Ask The Expert: Travel Turnaround with TUI's Simon Baines

An interview with TUI's Head of CRM, Simon Baines

The travel industry has been hit hard in recent years. The global pandemic effectively shut down travel for almost two years, and recovery has been slow as cautious travelers start to return to the skies. Simon Baines, Head of CRM at TUI, has seen a lot of change in his five years at the travel giant, so we wanted to know all about what it’s been like to head up a CRM team for a busy travel brand in such turbulent times, and his tips for how travel brands can ensure their marketing messages take off with their customers.



You’ve got an amazing track record in CRM. How has CRM evolved during your time in the industry? 

I started working in CRM over 20 years ago when, in financial services, CRM was largely synonymous with direct mail, with significant print and postage costs and extended lead times to get messages to customers. At that time, my key focus areas were:

  • Creating automated direct mail campaigns to follow up on customer interactions and triggers in a timely way, so as to drive up response rates and ROI.
  • Delivering sales and service messages to the point of a customer’s interaction, whether that was in a store, contact center, or secure internet banking session. Why waste money on printing and posting if you could deliver the message for free and get much higher conversion?

Since then, the range of channels and devices has grown with SMS, email, and push channels, but there’s always so much more to do in terms of getting better data (made harder by product and channel proliferation), improving targeting, and message integration across the customer journey and channels.

In summary, the vision for CRM remains unchanged, but despite all the investment in data, campaign management systems, and channels, we’re all still some way from living the CRM dream!


"The key thing is to recruit people who are creative, resilient, and committed to delivering for customers."

Simon Baines, Head of CRM, TUI

Travel is an industry that is always facing adversity, whether it’s volcanoes, tropical storms, or macro-economic pressures. How does TUI prepare for the unexpected?

Hope for the best, plan for the worst and expect something in between! It’s hard to anticipate all the implications of situations that might arise, but it’s worth putting time into thinking through likely responses to a range of situations so as to identify the minimum capabilities required to get through.

For example, in the pandemic we needed to be able to rapidly pivot away from general marketing and sales communications, and towards dealing with the implications of large-scale cancelations. This meant that our rolling six-week planning cycle became more like six days to reflect the continuous changes to holidays. Fortunately, we’d already thought about the capabilities we’d need to be able to do this within the constraints of the marketing platform we were using. For example, we introduced unique single use codes as a way of sharing rebooking incentives with customers.

The key thing, though, is to recruit people who are creative, resilient, and committed to delivering for customers.

TUI incorporates a wide range of communication types to keep customers engaged with relevant content. How do you ensure the message matches the customer mindset?

At TUI, we’ve a good view of both customer and business communication priorities throughout the end-to-end “customer journey,” whether that’s inspiring people to search and book, preparing to go on holiday once booked, being on holiday, returning from holiday, etc.

Respecting the customer’s likely mindset at each stage is key, even if it’s not always possible to personalize the content as fully as we’d like. The important thing is getting the broad messaging and timing as aligned to customer needs as possible – for example, many customers may well only start thinking about buying foreign currency quite close to departure, so there’s little point focusing on this many months in advance. Even customers who aren’t interested in taking any currency feel it’s reasonable for us to mention this when we do as they can see the relevance.

You must have some fancy data wizardry going on – what key challenges did you overcome to identify the ideal customer targeting/segments?

We’ve invested in a great CRM system, and are using this to drive more and more revenue through marketing automations and operating more globally with standardized journeys to really scale what we do.

Being in the midst of a broader set of platform migration our data wizardry has slowed in some areas recently. The transformation will enable a leap forward, but we’re not there yet!

We have introduced more real-time and location-based marketing capabilities (e.g. pushing messages to customers when they arrive at the airport to remind them about our range of in-flight retail products).

We also have analytically powered recommendations based on purchase and search history, and are starting to scale these across our products and customer journey.

In my view, intelligent decisioning is a continuum that goes from data wizardry all the way down to simply not doing things that customers would perceive as being a bit stupid. I’ve always found that the fastest route to delivering real value from using data to drive communications is to start by focusing on cutting out the obviously inappropriate.

The challenge of not having all the data available in a new system forced us to prioritize what we’d need to be able to deliver adequately relevant messages, and to be creative with our creative to avoid disengaging people who we would ideally have targeted differently.

It’s important to note that big benefits in customer targeting don’t always require data wizardry. For example, a simple customer engagement segmentation could reduce send volumes by 30% while increasing traffic by 10%.

Using Phrasee to optimize subject lines is a great example of how we’re introducing powerful new capabilities to improve performance incrementally.


"Using Phrasee to optimize subject lines is a great example of how we’re introducing powerful new capabilities to improve performance incrementally."

Simon Baines, Head of CRM, TUI

Lastly, what do you predict for the future of email marketing? Are you adapting your email strategy for the changing times in any way?

Email will continue to be a very important channel, for many customers, for a long time to come.

As customers allow us to communicate with them across an ever-increasing set of channels, we’ll want to increasingly understand their preferences for what type of messages they’d like through which channels. Integrating email into an increasingly multi-channel conversation with customers will be key.

That said, we’ll also continue to make emails ever-more personalized and relevant for customers, because that’s what customers want, and it makes sense for us to give customers more of what they want and less of what they don’t. Phrasee is a good example of quickly learning what works and doing more of that!

Fascinating stuff – we need a vacation to digest all that! Thanks Simon!


Looking for more industry expertise?

Check out the rest of our Ask the Expert series.