Badger photo credit to Thomas Hawk.

Seriously, who took the hospitality out of the hospitality industry?

Between United killing or misrouting dogs, Southwest throwing screaming children off planes, and Hyatt “testing” the elimination of breakfast at their lower end Hyatt Place, the last three days have been more of the same in what seems to be a steady drumbeat of negative news for travel customers. Plus, If you check out Chris Eliot’s travel advocacy site, you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of cases where it seems like companies just don’t care (though to be fair, there’s a lot of nutcases thrown in for good measure). Why exactly is that?

We hear about the bad stuff more

I believe the primary cause is that with the Internet and social media, we hear about everything – and in close to real time. Does the David Dao incident blow up and become more than a local news story at best if someone doesn’t capture it and share it with the world? When bad things happen, it seems the first instinct is to whip out a smartphone – before even intervening or offering to help. Perhaps most hospitality companies have always only paid lip service to the idea of customer service – and we just see those failures a lot more often.

Bloggers have ruined it for everybody

Just as social media has shone a spotlight on the bad behavior of hospitality companies, it’s created an amplified medium for influential writers to share “secret” information that, quite frankly, pisses companies off. Things like mistake fares, throwaway or hidden city routings, and award optimization strategies definitely game the system, and in an environment where “the house always wins”, that’s a problem for bean counters. That said, bloggers play entirely within the rules set by the companies – so it really shouldn’t be this way.

Travel is a lot more representative of the population than it used to be

In the last 30 years, airfare in particular has become a commodity – opening the world up to people who have never traveled before. When people speak of the “golden age of jet travel”, they’re talking about the days when only the well-heeled or business traveler. With more people (and wider demographics) comes inevitable friction in the form of conflicting behavioral, cultural, and even hygienic norms.

Airlines were stuck in the past, and customers got used to outsized perks

Distance-based frequent flyer programs, in particular, were designed in the mid-80s to appeal to the well-heeled and business traveler. Thanking loyal customers with perks always makes good business sense (because it’s cheaper to keep an existing customer than acquire a new one), and loyalty was defined by how many miles your butt was in their seat because the cost per mile was rather hefty. In the last couple years, we’ve seen most of the larger programs move to revenue-based perks, because the cost per mile of air travel has fallen remarkably (more than 50%) in response to highly successful deregulation. From a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense. To a customer who’s grown accustomed to outsized perks from racking up mileage while flying cheap airfares – not so much.

Travel companies squeeze every penny they can

Public (and private equity or venture-backed) travel and tourism companies are under immense pressure to squeeze every last drop of margin they can – especially because the Internet has increased transparency into rates and dramatically lowered barriers to entry for competitors. This manifests itself in cutting products/services and implementing inflexible policies. Customer service and satisfaction has been de-prioritized behind revenue management and operational efficiency. That leads to an environment where it’s more important for an airline to get their own employees to their work location than to NOT facilitate the bloody removal of a passenger from their plane. Or where a major airline rolls out new airplanes that have bathrooms even their own employees describe as unusable – all to squeeze in an extra three seats.

It’s also led to an environment where public relations and customer service have been allowed to wither and are routinely acknowledged as an open joke. That’s why you’ll see a company put out a statement that they’re devaluing their mileage points as part of a “customer enhancement” (Pro tip: anytime you see the term “customer enhancement” you can safely replace it with “profit enhancement”). Or why you’ll get an unhelpful, canned, and confusing response on social media.

Hope for the future?

In a word, no. The trend is definitely towards increasing density, taking perks away, and foisting more draconian policies on the traveling public.