From customer-friendly policies to thoughtful ways to welcome guests, the travel industry is discovering the power of small. (Jodi Jacobson/iStockphoto)

In the travel industry, little things can make a big difference.

The zipper on your suitcase, for example. Traditionally, airlines have excluded specific parts of checked baggage, such as wheels, straps, zippers, handles and protruding parts, when reimbursing travelers for damaged luggage.

Benito Leon, whose Kenneth Cole spinner was damaged on a flight from Anchorage to Dallas last summer, filed a claim with the airline, which insisted it didn’t cover damage to zippers.

“I was quoted this phrase three times,” says Leon, who lives in Miami. “ ‘American Airlines does not assume liability for damages caused to baggage zippers.’ ”

But late last year, the Department of Transportation formally clarified a federal regulation called 14 CFR 254.4. If an airline breaks any part of your bag — even if it’s sticking out — the carrier is on the hook for up to $3,500 per passenger.

Travelers (and, ahem, travel columnists) like to fixate on the big events, such as corporate mergers and congressional legislation. But often, the details that shape the customer experience are small, barely worth a mention in a story. From customer-friendly policies to thoughtful ways to welcome guests, the travel industry is discovering the power of small.

For example, every car rental company has a policy on late returns. If you’re a frequent traveler, like Linda Talley, you know that if you bring the car back past the deadline, you have to pay for an extra day. It’s how the policy is interpreted that matters.

“I like car rental companies that do have a grace period of, say, 15 minutes when returning cars,” says Talley, a behavioral theorist from Houston. Just a few minutes of looking the other way is sometimes enough to turn a late, frustrated customer into a happy one who is likely to return.

Car rental companies are also known to shuttle their VIPs directly to the airport terminal when they drop off their cars. But how do you define a VIP? Surely not someone like Austin Bliss, who runs a marketing firm in Boston and was traveling, under no special status, with his kids recently. But, as he discovered, their definition of “very important” has a little wiggle room.

“Instead of being told to ‘Walk over there and get on the bus,’ the check-in agent hopped in our rental car and drove us right to our gate,” he remembers. “It took probably 10 minutes of her time but saved us a ton of agony loading and unloading luggage, car seats and strollers.”

I’ve also experienced a VIP ride to the airport, a few years ago in Hawaii. It was completely unexpected. An employee saw my family and our baggage and decided to go the extra mile. It brought a smile to my face.

Many hotels now offer amenity kits for guests who leave their toothbrushes — one of the most common items travelers forget to pack — at home. These extras are unexpected and often unadvertised, but, time and again, travelers say they can make the difference between a good stay and a great one. (Kimpton hotels, take a bow. You offer anything a guest might leave at home, including a night light and superglue.)

Pat McBride, whose company provides design services to the hospitality industry, says hotels are trying to integrate that kind of spontaneous hospitality into their rooms. “We’re working with our clients on this idea of an in-room provisions package offering the items that a guest may not have thought to pack, like beach balls, sunglasses, sunscreen and headphones,” he says. After all, when you’re on vacation, the last thing you want to do is search for a place to buy sunscreen — or worse, do without it.

It seems even airlines are catching on to the power of small. Over Thanksgiving, for example, United Airlines served its passengers pumpkin cheesecake tarts from Chicago-based Eli’s Cheesecake Company. (That’s really good cheesecake, in case you’ve never had it.) Perhaps it contributed to United’s sky-high ratings on its internal customer service scores, which compares with an abysmal score for the same period in 2012, according to an airline spokesman.

United is not alone. In October, when Tracy Kurschner was flying from San Francisco back home to Minneapolis, a Delta Air Lines employee brought a basket filled with pretzels, peanuts and cookies to passengers waiting to collect their bags in the baggage claim area. “She was just walking around the carousel, greeting people, handing out treats,” says Kurschner, who works for a talent acquisition firm. “It was super awesome.”

Small gestures aren’t exactly new, as Scott Amyx of San Francisco notes. But more airlines appear to understand that small is big with their customers. “I love Korean Airlines because there’s a packet of goodies waiting for me on my seat,” he says. “They even offer disposable slippers, which psychologically makes me feel as though I am home.”

Of course, not every company has to wait to be asked, either by customers or by the government, to pay attention to the details. Shep Hyken, a customer service expert, recalls what happened after his daughter’s luggage was damaged on a recent Southwest Airlines flight.

“The handle had been pulled off,” Hyken remembers. “We walked into the baggage office, and they offered to replace the luggage with something similar on the spot. It was like they had a mini-showroom with different types of luggage. The Southwest employee said to pick out the one that matches what we had, and it was an even swap. No hassle, no friction. Just great customer service.”

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United.
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