Design Thinking for the travel industry

Beyond the jargon lies a fundamental human capacity

Design Thinking has been the talk of the town over the past few years. A keyword that I’ve exploited to attract your attention. Now that you’re here, let me indulge in a small story.

Empathy — delighting users since time immemorial

We were holidaying in Sikkim, and were on our way to Darjeeling. After ensuring our bags were loaded, we hopped aboard the SUV and were greeted by a rock star.

“My name is Mahesh,” he announced in a jovial voice as soon as he closed his door. He had a small goatee and wore an earring. His black leather jacket and slim fit jeans completed his look.

“So you’re headed to Darjeeling, eh? How was Gangtok?” His laid back manner appeared as if he had known us for a long time. And we eased into a conversation without any hesitation.

“It’s absolutely beautiful! So much to see. So clean. And people are so friendly. We’re already planning our next trip here!”

“Yes, I love Gangtok,” said Mahesh. “I love coming here. You’ll see a huge difference between Gangtok and Darjeeling. That’s such a dirty place.”

We chatted along the way, till the urban landscape dwindled away. Beside the road, a shallow stream accompanied us, riding on a bed of hundreds of smooth pebbles. The green hills all around were lifting their misty veils. We had got used to the natural beauty of Sikkim by now, but it appeared that there was no way for us to document it through the windows of a moving vehicle.

As if reading our minds, Mahesh slowed down.

“You can take the picture now!”

Mahesh asked us to soak in the view and take our time — something, that we later realized, no one had said throughout any of our road trips.

See, I want you to take as many pictures as you can. I want, that when you go home and you see these pictures, you will remember me!

Okay, so what does this have to do with Design Thinking?

Throughout our holiday, we traveled with many drivers, some for transfers, and some for sightseeing. As a driver, Mahesh was just like every one else. Every driver we traveled with, was equally skilled in navigating the rough terrain and guiding us to tourist spots. The difference was that while everyone took us from point A to point B, Mahesh cared about our experience while we were traveling. While some drivers kept calling us to hurry up so that we could complete the itinerary, Mahesh told us to soak in the atmosphere and take our time.

There is plenty of hype about Design Thinking, and companies running every which way to train their employees in the methodology and its tools — and that’s a great thing. But at its core, Design Thinking starts with an emotional connect with the end customer. Without this mindset in all aspects of conducting a business, all the tools and methodologies are just jargon that consulting companies will sell and rip you off. What’s critical is that this emotional connect — call it human centricity or empathy — must permeate throughout the organization to the very last mile — especially to the last mile.

Bah! Humbug! I’m in the B2B space

Having worked within the travel industry, one thing that I observed was that it thrives on partnerships for pretty much everything — transportation, accommodation, sightseeing, recreational activities etc. Customers book their tours with one agency, and interact with other agencies who fulfill the itineraries.

Servicing the end customer may not be your job, but if your partner doesn’t, you lose the customer.

Collaborating with other stakeholders and sensitizing them to the importance of ensuring that the customer has, at the very least, a neutral experience, if not a delightful one, is perhaps most crucial for the B2B travel ecosystem.

The ecosystem?

Let me share another story…

We had left Darjeeling to spend a day in Kalimpong. It seemed like our driver didn’t want to drive and tried to talk us out of visiting an old monastery by saying that all monasteries looked the same! We got him to take us there, albeit grudgingly, by arguing that it was included in our itinerary, and no, they weren’t all the same to us.

As we were making our way to the hotel after completing our sightseeing, I noticed a sign board.

“Hill top!” I squealed with delight. “That is where my grandfather used to live! Could we stop for a few minutes, please. I just want to have a look at that house.” The light was fading fast, and we had to leave the next day. If we had a shot at laying our eyes on the old house I had heard so much about, this was it. “That’s not part of the package!” retorted the driver and continued onward.

That’s not part of the package. It was simple, and as inconsequential to him, as that. But to me, those words stung. It took a while to get over it, and we both vowed never to take packaged tours after that.

It’s been close to two years since our vow and we’ve traveled quite a bit since. Yes, we remember Mahesh fondly, even without looking at the pictures. But our subsequent travels have been planned and arranged by us, and we’re super happy with it.

So how do you (and your partners) treat your customers?


Adapted from a story published on my blog, Musings of an Eccentric Mind.

The author is a consulting designer & design thinking facilitator with Ideafarms. An avid storyteller, she enjoys connecting disparate dots to create evocative stories.