Companies in the travel industry are a model of digital innovation and of providing an experience rather than just a product.

Travel is in the middle of a massive arms race. No longer is it enough to get customers to their destination or into a hotel room, even with a strong rewards program. Now, airlines like Delta, Virgin, and JetBlue are stacking their arsenal with free Wi-Fi on flights, consumer and enterprise apps, and bring-your-own-screen programs. Meanwhile, hotels are experimenting with beacon technology, pick-your-own-room options, and mobile keys — some brands like Starwood are even creating dedicated innovation labs to come up with more exciting campaigns and services.

The travel industry is demonstrating how to take a product — a seat on a plane or a bed in a room — and turn it into an experience. The pains of scheduling and organizing travel plans are a common barrier for all customers, regardless of price, and the travel industry knows it.

That’s why major companies are embracing digital tools to streamline their entire customer journey. Airlines are continuously revamping the experience of flying, from the first search for available flights, to the final deboarding. By the same token, hotels are using apps and helpful web services to streamline the booking and check-in processes, as well as improving room layout. Marriott is including tiles with radio transmitters in them that light up the path to the bathroom at night to prevent stumbles.

What Makes Travel Tops

This kind of digital innovation is deeply embedded at every level of these organizations. They optimize customer experience, operations, and innovation by utilizing digital at every step of the way.

Many companies, however, tend to delegate everything that relates to “digital” and “digital initiatives” to the marketing department. This phenomenon becomes obvious when you look at basically any company’s PR activity — most marketing departments already use digital in the barest sense through website development, advertising, and the occasional initiative. All of this, though, merely pushes a product, not an experience.

Although great digital innovations can come out of marketing initiatives, it’s more often a happy coincidence than a planned maneuver. The marketing mindset still focuses on the four Ps: Product, Promotion, Placement, and Pricing. While this perspective might spark a great idea or two, it’s not a framework built create company-wide advancements.

Digital and a Business’s DNA

As companies face more attacks from new disruptors, evolving the product into an experience has become more important than pushing the product itself. Basically, the original product becomes less important than the experience of the product from start to finish. Companies with digital infused into their DNA will always provide better, more seamless customer journeys.

Infusing digital, though, happens at a specific threshold. New organizational systems and tools tend to make company operations too complex, as multiple departments start to rely on digital to complete their daily tasks. The cost of running ad-hoc digital initiatives becomes more expensive than the investment you would put in a digital team, making it that much harder for the company to differentiate itself from the competition.

To take digital from merely a series of interstitial events to its own revolutionary department, it needs a leader. A strong digital leader will be able to evaluate its impact cross-departmentally, establishing competitive benchmarks, instituting new practices, and providing a fresh perspective on digital initiatives. Without someone with vision, experience, and skill leading the efforts of digital-specific initiatives across all departments, company-wide digital integration would be no better off than it was when it was left up to marketing.

With its own department, digital can be unleashed to improve other aspects of your business like end-to-end digital experience, or enabling company-wide innovation. While an Innovation Lab devoted to revolutionizing hospitality might not be attainable at first, finding the right people to inject digital into your organization’s DNA is an easy first step.