Holiday industry pundits have been predicting the flight of tourists from high-street travel agents to online booking for years. And according to an eMarketer report published only last June, UK consumers’ Web-based travel expenditure was set to grow to £18.4bn by the end of last year, up almost 12% on 2012. The report further stated that the appeal of researching, arranging and reviewing trips online will only continue to grow.
This is a critical juncture for the travel trade as it decides how much financial muscle to throw behind its digital operations. But what is the true picture among consumers; just how many are booking online compared to in-store, and what does that mean for marketing?
Recent research from St Ives Group shows the balance between on- and offline efforts is delicate. The online survey of 1,000 adults, conducted during the crucial January booking period, reveals people still consult a wide variety of sources when planning and booking a vacation. Perhaps surprisingly given the perception of troubled town centre travel agencies, it seems holidaymakers still value face-to-face assistance.
Some of the characteristics attributed to travel agents during the booking experience include ‘inspiring’, ‘exciting’ and ‘enjoyable’. This was in contrast to words associated with the online process, which was considered ‘quick’, ‘straightforward’ and ‘trouble free’. The use of these adjectives suggests that travel agents’ marketing efforts should be focused on the softer elements of visiting a branch; the personal touch which could give someone a perfect trip.
If the industry is intent on driving people online – perhaps in response to the notion that consumers are deserting the physical booking experience in droves, most definitely as part of ongoing cost reviews – it’s clear that companies need to imbue their websites with these emotional aspects.
The good news for travel agents is that despite the rise of independent sites such as Tripadvisor, and direct booking being made easier by digital media, they are still pivotal to going on holiday.
The research shows large numbers of people still book breaks of all types through travel agents. For example, 62% of foreign resort or spa trips, and 55% of beach trips, are made online or in-branch with an agent. With all those customers comes lots of data which can provide insight into the booking process to inform ongoing campaigns.
To be successful, analysis should include identification of patterns and differences within the range of bookings being made. Further scrutiny of the database can identify the types of customers who could be persuaded to book online if specific elements of the in-store experience was recreated on the Web.
Some of the facets travel companies need to bear in mind include offering reassurance online: where do I find consultation about my trip? Are my details secure? If it’s about giving people more confidence in the online process, the introduction of a web chat facility or call centre hotline option could be a good idea. Likewise, kitting out branches with tablets to allow agents to demonstrate online booking could increase future take-up of the digital route.
If a traveller is more confident not only about booking online, but in the holiday buying process in general, their likelihood of transacting is sent sky-high. It’s also worth considering including price comparisons and reviews in obvious places on the site. As these are available easily in-store or through independent websites, people will soon come to expect them on travel companies’ sites, too.
Recognising the stage of the purchasing journey the customer is at and reacting with a CRM programme is also vital. Emailing at key moments can reinforce messaging and push people nearer booking. At each stage – research and planning, booking, pre-departure and even in resort – any extra information and assistance that can be provided to make the experience better will provoke loyalty and repeat bookings. Use the data to build this programme, and always test and learn.
As for high-street branches, they’re unlikely to disappear any time soon. There is a group of loyal customers who still value talking and booking face to face. If the industry does want to help them make the journey to online holidaymaking, it needs to get the balance of physical and digital just right.
Rebecca Blake is a client director at Occam – a St Ives Group company