As the countdown to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rolls on, the inevitable speculation around its potential implications continues to make headlines.

Just last month, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) imposed tough fines on Flybe for contacting customers without their consent. It is therefore understandable that travel companies may feel anxious about how they will be able to communicate with their customers from May 2018, when GDPR comes into force.

Flybe was fined £70,000 for sending millions of marketing emails to customers who did not wish to receive them. This is a stark reminder that the ICO take issues around consent extremely seriously, and is prepared to issue tough sanctions for those who fail to abide by the rules. ICO head of enforcement, Steve Eckersley stated that Flybe “deliberately contacted people who have already opted out of emails from them” by asking if they wanted to update their preferences, which he stressed is still a form of marketing.

This reinforces the importance of obtaining consent, which refers to the permission given by an individual to allow the processing of their personal data. Without this authorisation, travel companies will not be able to contact their customers. Businesses across all sectors will need to be much more transparent in order to avoid tough penalties for non-compliance.

Draft guidance from the ICO indicates that pre-ticked opt-in boxes will no longer be sufficient. Companies will need to obtain unambiguous consent with active opt-in protocols, after first providing granular details on how their data will be used. Unlike the current rules, these consent requests cannot be buried in the terms and conditions pages or be a precondition of signing up to a service.

While GDPR will force many travel companies to rethink their marketing strategy, it will ultimately have positive implications for both operators and their customers. For businesses, it will result in a database of receptive and valuable customers. For consumers, new rules around consent will satisfy the mounting pressure for greater transparency and result in better service. Although the size of many marketing databases may decline, those people who willingly share their personal information will prove more beneficial to marketers than those who have been duped into giving permission. Today, many consumers recognise the value exchange in sharing this information in return for a tailored and personal service. Travel companies will be able to use information on customers’ favourite destinations, budgets and lifestyle to provide better customer service than ever before.

It is likely we’ll witness a positive correlation between the size of a company and the willingness of consumers to share their personal information. Household names are likely to face less of a struggle than those who are less well known or who have suffered damage to their reputation. Regardless of size or reputation, there are various provisions all travel operators can put in place to limit any negative effects of GDPR.

Implementing highly targeted marketing campaigns is likely to be the most effective place to start. These can be devised now, and put into practice in the next year to demonstrate the benefits of consenting in advance of GDPR implementation. Travel companies should segment their customer database into smaller groups of people based on their interests, favourite destinations and budgets. The information can then be used to devise personal offers, and ensure a relevant and appropriate stream of contact with customers.

In the long run, a more concise database consisting of customers who are receptive will be much more profitable than a larger selection of people who unknowingly consented. By implementing highly targeted campaigns, travel operators can demonstrate the value exchange in sharing information and build relationships with existing customers before GDPR comes into force. Whilst it may require a drastic change in approach, if navigated effectively this could be an extremely profitable time for travel companies.

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