How bad was it, really?

Customer service expert David VanAmburg explains what happened to travel in 2020 — and why travelers were better off staying home

It may be an understatement to say 2020 wasn't the best year for travel. But how bad was it? Well, when the respected American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) releases its travel scores for 2020 tomorrow morning, we'll know the full extent of the carnage. I asked David VanAmburg, who runs the ACSI, for a preview. Here's our interview.

You've spent a lot of time talking to travelers this year. How was 2020 different from last year?

The biggest difference has been the impact of the pandemic. For example, less crowded flights mean a little better experience, while cuts in hotel staff mean less service. 

Generally speaking, how did airlines, hotels and car rental companies do?

It was a hard year for all travel industries, but some fared better than others. 

Airlines continued to show gradual improvements (up 1.3  percent), and the car rental industry — first measured in the Index earlier this year — maintained steady satisfaction. However, other industries felt the brunt of the impact, particularly hotels (down 2.6 percent) and internet travel sites (down 5.2 percent).

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Given that so few people were flying, shouldn't the airline industry's scores have been higher?

ACSI scores across industries like retail and restaurants have mostly declined since the start of the pandemic, so the fact that airline scores increased — by any margin — is impressive. 

The airline industry has been on an upward trajectory over the past couple of years, so the score of 76 (out of 100) is pretty high. Perceived value has skyrocketed, and seat comfort — historically the lowest-rated benchmark — is the most improved, rising 3 percent since March 2020. 

It was a banner year for airlines in terms of customer satisfaction despite the hand they were dealt. Even Southwest, which lost nearly 70 percent of its revenue, managed to take back the lead with a score of 80.

There was a lot of discussion about seat comfort in your latest report, which you allowed me to preview. For example, United Airlines improved its seat comfort more than any other airline, which led to some impressive gains in customer satisfaction. Can you talk about some of the seat improvements that airlines have made, and why they made them this year?

It’s not so much about airlines making improvements to the seats but rather efforts to socially distance passengers, by blocking off the middle seat for example, that created a more comfortable experience for passengers. Beyond seat comfort, passengers are also happy with mobile apps, which will continue to be a meaningful tech investment for airlines. 

So airlines didn't actually make their seats more comfortable?

They did not. The lower volume of passengers benefited passengers and raised customer satisfaction scores. We saw a similar jump just after 9/11. People were getting through the lines faster, they were getting seated faster, and the planes weren't as full. It was a better experience. There's nobody elbowing you on either side. That creates a higher level of customer satisfaction.

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For hotels, I was surprised that both staff courtesy and room quality scores slipped this year. You would assume that these scores would rise during the pandemic, as properties pay attention to room cleanliness and offer more attentive service. What's going on?

Just as hotels are more attentive to cleanliness, customers are too, and it appears the effort hasn’t met customer expectations. Those guests who have been comfortable going to hotels during the pandemic want more of a “home away from home” experience, and hotels haven’t been able to deliver on that, likely in part because of staff reductions.

Why the disparity between hotel and airline scores?

There's a difference between airlines and hotels. The airline gets you from point A to point B. But the hotel is where you are. So when they remove amenities and shut down the exercise room, people are not happy. That negatively alters the experience.

When it comes to customer service, do you get what you pay for at a chain hotel? As I look at your list, it sure seems that way.

Certainly, budget hotel chains are more bare-bones and score accordingly. Across every industry we measure this is the case; for example, Walmart, known for its low prices, scores at the bottom of the retail industry. 

You just started covering car rental companies this year. Were there any surprises for you when you took a look at that category?

Many customers delayed travel plans earlier in the year then took to the highways over the summer for road trips in lieu of flights. There was a boom in car rental reservations that corresponded with more vacations and less use of ride-hailing apps.

It’s no surprise that Enterprise — part of the largest rental car company in the world — takes top spot while low-cost brands Budget and Thrifty remain at the bottom. Two slight surprises come from Dollar, which spikes in satisfaction for vehicle cleanliness during a time of intense scrutiny, and Thrifty, which improves three percent overall despite being a budget rental company. 

With internet travel services, the scores really fell off a cliff. Was that all the pandemic, or is there more going on?

We can surmise most of the declines are due to the pandemic, which decimated online travel bookings. However, as major hotel chains prioritize direct bookings, there’s more competition for travel sites’ revenue generation. 

Was this just a travel problem?

No, we saw a similar drop with retail and grocery stores. This is happening across the board. Some people were waiting to get their orders on Amazon for weeks.

Based on this year's ACSI results, what kind of advice would you give to travelers looking for better service in 2021?

My advice is to be kind to the staff. It’s been a challenging year. And if there’s a real issue, then speak up nicely so staff are aware and can work to resolve it and make your experience better. Everyone, staff and customers alike, are generally trying their best under these difficult and unprecedented times!

Was this the year to stay home?

Yeah, definitely. Theme parks shut down. Vegas went dark — those are things we didn't even measure. If you had traveled, your flight would have maybe been a little better. But that's it. The pandemic put a very big dent in traveler satisfaction. I don't think there are a lot of Americans who say, "I wish I had traveled."

What's your outlook for next year?

It will depend on the vaccine, and how quickly we can return to normal — whatever normal means. I think we'll see a return to the higher levels of customer satisfaction that we've seen in the past, for hotels and internet travel. I think we'll see a dip in airline customer satisfaction. 

But 2021 will be better than 2020, in terms of customer satisfaction?

I certainly hope so.

What are your predictions for customer service in 2021? I’d love to get your thoughts in the comments. By the way, thanks for all your feedback on Sunday’s edition of Elliott Confidential. We had a record number of comments, most of which were very polite!

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