< PrevNext > Five-Star Service Isn’t Just for Fine Dining By John Morhous, Chief Experience Officer, Flight Centre Travel Group / January 24, 2023 Share John Morhous, Chief Experience Officer, Flight Centre Travel Group Imagine this scenario: Your partner's birthday is coming up, and you want to do something special. They love steak, so you hop online and find a new steakhouse in town with good reviews and make a reservation. The photos look great, and the ambiance seems perfect for a birthday celebration. A few days beforehand you call the restaurant and order a birthday cake to be delivered during dessert to make it extra special. When the night arrives, you walk into the restaurant and notice the interior doesn’t match the online photos. Undeterred, you take your seat and order. An hour passes, you grow concerned and you check on the food. The server says the kitchen is “backed up,” despite an hour wait already. When the food finally arrives, it’s lukewarm. Because you are starving, you eat it—at least the special cake is next! Signaling to the server to bring it over, he hastily tells you “Sorry, the pastry chef quit yesterday, and we don’t have any desserts.” You pay the bill and depart, the evening ruined. You retrace the experience in your mind, with a lot of questions: Why didn’t the photos online match the restaurant’s interior?Why didn’t they tell me the kitchen was behind so we could have ordered an appetizer?Why was the food delivered lukewarm? Was it sitting out? Was our server just terrible?Why didn’t they tell me when I walked in the door (or sooner) that the birthday cake wasn’t going to happen?None of these questions are unreasonable; you expect certain things from a restaurant dining because you’ve experienced hundreds of them. None of your expectations were out of the ordinary, even ordering a birthday cake. With such poor delivery on them, you would give anyone who asked a blistering earful of how awful that restaurant experience was, never to return. Your online review would include particulars so others could avoid the same outcome. So… why am I talking about dining in 2023, rather than travel? The experience of dining out is surprisingly complex. There are a lot of moving parts (and people) necessary to deliver a simple meal, let alone a special one. It is a tightly orchestrated collaboration between service, meal preparation and timely delivery. It takes a larger and more integrated array of people and suppliers to make a business trip hassle-free and successful, but the level of collaboration between both scenarios is comparable. All it takes is one bad experience to turn you off from ever going to that same restaurant, or flying that airline, again. So, why do so many business trips feel like the same bad night out at the same restaurant you just keep going to time and time again? In the past month, we’ve seen some unprecedented collapses to the travel ecosystem. It started over the holidays when Southwest Airlines suffered a now infamous meltdown that is projected to have an impact of nearly $850M to its results. Add to that, the FAA had a system failure which resulted in the first U.S. domestic ground stop since 9/11, that impacted over 10,000 flights across the country and caused cascading headaches for days. These would be the foodservice equivalent of losing your dinner reservation, serving you the wrong food, cold and then overcharging you for it on the bill…all at once. Unlike restaurants, there aren’t so many options that offer better alternatives when a customer has a bad experience. Frequent business travelers, as a result, end up suffering through an ever-present set of potential calamities associated with modern travel, just hoping that the next experience as bad as the last. We have been conditioned for so long to expect the worst that we are surprised when it is not. That said, as a travel industry executive, I work closely with all our suppliers, particularly airlines. I empathize with their struggles in delivering excellent customer experiences. Operating an airline requires a lot of capital to buy planes, working with labor unions to fly them, dealing with government agencies regulating the airspace, using airports that are often run by slow-moving local municipalities and—most importantly—establishing a complex global supply chain that must operate from Cape Town to Cleveland, while managing ever-present safety and security rules. Let’s be honest, food arriving cold is quite different than a plane falling out of the sky. It’s hard work, and we get it. Are We Focused on the Right Solutions—or Even the Right Problem?Business startup Rule No. 1 is to solve a customer problem in a unique way, or in a way that is significantly better than what everyone else is doing. That ethos has fueled modern technology that underpins a world full of Google Maps, self-driving cars, real-time weather alerts and artificial intelligence that can do my kids’ homework. Each innovation had a customer pain point behind it and a relentless drive to make things better. As a result, our lives are much easier compared to the prior generation. So why can’t we better anticipate travel-related issues in this modern world? Why aren’t we leveraging all these tech advancements we’re so accustomed to in our personal life to make the corporate travel experience better? The airline technology conversation today is nearly fully focused on NDC, even more so now with American Airlines announcing it will pull content from non-NDC channels in April. In comparison to the dining experience, moving from EDIFACT to NDC distribution is the workflow equivalent of the restaurant deciding to either use a paper menu or a digital one scanned via QR code (If you’re scoffing at that analogy, think about it.) Is that all we have to talk about right now? The Southwest and FAA issues were both blamed on outdated computer systems, one around managing crew movements during a disruption, the other around notifying aircraft of things going on in the U.S. airspace. Both are critical to ensuring the reliability and safety of flying. As a technologist, I can understand and appreciate that airlines and air traffic control is mission-critical stuff, so it probably shouldn’t be living on the bleeding edge of modern computing technology. But maybe if we had something built this century it would be a tad more reliable? FYI, the “cloud” has been around for over two decades. NDC will not address any of these issues. I would love the industry to get back to its roots in 2023, solving real customer problems today, as that is where value and commercial benefit sits. Here are some questions I have when I think about my recent experiences.If I can track my kid going to the mall through Find My iPhone, why are my bags missing? I’d like an AirTag in my annual frequent flier package instead of drink coupons I will lose by myself. If the flight is going to be late, why can’t you just tell me? If I’m sitting at the gate and can literally see no plane parked, why do I feel like the first to know it won’t be on time? If I qualify to go to your lounge, can you tell me so? What has always been a huge perk in the travel experience that has seen a lot of investment, now feels like you need a PhD to understand. If security is backed up, why don’t you tell me to come earlier, or go to a different line at the airport? Most airports have multiple lines you can use to go through security... If I’m disrupted and entitled to compensation or re-accommodation, offer to provide it hassle-free through your branded credit card? I can get travel rewards through a hundred different banks; but not having to file claims and chase paperwork (when an airline is responsible for the disruption) would make your offer that much more compelling. If you can’t manage to get your customer support above a CSAT of 50 percent, why make it harder for those who do your support for you? Rolled out rashly without the kinks worked out, NDC will do that even to the most technically adept TMCs who can support it. Finally, with so much talk about understanding the customer, how do you not know who I am when I give you my loyalty info? Facebook can track me across multiple websites when I’m online, and Amazon sends me ads for the last thing I searched for on Google, so I’m not sure why I’m constantly asked if I’m going to check a bag on my overnight business trip to Dallas (I’m not.) Perhaps all of this sounds futuristic and far-fetched, but sometimes we all need to be reminded—you go to a restaurant to eat a meal, not to order it off the menu.