airlines in the meantime are also very keen on travellers doing things online. Your reward? You’ll save time and hassle at the airport. Or so I’m constantly being told. The reality? Accompany me on one of my frequent business trips to Saudi Arabia and I’ll show you. I usually fly with one of the UAE’s major airlines. It takes me a couple of minutes to check in online and print my boarding pass. Good bye Dubai, hello Riyadh or Jeddah. Business (almost) over, I’ll head back online and check in for my return flight and, once at the airport, grin while I head straight through security to my gate. But wait, what’s this? There’s a little notice on the desk at the gate asking travellers who have checked in online and printed their own boarding passes to contact the gate staff. Why? Not because the online savvy crowd gets its own check-in line. On the contrary, I’m being asked to approach the gate staff, so that they can print me out a “proper” (think “old fashioned”) boarding pass. They’re usually happy to do so – once they have checked in everybody else. Hang on! What’s the point of printing my own boarding pass then?

This is just one example of an online hurdle. There are many more. Ever booked a hotel room online and changed your mind about some minor detail halfway through the process? Press your Internet browser’s “back” button to change whatever it is you want to change and, often, everything else you have previously selected or filled in disappears in the process and you have to start all over again.

It’s great for travel and tourism companies to embrace the online world – done correctly they’ll be rewarded with more business and positive electronic word of mouth. Done incorrectly or inconsistently, however, they’ll risk annoying travellers. Rather than driving them back to doing things the old fashioned way, it’ll result in customers looking at the competition to see if anybody out there “gets it” more and offers a more user friendly and less annoying way of interacting online or integrating online elements into the overall travel experience. If you want to be best friends with today’s digitally experienced travellers, your online strategy needs to build around your customers, not around your current business practices.

By Martin Kubler