Seeing as we’ve just touched down in Houston, it’s only fitting to recall that the first airline-sponsored DO was held just five years ago, when Dean Burri (a.k.a cigarman) made a bet with then-Continental CEO Larry Kellner that FlyerTalkers wanted more face time with airline executives and won handily when 300 FTers landed on Kellner’s doorstep. Since then, a growing number of airlines have gotten in on the act — including the second SMD and a large Delta DO the other weekend — followed by hotel chains like Hyatt (which hosted a DO at its Andaz West Hollywood property) and Starwood — one of SMD2′s sponsors.
What changed in the interim? What led airlines to drop their view that FTers were “just a bunch of hot-air whiners,” as Randy Petersen puts it, and actually some of their best customers? Why the explosion in sponsored DOs over the last 12-18 months? (As Southwest has discovered with the AirTran customer leading the charge to save business class aboard that carrier). Obviously, there are many reasons, but one of them has to be the belated realization that they needed a “social media strategy,” and that FlyerTalk itself was their social media strategy.
Lufthansa’s head of social media marketing, Torsten Wingenter, seemed to validate this theory during one of the workshops on social media at Lufthansa’s headquarters Tuesday night. In describing the evolution of the Miles & More program from offering basic awards in the 1990s to creating status benefits and then the exclusivity of HON Circle, he outlined a “Miles & More 2.0″ built around social media. “Our customer changed,” he told the group, “and the question is: ‘should we change as a company?’” Later, he described the airlines’ reluctance succinctly: “Airlines are all about control, because it’s necessary for flight. And social media is to some extent out of control… The customer wants to talk to us at eye-level, not through our traditional channels.”
Enter the Mega DOers, who last year ripped the first iteration of a Miles & More-meets-Foursquare app to shreds. This year’s workshops were calmer, as they talked more broadly about the successes and misses of other airlines online. (The gold standard in America: JetBlue, whose “All You Can Jet” promotion originally started as a tweet. That led to the revelation Lufthansa was considering some form of GroupOn-style group-buying, with implementation as-yet unknown.
The Lufthansa workshops included one devoted to a new ground services app enabling passengers to troubleshoot itineraries with one touch and deal with problems in the air. Another focused on “special moments,” i.e. one-off gifts or onboard experiences designed to reintroduce a measure of surprise and luxury to the comfortable monotony of premium cabins. A few of the 70 or so ideas bandied about included luxury good giveaways (a la the La Prairie products in the amenity kits of Swiss), special country-themed meals, “movie nights” with new releases and popcorn, and so on.
At dinner afterward, Lufthansa and Star executives once again hailed the Mega DOers as knowing more about their product than they do, and in case they didn’t the Lufthansa Group’s other airlines — Swiss, Austrian, Brussels, and bmi — stood by offering cheese, chocolate and goodies to guests. It was the most social media of all.
This week’s joyride is billed as the “Star Alliance Mega DO,” but as in real life, we’re spending a lot of time with Star’s member airlines and very little with Star Alliance itself. That changed a bit for the FlyerTalkers selected to participate in a workshop Tuesday afternoon at Star Alliance’s headquarters, and, members willing, may be about to change for the average flyer.
As USA Today’s Ben Mutzbaugh covered yesterday, Star executives asked Mega DOers for feedback on a conceptual iPhone app and an alliance-wide service kiosk with which a stranded traveler might pick up a phone, swap a credit card, and instantly be connected to a reservation agent with the full itinerary already in front of them. It sounded useful, but the story behind the kiosk is more interesting than the results.
At the Lufthansa dinner, I spoke with Jeremy Drury, Star’s director of alliance innovation services, who sat in on the sessions Tuesday. He explained Star was “used to working with our members’ boards; as of this year, we’re working with our members’ employees.” In a nutshell, Star is seeking to crowdsource ideas across the 400,000-strong combined workforce of its members. “We want to connect a United idea to a Japanese customer service rep,” as Drury put it.
Out of 190 ideas in the original harvest, eight or nine so far have made the cut. The kiosk is the outcome of a suggestion that began life unpromisingly as increasing the “cross-fertilization of reservation agents.” It ended up a kiosk connecting travelers to whichever Star reservation agents happen to be awake and under-utilized at that hour. “We wanted to take the kiosk out of the kiosk and put a person inside instead,” Drury said.
But more intriguing is seeing Star Alliance executives scheming to unlock the creativity of its members, and to put their ideas to work across all 27 airlines, presumably with a Star Alliance logo on the kiosk or app instead of an airline’s. Industry pundits — especially the analyst Mike Boyd — have predicted that the big three alliances may one day supersede airline brands just as the name carriers superseded the regional affiliates that comprise a good percentage of their lift.
That day may yet come, but for now “I’d like 10,000-20,000 employees talking to each other, and we’re not there yet,” Drury said. When I asked how quickly Star will move to implement these suggestions once they’ve been vetted by customers, he just shook his head. There are no timetables for anything, because “there are 27 carriers, and they all need to be convinced. And if you’d like my job, you can have it,” he joked. Still, it’s interesting to see Star Alliance taking the lead when it comes to innovation.