Online booking: how to annoy a grumpy old man

A couple of times recently I’ve been blessed with email from a site that specializes in finding hotel bookings. I use it almost exclusively for finding somewhere to stay in the UK on the rare occasions when I attend a conference or similar event in this country, or need an airport hotel when I have an early flight somewhere. While I like the part of the world I live in, it’s far enough off the beaten track to make it unwise to rely on public transport in order to get to distant parts of the country early-ish in the morning.

The email tells me that ‘Our team of travel scientists have thought long and hard about your next holiday. Based on your past adventures, they think you have a passion for …’ shopping, monuments and culturally diverse food. Apparently, based on bookings I’ve made through them, they think I might like to endorse all sorts of places. Mostly, places I’ve never considered booking a hotel, like Dudley, Wolverhampton, Blackpool, and Stratford-upon-Avon. Plus one or two that I have stayed in because they have conferences (London) or airports (Birmingham, Manchester). And, of course, Bickenhill.

Bickenhill? Where the heck is that? Well, it turns out to be a place I’ve been to quite often without knowing it, since it’s close to the perimeter of Birmingham airport and has lots of hotels, one of which I’ve stayed in from time to time on my way to various exotic places. Usually for conferences. I can’t say I know Bickenhill, though, as all I’ve ever done there is commute between Birmingham International station, a hotel, and the airport. So I looked it up on Wikipedia to see what it says about the shopping, monuments and food. Apparently, it’s a very small village with nothing much to focus on apart from the Airport/NEC complex. The nearest thing to a mention of a monument  is the description of the runway lights attached to the steeple to avoid aeroplane collisions. I’ve no information regarding shopping or food, but presumably some of those hotels – or possibly all 19 – can supply those services.

So, travel scientists: what does that mean? The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge. But  this particular email is a classic example of totally erroneous conclusions based on an extraordinarily limited view of why people stay in hotels – the email mentions (apart from shopping, monuments and culturally diverse food) beach, sightseeing and relaxation – and doesn’t seem to take much account of little things like the location of the hotels. There’s knowledge, and there are random guesses.

I don’t think this is knowledge. It is a lot like the way practically every other company with a foot in the social media uses what data it’s able to gather to solicit more custom. And inexorably these companies are moving towards improving their targeting – a prospect that doesn’t necessarily fill me with joy, given that it’s also getting harder to escape the advertising – but they’re clearly not there yet.

I’m just wondering whether the use of ‘travel scientists’ is simple use of impressive buzzwords for marketing purposes, or an example of how easy it is for a company to believe its own hype.

In fact, the powers of the hidden persuaders are surprisingly limited, being based on generic interpretations of specific data. That is, targeted advertising makes broad assumptions about human behaviour based on previous behaviour. We do that all the time, of course, but consumer patterns are not so easily predicted and consumers are not so one-dimensional.

  • Days after I bought the laptop on which I’m writing this, I started receiving a persistent stream of ads from the same vendor for laptops, most of which are less highly-specified, so I’m certainly not in the market for a downgrade. Do they think I collect the things?
  • Every time I look at musical kit on one particular site, I know that ads for the kit I’ve been looking at will pop up on a dozen other sites that are dependent for their income on pushing sponsor ads.

Perhaps I need a pseudonym.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World