TRUST in tourism: How to build and maintain consumer trust

May 30, 2019 - We are all familiar with trusted traveler programs that allow people to move quickly through airport security and immigration formalities. But what about trusted suppliers who build loyalty and relationships? Do they exist in an environment of stressful travel and rising expectations? Negative examples abound, of passengers being dragged off planes, guests being secretly filmed in hotel rooms and add-on charges proliferating like weeds. Incidents such as these have encouraged regulators to intervene and set minimum standards for service delivery and compensation.

Yet, it need not be so. At the same time as some brands appear to be in a race to the bottom, others are building and sustaining customer relationships and reaping the benefits of greater consumer trust.

Trust is vital to any business and the tourism industry is no different - especially when offering a service that is mostly discretionary and where price competition has surged with online shopping, where social media amplify and disseminate every negative experience and where once-trusted intermediaries are being replaced by technology.

It’s the trust that consumers have in a brand that is the key differentiator that makes or breaks a travel supplier. Recent scandals with high profile companies such as United Airlines, highlight the detrimental effect a lack of trust can have on a brand. Less obvious, however, are the brands that engender greater consumer loyalty, less price sensitivity and more positive word of mouth.

The Gustavson Brand Trust Index (GBTI) measures Canadian consumers’ opinions about corporate and product brands across 26 categories, including several travel and tourism-related ones: transportation providers, hotel chains, car rental firms, travel agents and restaurants. After receiving responses from over 7200 Canadian consumers in 2019, on 313 national brands, it has become clear that Canadian consumers closely link brand trust with consumer advocacy. Additionally, while trust in key institutions has eroded significantly over the past few years, the average brand trust score for all brands surveyed in the 2019 trust index has gone up compared to last year.

In this year’s trust index, the Hotels category came out as the top category with the Fairmont brand leading the way. In the transportation category, Via Rail surged ahead this year, while the large American airlines languished at the bottom. Car rental companies all scored in the bottom half of all brands, while travel agencies are found in the bottom quarter, and restaurants span the full range of trust scores.

As the most trusted tourism brand, Fairmont has a long history of scoring well on the GBTI. It finished this year as the sixth most trusted brand across all categories. Fairmont is consistently seen as a high-quality brand that respects the environment and treats its employees well. They’re known for honest communication, respect for data privacy and customer treatment. This is reflected in their scores in these categories where they finished first in each.

Brand trust is more important than ever as the marketplace continues to expand globally and transparency is on the rise. Where once you were only competing in a local market, increasingly you are competing with hundreds of brands worldwide and customers rank your every encounter. Ultimately, the brands that finish at the top of the GBTI rankings all have responsiveness, relevance, and authenticity in common.

These companies focus on people, not products and when they make a mistake, they are quick to acknowledge it in a way that feels genuine and real to consumers. 

Take MEC for example, after being called out for not having enough diversity in their ads, they won back consumer trust by making a public pledge to ensure the same mistake won’t happen again. 

For brands in the tourism industry looking to build and maintain consumer trust, it’s important to focus on the people, not the product.  No brand is ever going to get it right 100 percent of the time, particularly in a service business, and accepting responsibility for your brand’s mistakes is essential to moving forward.  Consumers are less forgiving of brands that are slow to admit their errors, deliberately try to mislead them or don’t provide appropriate solutions. 

Trust in the tourism industry is built on the phrase ‘seeing is believing.’  Consumers are unlikely to believe outlandish claims and expensive marketing unless they see that there is evidence to back it up.  They also expect more than good products and positive experience.  They want to feel that you are making a positive difference in the world, through your care of the environment, contributions to the community and treatment of employees.

 As a company, building trust requires a strong focus on one’s values, coupled with high regard for customers’ feelings and beliefs. Being especially mindful of the impact of each of your interactions with your customers will go a long way to building brand trust, and avoid adding to the list of brands that customers love to hate.

Saul Klein is Dean of the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria
Phone: (250) 721-6422