Sign up to newsletter

Magazine subscription

For Business, Corporate Travel & Meeting Buyers & Arrangers

Behavioural science in the travel industry

Graphic to demonstrate behavioural science

Influencing behaviour using psychological prompts is popular, so how well does it work in the travel industry?

Did you clean up after your dog while taking it for walkies recently? If so, you may have been unwittingly influenced by so-called ‘nudge theory’ – the idea that by giving people small nudges you can influence behaviour on the large scale.

Many local authorities have erected signs saying that 95 per cent of dog owners are responsible and bag their dog poo. It has been shown to work.

HMRC, after carrying out a trial on 100,000 taxpayers, now says in its reminder letters that ‘nine out of 10 people in the UK pay their tax on time’; it claims to have increased tax revenues by £210 million as a result.

But can nudge theory be used in business travel to influence behaviour and help travel buyers make savings? Severnside Consulting’s Chris Pouney thinks it can. “Nudge theory has been adopted by more than 70 governments globally which recognise that spending time developing the right choice architecture is critical when attempting to influence citizens to make, what they consider as ‘the right choices’.”

Visual guilt
It is not a new idea. Visual guilt – long talked about as the lever that can influence behaviour in online booking tools – is still alive and well, and nudges travellers to make ‘good choices’.

Traffic light signals are used as a nudge behaviour tool by a number of booking tool providers, indicating which suppliers are preferred, other suppliers and those that are non-compliant, perhaps because they breach a rate cap. This visual signal can be used to influence behaviour towards green-lighted suppliers – the travellers’ subconscious does the rest.

“We learn it from a being a child,” says Click Travel’s director of operations Chris Vince. “When something is red, avoid it.”

But Pouney thinks it’s less effective with certain people. “Would visual guilt work on a CEO or a road warrior who feels it’s their right to travel in first class?” he asks. “I’m not so sure. I see a number of companies who install technology and new influence approaches and end up finding out what they knew already – that the policy is not being used by one group of people.”

Testing your assumptions
Traffic light behaviour is not a given, and Egencia senior director Jean-Noel Lau Keng Lun suggests looking at real data instead. “We can all read the studies that say that the colour green will encourage and the colour red will discourage behaviours, but we can do more: you can actually test your assumptions by testing a green button and a red button and see what happens. Sometimes you will see totally unexpected behaviours,” he says.

Click Travel is using subtle techniques to influence hotel booking behaviour in its booking tool. “If I am a traveller and I have only just joined the company, and I am booking a trip to London for the first time, some of the hotels that others in the company stay in would feature higher up in the results,” says Vince.

This has the effect of concentrating hotel spend in fewer properties, giving greater leverage in negotiations and promoting hotels that travellers may like more, particularly when coupled with user-generated reviews.

The app environment, which many younger travellers feel more comfortable working within, can also help. “Travel managers can adopt apps as primary vehicles for providing short-form, proactive communication, such as on-demand travel policy tips or timely travel data to travellers,” says American Express GBT vice-president Jason Geall.

“Automated notifications can also be set up to inform travellers whether their booking is within policy or not. The real-time communication, delivered in formats travellers already use, will do much more to guide compliance than lengthy rules or complicated communications rolled out quarterly or annually.”

Geall says the company’s research shows that 44 per cent of travel managers, predominately at large corporations, have introduced apps and a further 19 per cent intend to introduce them within the next two years.

Companies such as EY are using robotics and messaging to influence behaviour. To work well, messaging around issues such as advance booking windows and out-of-policy bookings is going to have to become more personalised, argues Capita Travel and Events’ chief information officer Paul Saggar.

“The types of automated emails and pop-ups we’ve seen in the market are largely generic – they will only work to a certain extent because everyone gets the same message, regardless of how, where, when and why they meet, travel or book. Personalised and dynamic content is the only way buyers will achieve real, long-term influence and change that gives them the results desired by their different stakeholders,” he says.

Capita Travel and Events is bringing its parent company’s expertise in nudge behaviour – it employs a team of behavioural psychologists and data scientists – to the business travel sector.

“By the time someone has reached the booking tool, they’ve already decided to book. So any influence is likely to be more restricted to how they buy. We’re taking it back several steps and challenging the demand and behaviours,” says Saggar.

Tracking and influencing
The company has built Iris:comms, which includes video training and education modules, smart messaging that recognises, tracks and influences behaviours through to personalisation of the messaging, delivery method, timing, frequency and tone. Its Iris:go app collates and tracks travellers’ travel and accommodation itineraries.

Egencia’s Lau Keng Lun says that choosing the appropriate nudge should not be left to gut instinct.

“What the big players of e-commerce, such as Amazon, know well is that rather than trying to guess how users will behave, they have to use science and a test-and-learn culture,” he says.

“The way Amazon does it is to use an A/B test where 50 per cent of users are given the suggestion of a new option and the other 50 per cent are not. They will run the test for a couple of weeks and the option that ‘wins’ [ie, increases the desired behaviour] is then rolled out to everyone.”

Gamification is another way in which companies are seeking to alter traveller behaviour, by personally incentivising more compliant or preferred behaviour. Corporate traveller incentive platforms Tripactions and Rocketrip award employees with part of any savings they make for their company and give it to them in the form of cash, vouchers or travel perks.

Not everyone is convinced this form of nudge behaviour works in practice. Egencia’s Lau Keng Lun says: “Frequent business travellers are going to look at what the policy is and optimise to be just under that threshold and to maximise their personal comfort.”

Positive reinforcement rather than gamification may be all that is required, says Amex’s Geall. “It worked when we were children and it works now,” he says. “Incentivising employees with the perks of travelling within policy is a proven and simple way to encourage compliance. This can be as simple as making it easier to add on a personal holiday to a business trip.”

Tracking emotions
Egencia and its parent company, Expedia, are using eye tracking and electromyography, which monitor the subtle movement of facial muscles, to discover whether a user is having a positive or negative experience.

“If you observe people with their eyes all over the screen then that probably means that your interface is confusing. With electromyography, we put sensors on your face, eyebrows and skin to see how you react to things and it helps us decide what works better. If we display a hotel with a picture of a hotel bed and it gets a better positive reaction, then we can immediately calibrate the interface to trigger a state of joy,” says Lau Keng Lun.

With nudge theory, we may achieve the goal of bringing joy to both travellers and travel managers.

Add new comment