A Venezuela Travel Warning and an Armored Car Primer

The US State Department issued a Venezuela travel warning on November 22, 2013. I rarely comment about these, but this one caught my attention since Venezuela is a short flight from CONUS and served by major US airlines including American, Delta and United. The US State Department offers a thorough description about the current risks to travelers in Venezuela – security managers and travel professionals should be familiar with it (Venezuela Travel Warning). The State Department requirement to use an armored car for travel in certain parts of the country or at night is what triggered this note.

Armored vehicles offer flexibility and options for travelers that conventional vehicles do not. Operational experience suggests business travelers employ low-profile vehicles – not up-armored Chevy Suburbans that Darth Vader would look comfortable in. Unfortunately the US State Department warning doesn’t direct readers to a source for these vehicles or provide advice about what you should look for when renting an armored car.

Corporate travelers need to blend in – and sophisticated executive protection companies with local knowledge and know-how can help you avoid trouble. Armored vehicles weigh much more than their stock peers so a professional driver is recommended. Local drivers are extremely valuable for their area knowledge and experience in different situations. They’re more likely to identify threats well before a traveler would, and they can use alternate routes with information your GPS doesn’t have. Finally, a driver provides a layer of indemnification and protectection from liability in case your vehicle is in an accident.

Traditional armored car manufacturers use steel plating and bullet-resistant glass to protect the people inside, while contemporarty construction replaces steel with polyethelene-based materials (Spectra and Dyneema are the most common – and are superior to Kevlar). A Spectra-enhanced vehicle is frequently 1,000 pounds lighter than the same vehicle protected from steel, so handling, acceleration and braking performance are much better. Unfortunately, duties and taxes on imported vehicles drive costs up and favor local manufactures who apply hardened steel. A $200,000 vehicle from industry-leader Texas Armoring would cost almost $400,000 in certain markets. You can check out http://www.texasarmoring.com/ for more information about their products and Spectra. Although Spectra vehicles are lighter, a trained driver is still a good idea; they can get the most out of any car through evasive driving techniques and features unavailable to the average driver.

A quick search and a phone call turned up diplomat armored rental as a source for vehicles in Caracas. See diplomatarmored.com to find cars available in many countries. They offer Chevy Suburbans, Ford Explorers and Toyota Prados (the Lexus GX460 platform) in Venezuela. Prices start from $1,500 per day and include an armed, high-security driver, trained to provide high-risk protection and drive a heavy, steel-plated vehicle. Diplomat Armored Rentals provide significant value to their customers. Plan ahead and be alert when you travel, don’t allow signs with your name on them at the airport, and insist on details about the car, the armor, the driver’s training, credentials, and a photograph before your introduction on arrival.

Featured Risk Management Travel Management

How Great Airlines Treat VIP’s

Several months ago a friend asked me to create a framework for a major airline’s Entertainment Desk to service Los Angeles-based movie studios and television networks. I had a few ideas – but first the background:

Transcon: The JFK<>LAX market is the most important air market in North America. Five airlines carry >11,000 passengers between these cities each day and host celebrities, bankers, tourists and high net worth travelers on sixty-four non-stop departures (thirty-two per airport). American dominates the market with the largest aircraft and highest frequency. They operate ageing twin-aisle 767-200’s with a three-class configuration and International Flagship Service. United caters to the same crowd and operates with more efficient three-class 757’s, while Delta, Jetblue and Virgin America offer two cabins on a mix of 737’s/A320’s.

Historically movie studio’s and other entertainment customers selected American or United as their primary carrier in this market since creative talent and executives are allowed to fly in the forward cabin (why pick a two-class aircraft when three-class is offered?) These corporate customers routinely achieved >90% share in the transcon market. More recently, Delta enhanced their two-class product to include a lie-flat International business-class seat and increased to seven daily frequencies while United pulled back to six. This competitive action has re-ordered the Transcon marketplace and Studio travel managers tell me that travelers prefer Delta’s Premium cabin to AA’s out-dated 767’s and United 757’s.

Delta’s progress may slow soon. United is rolling out a new product now, while American announced new three-class A321’s will roll out in January 2014, to replace their current product. This upgrade includes lie-flat seats in first and business-class. JetBlue also jumped-in and plans to launch A321 service in 2Q ’14, that will include private pods in first-class. Before it’s even started, 2014 is shaping up to be a disruptive year for the Transcon market.

The Desk: Superior airlines also compete on the ground and offer services tailored to their best customers. The Entertainment Desk is dedicated to a very specific group of clients, and should make a market in first-class seats between New York, London, Miami, and Los Angeles or offer access to private jets where feasible. The desk exists to expedite difficult and unusual requests. The Entertainment Manager facilitates requests to seat Talent, their Agents, Studio or Network Management, Publicists and others with the Talent – or create a plausible denial when discretion requires it. This function is not a discount mechanism to clear waitlists and upgrades – Airlines must offer a high-touch, guaranteed service.

Winning airlines create hope during every crisis – airlines should move mountains to support their customers. Clients should believe their Airline’s Entertainment Team will do everything possible to fix the problem or propose alternatives that will improve it materially. This group is not motivated by money or cost – service matters. The George Lucas expression – “do or do not, there is no try” applies. An Entertainment Desk is an airline’s service ER. Employees must be able to reach into a PNR to grab a torn artery – when the Entertainment Desk calls premium services at LAX, JFK, MIA or LHR, the response should not be, “Who is this?” Rather, “What can I do for you RIGHT NOW?”

Examples: Airline’s will solve requests like this on a daily basis: NBC called since Alec Baldwin’s Assistant booked late and needs the seat right next to him for his publicist or agent. The Entertainment team will call Sony, or Paramount or Fox, or AMEX or the owner of that seat to get it done – or suggest moving both of them to a pair of seats that are available. Great airlines block First-class in the transcon market one week each May to allow studios to grab space to attend the “Upfronts.” They empower their team. No one should recite policies designed for 99% of the 250K travelers you handle every day. Accept that these are special customers and start from that assumption. The team should be “accessible” 24/7 via cell and have GDS access from home. They’ll only receive 10-15 emergency, after-hours, calls per year… but it’s a gesture that sets winning airlines apart from their peers.

The Entertainment Manager must have an exceptional relationship with the airline’s premium service managers in LA, New York, London, Miami and Nashville, and should be known across your system and alliance – and that means they need to be included in global premium service meetings and updates when you have them. This person must be available at all times and have a back-up who can assign seats or clear space. Overbooking capabilities are recommended.

Entertainment Managers must be quick to challenge requests and propose alternatives when operational hurdles prevent the studio request from being granted as requested. A “customer focused” attitude should be real; once a carrier earns a customer’s trust and loyalty they will choose that vendor every time. In those rare cases when the carrier “burns” their customer – the most senior executive available should issue a mea culpa, in-person, and a offer a range of options to fix whatever it is they didn’t solve three days earlier.

Additional examples to work through now: On one flight the President of a network was removed to accommodate a Federal Air Marshal, while two subordinates, both top-tier frequent flyers were left on the flight. Revenue Management based their decision on the customer’s lack of a frequent flyer number. The customer didn’t have one for two reasons: 1. Security – to maintain anonymity; 2. She was authorized to fly private and rarely flew commercial  (the plane was not available that day). In this case the General Manager intervened and found a seat, but you can see how an airline’s policies are not designed around premium travelers in marginal cases. Airlines service customers who fly to NY Commercially, then to Miami by private jet, before they will discover that their MIA->LAX segment was cancelled because they no-showed the LGA->MIA flight. Great airlines step-up to fix it when a VIP is standing at the ticket-counter and flights are oversold all day.

This desk also makes “meet and greets” happen (not ‘space available’, they make it happen) and they treat airport assistance companies as valued partners. Great airlines speak in guarantees. This is hard for commercial airline managers to do, but it’s necessary to win. Great airlines are discrete – they don’t tolerate employees who call TMZ or tip-off the paparrazi. This desk can call flight ops and ask the Chief Pilot to introduce himself to the guest in 3A and to ask the VIP passenger if there’s anything they need. This desk says, “Sure, I’ll approve your oversize, outrageous pet in first-class (at the window), as long as the handler is seated next to it” No discount…this isn’t a discount desk – service focused. This person will need LHR to clear a closet in First Class on a 777 to accommodate the CEO’s spouse’s Cello. And you will need authority to offer 150,000 miles for an apology without advance approval.

Finally, I recommend a $100,000 TAC budget to invite agents and managers to take one or two trips annually to London or New York (and a thorough understanding of the Foreign Corrupt Services Act to keep you out of trouble). When offered a chance to show off your product – do. This isn’t a discount crowd, so treat them accordingly.

There’s more, but airlines that empower their teams with “authority and resources” to do anything the FAA, TSA, DOJ, and the DOT allow, to take care of their best customers, will have unlimited success.

Aviation Sales & Marketing Travel Management

Celebrating “Gus” Kaminski on Veterans’ Day

Robert Andrew “Gus” Kaminski, US Navy SEAL, and Commander of the US NAVY Leapfrogs.

I knew Gus and many of you saw him in action – an anonymous actor who jumped into a stadium or super-speedway to launch a great event. I was very sorry to hear that he passed away.

Gus was Alpha-500, my battle-buddy at Airborne school. We met in September, 1995, right before I moved to Korea. I was Alpha-501, the second senior student by date of rank. Gus had graduated from the Naval Academy the year before and had just finished his SEAL training. He needed to complete the Army’s basic airborne course before assignment to his first operational team.

Gus was a character – and he knew it. He had a highly developed sense of humor and perfect timing. Gus was also a physical specimen. He could do fifty consecutive one-armed pull-ups. This brought a lot of pain for me. Gus would mouth off to the Blackhats (Airborne Instructors) regularly so the rest of us spent a lot of time in the front-leaning-rest to pay for his sins. I remember vividly that my face hurt from laughing more than my arms did.

He led the way, but wasn’t the only one who would rib our instructors. Anytime Gus would take a break, Second Lieutenant Pendergast, from the Oregon National Guard, Alpha-503, and a recent Ranger school graduate, would shout, “I’d rather be a Leg-Ranger than a Tabless Airborne!” This insulted our Blackhats who would tear into a rage every time Pendergast said it.

We were bruised, tired, and happy in the 100 degree heat – Hurricane Opel had just trashed Fort Benning and we were covered in Georgia sand, pine needles, tics, sweat, dust, and god knows what else. Gus wasn’t even winded when he started yelling – “You can’t smoke a rock”. That got ‘em fired up again – I was between the two of them trying to get air between laughing and doing pushups. Now it’s my turn so the Blackhats are yelling at me (for laughing). Apparently I wasn’t taking my Airborne training seriously, that’s when Gus changed his tune again to “You can’t smoke a quitter.”

I was living through a moment I knew I would remember forever. Unbelievably I followed him out the door on his first jump. Kaminski is still the toughest guy I’ve ever known and one of the happiest. Although we never spoke again I enjoyed knowing him – and I’m confident there’s an entire country that will miss Gus. You can learn more here.

Aviation Coaching

Rajasthan and the Taj Mahal

Several hours West of Delhi, Jaipur is situated along a trade route between Asia and Persia and is an important stop – and history proves it. In Jaipur I toured the Amer Fort, after riding up the hill on an elephant, and walked around the Jaipur City Palace, and the amazing observatory at Jantar Mantar; we viewed the Jal Mahal (the Water Palace), and the Hawa Mahal (the Wind Palace). I could see the Jaigarh Fort, but didn’t have time to explore it. My guide introduced me to a local craft center where I was compelled to listen to a series of well-rehearsed sales pitches for rugs and other local goods (it was a terrific break – the artists were extremely talented and the building had aggressive air conditioning). At one point a very serious man said, “these Pashminas are not common goats!” I almost laughed out loud at his lecture. He explained how fine the shaved wool was from the legs, chin and thigh… I couldn’t tell what kind of animal it was from, but he cared deeply and was really excited about teaching me as much as he could in the few minutes we had together.

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Predictably I was challenged to purchase a truck load of rugs and paintings to send to my absent wife. I reminded them that Ghandi carried everything he needed in his head and that I came to India to take memories home; I also worked-in an expression that proved effective, “Maybe someday, but not today.” That evening I walked around the old city and found jewelry makers working on gold and silver bracelets down numerous back alleys – a few answered my questions and showed me what they were working on. Jaipur is a fascinating city; it’s history and architecture rival the richest sites in the world.

Jewelry maker

On to Jodhpur and the Mehrangarh Fort, a massive hilltop fortress in the middle of the Western desert, surrounded by blue buildings. Construction started in 1459, but the most visible portions were completed by 1678, and the most famous gate – Victory Gate was constructed in 1806 by Maharaja Man Singh to celebrate a victory over Jaipur. These cities are only a few hundred miles apart but waged war for centuries. The palace and surroundings, like most I visited in India, are stunning, and dominated by the Islamic architecture introduced by the Mughal emperors who reigned from 1526 to 1857. The Air Force base in Johdpur carried-on the finest local tradition and featured the wreckage of a Pakistani Mig they had shot down earlier – prominently displayed at their main gate. Jodhpur has a noticeable military presence positioned to counter threats from their neighbor, Pakistan, and our progress was held-up several times while we navigated around various convoys.

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Jodpur

I departed Jodhpur and traveled East again to Kishangarh and Roopangarh Fort, built on high ground North of the city. I was the only guest and had the run of the palace. I found a picture of Prince Charles from a visit he made years earlier, and during that exploration I also discovered that a staff member was assigned to turn lights on before I entered rooms, and extinguish them when I left. Just before dinner, and a highlight during the trip, I watched the sunset from the highest point on the palace – the wind blew so hard it drowned out every other sound, and bats left the fort for the night while the entire city lit cooking fires and each home turned on a single lightbulb.

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In the morning we left Rajasthan and continued East into the State of Uttar Pradesh and the city of Agra – famous for the Taj Mahal. During a drive that passed through marble quarries and endless desert, Mahendra commented on one particular town, “very filthy, dirty place…Muslims.” To my untrained eye it looked like any other Indian village constructed on a thousand year old trash pile, full of animals and open sewers. I wondered at the irony of a Hindu earning his living by dragging a Western tourist to heritage sites built by Muslim Maharajas. About twenty minutes later I witnessed my first two-legged highway fatality and the excited crowd that formed out of nowhere. We didn’t need to stop and continued on in silence and I thought about the complicated relationships among India’s people.

Next up, two planned stops at nearby World Heritage Sites before settling in at the Taj Hotel in Agra. The Fatephur Sikri was first; my young guide convinced me to ride an empty tour bus, dismissed my objections and reassured me that it was too far to walk and I would be comfortable. Within five minutes I was trapped behind a human wall a hundred people deep who loaded on before I could ditch the bus. Naturally, once it was full, we waited another three minutes to double the crowd again. The bus groaned up the hill as I jealously watched a group of German tourists enjoying their quarter-mile walk to the front gate. When I rejoined my guide he suggested I give him money to pay the guards so I could make a pit stop before starting our tour. Ha! No, I would not pay to urinate in a country that defecates in public. We parted ways on the spot and I walked around the entire site and took pictures of ruins, trash piles and junkies. It was very rewarding…  Slowly and by day my ignorance evaporated.

The Fatephur Sikri is an enormous site on hundreds of acres. It’s a beautiful place, full of fountains, pools, waterfalls and ornately carved brick and huge domes and arched ceilings. Everyone knows about the Taj Mahal, but there are palaces that took longer to build and cost more that few people know exist. India is amazing.

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Ruins

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Next up – Agra Fort at sunset – an incredible Mughal fortress with views of the Taj Mahal. The palace and grounds were impressive. Especially the symmetrical gardens, stone lattice carvings, running water and fountains. Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal are difficult to describe in words. Even before my close encounter with the Taj Mahal it was obvious why my India-Coach insisted that I visit other cities first. Paint and brick are beautiful, but they’re black and white movies to the 3-D Digital Color created by flourescent marble inlays and gemstones that decorate the Taj Mahal. I was off to my hotel and then a predawn tour at the Taj Mahal the next morning.

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Stunning. I viewed many Mughal Palaces and Fort’s during my ten day visit, but the Taj Mahal is breathtaking. Seeing it from different angles at the first morning light was exciting.

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Somehow that night I managed to get home in First-Class on American Airlines’ Boeing 777-200 service from Delhi to Chicago. It was nice to catch up on my sleep and reflect on the previous two weeks; International Flagship Service was a fitting end to days spent wandering around Royal stomping grounds.

Trip Reports

Trip Planning For India

Planning your next adventure? Consider these suggestions and best practices before you leave home, and let me know if you have other ideas I should add to this list.

  1. Negotiate all itineraries, fees and prices upfront.
  2. Demand no add-on’s while touring (you should have control over every place your guide will take you and your time-line; this includes planned restaurant stops).
  3. Always have a copy of every confirmation number, hotel address and phone number. You will need it at some point. Paper beats digital in most places, especially India.
  4. Insist that your tour company provide a bio and photo of your driver and every guide before you arrive. You will have a much better experience if you use mature, experienced local guides. Veteran guides are more likely to have a good relationship with the Army or Police guarding historical sites and may be able to get you access to areas and features that are off-limits to the general public or help you navigate through heavy crowds quickly via staff entrances or other secured areas.
  5. Always carry 2X more local currency than you think you will need.
  6. Always make change from big bills into useable denominations at your hotel – never change large bills at street vendors or other locations.
  7. Insist that your driver keep doors locked, and leaves separation from the cars ahead of you in traffic and at stops.
  8. Sit behind and opposite your driver. You must be able to make eye-contact with him while riding together. And always wear a seatbelt.
  9. Keep medicine (aspirin, visine, chapstick)/glasses/socks/earplugs/sunscreen/insect repellent/sunglasses/iphone charger/spare headphones/extra pens in your personal bag.
  10. Never take physical keys from a hotel off property – leave them with the hotel staff when you leave. Consider leaving a note for yourself that includes where you’re going, who you will meet and when you plan to return.
  11. Assume insects are harmful – don’t let them bite you. Use insecticide and wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  12. Always ask hotel/restaurant staff to provide mosquito coils if you’re dining outside.
  13. Do not use deodorant and if you must, use a fragrant-free version. This will reduce your attractiveness to many insects.
  14. Stay dry.
  15. Cover open cuts.
  16. Do not drink anything that was not opened in front of you or boiled. Wipe or rinse bottle tops before opening.
  17. Arrange your room to make a clear path to your door in case of darkness/power loss.
  18. Stay hydrated/rested and avoid heavy alcohol consumption.
  19. Be polite, but firm.
  20. Do not accept drinks from strangers.
  21. Do not wear jewelry, fancy watches, etc.
  22. Never have both hands full.
  23. Be aware of your surroundings.
  24. Women should not travel alone.
  25. Women should never use public transportation.
  26. Always keep two extra water bottles with you for emergencies – buy more when you get down to the last two.
  27. If you’re approached by a stranger, expect them to have a partner. It’s not usually the person who approaches you first who is your greatest threat.
  28. Do not spread out your belongings in your hotel or vehicle. Keep your belongings organized and packed as much as possible in case you need to make a fast exit. Additionally – when you keep your room neat and organized, you’re making it easier on the hotel staff to make up your room. They’ll reciprocate – it’s especially helpful when you forget an item and leave it in your room – they’re much more likely to “find” it.
  29. Don’t fall in love with anything you own – be prepared to leave it behind.
  30. Keep immodium accessible (you’ll know when you need it, and when you do speed will make a difference).
  31. Share the same safe combination with your group – someone else may need you to collect your valuables for you.
  32. Carry several “chip clips” in your luggage to keep stubborn drapes closed in your hotel room, or to hang wet laundry.
  33. Never keep all your cash, ID’s, and Credit Cards in the same pocket. Use multiple pockets and spread things around.
  34. Never store your full data cards with your camera, put them somewhere else (but never in checked luggage).
  35. Pack using 1 gallon Ziploc bags. They’re great for all kinds of things, and water-proof.
  36. Carry a number 2 kit: Toilet paper (1 roll); wet wipes (1 pack); baby powder (1 10oz container) – keep it in a single 1 gallon Ziploc bag.
  37. Stow your overhead luggage across the aisle from your seat, where you can see it.
  38. Never set anything down at airports, taxi stands, train stations that isn’t between your legs.
Risk Management Travel Management

Delhi India – A Journey Through Time

There is no greater expression of freedom than to cross borders and visit countries, cities and places for the first time. It’s more productive to learn about property rights, court systems, infrastructure, tax authorities and other systems that define modern life around the world as you pass through it. How does a country pay for school, medical care and retirement? I have always approached travel with a sense of adventure and wonderment and these are fun topics to bring up with locals and other travelers during my trips.

As an Army Platoon Leader security and sanitation were pounded into my head. You could not achieve one without the other and they are both critical to a high quality, sustainable existence. That experience taught me that developed countries must have frequent, consistent garbage removal, clean water, and steady electricity. Without any one of those three, other systems fail and the community cannot compete globally.

During trips to Europe, South America and Asia I would ask people about the most unusual places they’ve visited? The most out-of-the-ordinary, different experience? I kept hearing – “Oh – if you’re looking for different, go to India.” So I did. And it exceeded my expectations in every way. I lived in South Korea eight years after the 1988 Olympics. Infrastructure was defined as “pre” or post-Olympics. The entire country was dominated by three things: craggy mountains, concrete high-rises, and rice patties. South Korea advanced rapidly leading up to the Olympics and into the present day. It is a modern country (even with occasional ox-carts, honey-dippers, and other features from Korea’s past). Not so with India.

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India isn’t a country so much a collection of States – each with their own identity, languages, customs, traditions, and governments. British Colonial rule established the framework for present-day India, but the British couldn’t conceal India’s identity.

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Indians suggest that you spend months in India to experience the real place; as an experienced traveler I concede that it would take weeks to experience the whole place, but few visitors have that much time. My trip was an exploration into the Western desert in the North, to Rajasthan. Rajasthan is the place Steven Spielberg must have used as inspiration for Indiana Jones; you’ll feel like you stepped into a movie as soon as you leave the airport in New Delhi. The ride to my hotel was incredible – what do you get when you cross a traffic jam with a zoo? Camels, elephants, cows, monkeys, rickshaws, and a huge assortment of cars, trucks, tractors and buses merged together without any thought about lane markings or traffic rules.

Intersection in Delhi

Delhi is complicated – I was amazed by the care and expense that went into building monuments and government offices, but disappointed by how neglected they were. On my first day I walked past countless embassies and around the government buildings until I reached India Gate. It was a long walk, but I enjoyed taking in details that I would have missed from a car. Everyone I met seemed friendly. I stopped to watch kids playing cricket and even spotted a young girl riding a ten-speed bike that was way too big for her. She rode with her legs straddled between the lower frame bar and held the top bar against her side while she peddled. That was the only picture I regret not taking.

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Delhi Spice Market

My tired feet forced me to ride the subway from Connaught Circle to Jama Masjid where I was hijacked by more than one unscrupulous rickshaw driver. The cabs weren’t much better, but it beat walking. It’s worth warning that if you’re on foot, watch out for people on scooters and motorcycles who make it a sport to hit you with their handlebars or mirrors – you must be alert; I enjoyed playing along like a clueless pedestrian and would step out of the way a second before they passed me.

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In Delhi I recommend visiting the Red Fort and Jama Masjid along with the Delhi spice market. They are very close together and easy to see in two or three hours. In the afternoon I enjoyed seeing the home were Ghandi spent his last days, and Muyaman’s Tomb and the Lotus Temple. There are few places where you can visit multiple World Heritage Sites in one day, but India is full of them. After spending the first two days exploring Delhi – New and Old before I was ready to go West with my driver, Mahendra.

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He was equipped with a ubiquitous white Toyota crossover (half station wagon, half mini-suv) with blue pin-stripes that marked it as a tourist car – the paint job acted like a glow-in-the-dark target that attracted offers for every imaginable product. Guests are expected to ride in the back, but I moved to the front seat to improve my view and quickly learned how to snap pictures on the go – there’s so much craziness to see! I was amused to learn that every State requires drivers to pay a road tax once every month in person when they cross into the territory. Since my visit straddled two months I enjoyed people-watching from the highway tax office parking lots at every border. India gives the Griswold’s a run for their money.

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Back on the road the next adventure would always appear in the distance. This one caught Mahendra’s attention and he quipped, “so dangerous”. I agreed, but you’ll soon discover that people adapt to their situation and surroundings very well. I caught myself repeating “welcome to India” as a mantra for every unexpected scene…and I said it a lot.

Dangerous

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The unvarnished truth – India is a difficult place to visit and more difficult to navigate, but it’s full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and rewards patience, tolerance and mild discomfort. Once I linked-up with my driver many problems were solved. Mahendra drove the car, and coordinated with local, English-speaking guides, who met us at local landmarks, and then give me a guided tour for the day. I had mixed experiences with the guides but developed a rule of thumb that seemed to hold up throughout the trip. Guides belonged in one of two groups – either older men who spent their entire lives as guides and made a good living at it, or younger men, college aged, who used it for fast cash from a summer job. The problem with the later group was their propensity to manufacture history on the fly that contradicted the three guide books I reviewed every evening, but it took a bad one to really appreciate how knowledgeable and professional India’s experienced guides are.

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Over the next week we drove more than a thousand miles during twenty-five hours on the road and visited many incredible places and met unforgettable people.

Trip Reports

Measuring Web Site Quality With Net Promoter Scores

Mike Premo, ARC’s President, gave a presentation during the CTDA conference in Lake Las Vegas last week. Mike showed us how ARC has turned to the Satmetrix Net Promoter Score to measure their performance. It turns out ARC’s score is a 70 – which basically means a lot of their customers are raving fans. See more about other companies’ scores here.

The Satmetrix Net Promoter Score is gaining traction as a way for retailers to measure key performance indicators that lead to increased profitability. I like it because it’s simple and offers powerful insights about your company’s performance. Keeping in mind the profit equation is profit = revenue – costs, then NPS can help.

NPS

Let’s look at the online retail world where site bugs can have an outsized impact on NPS, but are difficult to quantify in other ways. Bugs lower revenue. When they affect a Website’s shopping or check-out paths their impact will show up initially as lower conversion rates and higher bounce rates. Fatal errors and other bugs that annoy customers to the point they shop elsewhere will also reduce visitor numbers to your site over time. Since it’s difficult to measure this effect it’s easy to ignore. Online Travel Agencies (OTA’s) face another problem – interactions across different lines of business. Visitors who start their search for a particular product, flights, may end up purchasing a hotel or package (usually flight plus hotel).

For this discussion the site architecture for flights, hotels, packages and cruises is designed as discrete shopping paths with a bespoke checkout process that ties into consolidated back office accounting and reporting systems. Great online marketers design intuitive paths that minimize customer frustration, but bugs can undermine every designers’ best efforts. Customers will tolerate errors in their own way and may forgive slow response times but bounce when an ad flashes at them. Once the customer chooses a product, an error during checkout, or a price jump (we’re talking about travel here) can drive customers away before the transaction is complete and these problems add up. How much do bugs cost?

Most Web sites track numerous statistics and site performance metrics to uncover friction points or areas to improve, but these reports often miss interactions across paths or temporal changes. I’ll set up an example and describe several assumptions to show you how. For simple math, let’s assume that Hotel and Flights each drive 40% of an Online Travel Agency’s site traffic, while Packages and Cruises account for another 10% apiece. There are many use cases, but most leisure travelers who are flexible about their destination and timing will search for flights fist, and then hotels. This experience suggests that the ratio of flight searches to completed checkouts is higher than it will be for Hotels. Moreover, once a customer settles on a specific flight, they’re able to begin shopping for a hotel. But what if the customer experienced a major bug during checkout? They’ll leave the site and never become a hotel shopper. In this case the poor experience with the flight path caused the customer to search another OTA and they never showed up as a visitor in the hotel path.

Bugs are typically rated by their frequency, severity and location in the purchase path. Frequent, severe bugs that occur during payment have the greatest effect on financial performance since the customer was extremely likely to complete their transaction. Digging deeper you’ll find a second layer that’s often missed too, since the customer has already invested a lot of effort in the process, they are more likely to bolt later in the path to avoid finding the same bug the next time around. Sharp marketers must estimate this behavior to gain better visibility over a particular bug’s impact. Managers who identify a bug that occurs during 1% of visits when typical conversion is 100% would incorrectly assume that the bug will lower conversion by the same amount. That’s wrong from the start if, as most travel sites know, buyers visit to shop many times before they make their purchase, so errors in early parts of the path that frustrate visitors and interfere with shopping will drive shoppers away and site visitors will decline over time, thus conversion rates may decline by 1%, but shoppers may decline 10% too, which would compound the losses and be indistinguishable from other problems.You might spot this by tracking changes in the ratio of new visitors to returning visitors but this metric is affected by new browser and device releases and doesn’t provide the detail you need.

In the previous example as one line of business drives a customer away permanently, than visitor numbers in the other lines of business will experience a steady decline. Once again the bug’s effects are invisible in the conversion rates throughout the checkout path, and it will be unclear why direct visitors and returning visitors have declined. The OTA will need to spend more on paid search to drive ever more new customers to their leaky bucket.

This thought exercise demonstrates that it’s important to measure bugs across the enterprise and the Site’s 1-N list should be discussed widely and in the context of corporate strategies about staffing, and marketing spend. The Net Promoter Score can rescue Travel Agencies from internal bug lists and give you actionable intelligence about the ways you might be preventing sales. NPS is independent from the hidden correlations and mountains of data that overwhelm online marketers and site-health professionals each day. Fix the biggest problems and watch your revenues and profit climb.

For more information about these topics check out Avinash Kaushik on twitter @avinash Author, Web Analytics 2.0 & Web Analytics: An Hour A Day | Digital Marketing Evangelist, Google | Co-Founder, Market Motive; Bryan Eisenberg @TheGrok, Marketing Optimization & use the Data expert (small or big data), keynote speaker & New York Times best selling author. Austin, TX  bryaneisenberg.com; and great dashboard ideas: Juice, Inc. @JuiceAnalytics “We craft applications that help people understand and act on data.” Reston, VA · juiceanalytics.com

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