Whether you are offering guided activities, accommodation, equipment rentals, catering services or cruises, you are offering a travel product to your customers. However, for today’s tourists seeking experiences, a core product is often not enough.
You’ve probably had many product development ideas. Before reading any further, think of them and choose one. Perhaps the latest one you’ve come up with if it makes the choice easier. What did you do with the idea? Did you forget it? Was it turned into a successful travel product? Or did it become a product that failed?
Most ideas eventually and naturally fall into the category “forgot it”. In order to end up with a successful new travel product, a systematic way of approaching product development may be beneficial to you and your business. Using this approach will also decrease the odds that you will end up investing time and money in products that fail.
This article offers you a step-by-step model to identify your customers’ needs and to develop innovative products, services and experiences that matter to them. It will showcase how to get in touch with your customers’ thinking, how to learn what they really need, and how you design products that really matter. These steps are illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Travel product development from inspiration to ideas to successful products
Step 1: Focus on the customer
The coronavirus crisis has put all travel under pressure and change. The battle for travelers may become fiercer. The importance of sustainability may increase. The frequent holidays to faraway destinations may stay on hold, turning into less frequent and more holidays closer to home.
To attract your type of customers, you need to stand out, understand their mindsets extremely well, and be able to take a leap in being creative. Unique and exceptional stories may become even more important, as may issues of health, safety and security.
People are looking for products that really matter to them. To be able to develop and offer meaningful products, you need to know your customers very well. What meaningful means for some may be different from what meaningful means to others. A product that is mind-blowing for some, may be unexciting to others.
You can only create meaningful products, services and experiences for your customers if you truly understand them. And in case you do not have any customers yet, or are looking for new ones, you need to get your inspiration and validation from external sources. These can be trend reports, events, online and real-world communities. If you already have customers, you can use them as a source of inspiration.
Engage your networks
It is always highly recommended to engage others in your travel product development process. Customers, employees, others working in your field of business, businesses in your community, and people you know, will give you honest feedback, who have an open and positive mind. Engaging others will not only make product development fun and rewarding but will also contribute to the quality of the outcome.
TIP: Do not engage your family and friends. Why? They are likely to love you so much that you won’t be getting that brutally honest feedback you ultimately need.
Customers are in most cases the number one source of inspiration in developing new and existing products. This means that you want to involve them in the development process. A good idea is NOT to ask them what they want (as they may not know or they answer what they think is ‘correct’) with a questionnaire, but try to get an idea of their desires in a different way.
There are several methods you could use to find out the expressed and hidden needs of the customers. We will discuss three of them here, but if you are interested in other methods, take a look at a free Human Centered Design Toolkit provided by Ideo. Whichever method you end up choosing, keep in mind that communication with your customers is the key in developing successful products.
Observe and discuss
As leisure travel is all about experiences, one of your main duties is to look after your customers. So you can see it as part of your job to observe your customers during different phases of their customer journey and to learn to understand this customer journey through their eyes. It gives you insights into what your customers think, what they do, how they interact with others, and what they dream and wish for.
TIP: Customer observation should always be done quietly and discreetly.
While you observe your customers, you can also make notes. At some suitable point, you may be able to discuss your observations with your customers in an informal setting and ask questions about things you did not expect or did not understand: “when you… I saw/noticed…”
You may also ask your customers whether they would like to help you with improving your services. Instead of a standard and rather boring questionnaire, you can for example ask them to share their photographs. You could also ask your customers to document their customer journey with a camera and to take pictures of what they consider as points of delight or room for improvement. When they give you the pictures, you can ask them to share some thoughts about them.
Step 2: Make a persona for each type of customer
You have now taken step 1 and built a big picture of your customers. The next challenge is to turn each type of tourist into a ‘typical customer profile’. A useful and proven way to do this is by creating personas. One persona for each type of tourist, meaning you are likely to end up with several personas.
Start making personas by giving them names: Rasmus the Retiree, Ben the Businessman, Pia the Pianist, Anna the Adventurer, Tim the Family Holiday Fan.
Next, find a picture of this person. It can be any random image that you associate with this segment of your customers. Putting a face to the name will help you think of your customer personas as ‘real’ people.
Basic demographics for your customer personas
Start with demographics. Demographics are the ‘hard facts’ about your customers. Facts that separate them from the rest of the crowd. You want to know at least their:
- Place of residency
- Relationship status
- Family size
- Spoken language(s)
- Household income
- Level of education
- Social media habits
The personality traits of your customer personas
Then dig deeper into psychographic details. Who is the person behind the facts you listed? Find interesting information on your ideal customers, such as:
- Goals and motivations
- Fears and challenges
- Reasons for travelling
- Obstacles to travel
- Purpose for travel (leisure, business, visiting family/friends…)
- Favorite (travel) activities
- Expectations while travelling
When you put all this information together, you really start to see who your target audience is. You’ll know the age bracket and location of your customers, what they can afford, and why they want to travel in the first place. You’ll understand their travel preferences and turnoffs. These details are incredibly valuable to your product development.
TIP: You can (and probably should) create more than one customer persona. For most businesses the recommendation is from three to five. This will allow you to segment your audience appropriately without going overboard.
Step 3: Identify the core needs of the customers and the key opportunity areas
Now you need to identify the most noteworthy needs, obstacles, likes, dislikes, delights and disappointments related to your business. Take a closer look at each persona you have created, one by one, and ask yourself the following questions:
What would be
- remarkable and meaningful experiences for that persona?
- stunning wows for that persona?
- striking turnoffs, hurdles, disappointments, wishes or needs for that persona?
When you have answered these for all your personas, group the answers into areas of which you think could have a positive impact on your customers’ experiences. Label each grouping with a short sentence that identifies the impact area. A label could be, for example: ‘customers need more personal attention during the experience’, ‘customers like to enjoy local delicacies, or ‘customers want to be online all the time’.
Finally, turn each label into a positive opportunity for your business, also known as an opportunity area. The header could be for example: ‘increase personal attention during experience’, ‘provide access to local treats to customers’, ‘good Wi-Fi in all premises’.
Step 4: Develop a collection of ideas
During the previous steps, you started collecting a lot of information that you worked into a limited number of opportunity areas for your business. Now the task is to generate ideas for new products that matter to your customers for each opportunity area. Ideally, you should take this step together with your colleagues. If you think there are opportunity areas that are outside the range of your core business, you may also want to involve other businesses in your community.
For a long-term benefit, you first need lots of ideas to get a single good one. This one idea should be innovative and really different from the others. It might be a completely new solution to a problem customers did not even know they had. Don’t be satisfied with obvious solutions.
TIP: Set a goal on how many ideas you must develop before stopping.
Brainstorm and weed out
How does it work in practice? Brainstorm for each opportunity area that you created in the previous step. Come up with as many ideas as possible. Try to think of weird solutions, products, services or experiences. Tell the critic in you to stay away and forget all rights, wrongs, absurd or obvious to keep your imagination flowing. Write down each idea without judgment.
Next, sort and group the ideas that you wrote down. Put the bad or completely unrealistic ideas to the side. Group the good ideas that go well together into clusters. Give each cluster a label that tells you what the overarching idea is that the cluster is about. Eventually, you will end up with a shortlist of your best ideas for solutions. At this point, again, it is a good idea to discuss the ideas with some of your customers to get feedback.
TIP: Sometimes product development is about letting go of what has been working or used to work.
Step 5: Turn your best ideas into prototypes
Now is the time to create a first design for the ideas for new products. This will help you to understand your idea better, but also to determine whether you have the resources to implement it, and what are the likely challenges or consequences or trade-offs. Taking all these things into consideration is important for long-term success.
Select the ideas that could upgrade one of your business’s current products or be integrated with such a product or service. These ideas will probably be the easiest to develop because they fit best with your everyday work.
For each of the products that you selected, make a detailed description of how you want it to be designed. We call this a prototype. You can see a prototype framework in Figure 2.
Once you have created your prototypes they are ready to be tested. Don’t worry if your prototype is incomplete or doesn’t fully reflect the final product that you have in mind.
Step 6: Focus on the customer again and test your prototypes in practice
The final step is to put your innovative idea into practice and offer it to your customers as you have described it in your prototype. Keep in mind that this is a process of learning by doing. The idea is to get feedback from your customers on what worked and what didn’t. Based on this feedback, you can create a new and improved version of your product. Once you get feedback, you can refine and make improvements.
Success rarely happens overnight. You also need to accept that you can make mistakes. Setting targets and deadlines are helpful in defining when to change/continue/stop. It helps to see product development as a learning process. Be open to the feedback and do not defend your prototype if the users are less positive than you expected. Try to get as much feedback and suggestions for improvement as possible.
Never forget that new trends and new markets will arise. This means that your customer and the needs of your customers may, and most likely will, change over time. You need to restart with Step 1 on a regular basis to stay relevant.
Staying in tune with the market is an ongoing process.