Farhad Divecha, managing director and founder of AccuraCast, explains how he expects travel brands will have to evolve to meet changing customer expectations after the COVID pandemic
The past year has been a tumultuous one to say the least.
Travel brands across the globe have had to work harder than ever as each week, when the government announced new restrictions, many were forced back to square one.
Since the pandemic hit, we’ve seen travel brands pushed to think outside the box like never before; from virtual city and attraction tours to destinations inviting people to work from their beaches on a long-term basis.
We even saw flights that didn’t actually fly anywhere but provided the travel starved a chance to once again enjoy the delights of in flight entertainment, recreating the feeling of jetting off on holidays.
Although these ideas may not be for everyone, they just show how innovative the travel industry has had to be in the short term in the face of the crisis.
With McKinsey predicting that full travel recovery is another three years away1, we must look further and plan for the long term.
Part of this, I believe, lies in the new online customer travel journey; the dreaming, planning, booking and sharing stages – and beyond.
The evolving online customer journey in travel
Before 2005, the travel booking journey was a very linear process.
We would be inspired by our friends who had just returned from an idyllic beach break in Thailand or by a TV advert showcasing the delights of New York.
This would be the traditional dreaming stage.
To plan and book, we’d have visited or called a travel agent to discuss our holiday requirements and desires, and then shared our adventures with our friends through word of mouth on our return – and so the journey continued.
In recent times, the likes of Facebook, Instagram and TikTok have changed everything.
Now, we’re inspired by the constant barrage of images and videos we see on our phones, tablets and laptop screens.
We can book journeys online, sometimes directly from ads, or Instagram Stories ‘swipe ups’.
The difference now, aside from the platforms used, is the sheer amount of choice and convenience. Information is at our fingertips and at any time of day.
So that, of course, makes decision making a longer process, and the customer journey more sporadic.
Consumers flit between dreaming to planning, back to dreaming, on to booking, then perhaps back to dreaming and so on.
For marketers, this means that deciding to place a full-page ad in Condé Nast Traveller or a single, specifically targeted, Facebook ad is not enough.
They must firstly investigate and understand the brand’s place in the customer journey – are they useful to consumers in the dreaming, planning, booking or sharing stages?
Perhaps they span more than one?
Only then can they better identify ways to reach their customer, create the right messages for them and focus on pushing these out to the right audience, at the right time, on the right platforms.
2020 – the year travel changed
As if the sporadic and fragmented nature of travel wasn’t enough of a challenge in 2019, COVID-19 took hold of the world in 2020, changing consumers’ priorities and concerns drastically.
This was reflected in holiday searches within the planning and booking stages.
Where typically holiday search terms included words about room type, board, facilities required and dietary requirements, these became eclipsed by more pressing concerns around safety, hygiene and social-distancing rules.
Google Trends research has shown that searches for traditional travel related terms such as ‘all-inclusive holiday’ and ‘family hotel’ have declined, whereas new terms reflecting safety concerns, such as ‘COVID flights’, ‘COVID hotel’ and ‘COVID travel’ have inevitably increased.
Travellers today want to ensure that the hotels they stay at practice strict cleaning processes, the destinations they explore aren’t too crowded, and the tour operators they choose offer some kind of reassurance or plan-B if and when things go wrong.
The customer journey has become even more convoluted as travellers take significantly more time to collate the relevant information and make the right decisions.
Changing government rules also mean that consumers often have to start back at the dreaming stage when the holiday they had in mind suddenly becomes out of reach.
In response, travel brands must take these concerns and not just consider them but incorporate them into the marketing strategy and media planning process itself.
By doing so, travel providers can reassure customers and rebuild trust that is so badly needed today.
The new reality means that travel providers will also need to work with their customers beyond the point of booking.
It’s likely that now, more than ever, plans will go wrong.
The destination booked may be taken off the travel corridor list, borders may close and some companies, sadly, may go under before the trip starts.
The universal concern among travellers right now focuses around one thing; cancellations.
It’s clear now that the effects of the pandemic on travel will be felt for some time to come.
So long–term strategies must include open discussions and dealing with cancellations quickly and effectively.
Only then can consumer confidence begin to rebuild, and the industry, recover.
This, of course, won’t be a simple change to the business.
In fact, brands will need to make changes to their operations from the ground up, possibly even transforming their entire business strategy.
But by doing so, they will have taken the first step in deciding whether they fail or succeed in these uncertain times, having put their customers’ concerns where they belong; at the heart of the business and top of the priority list.