Leader September 2007 – Keeping up with consumers

The travel industry is continually at some kind of ‘crossroads’. In the hyperbolic world of the business news media, this is often due to the mergers of major travel providers, a relaxation of regulatory rules or adhering to the demands of green lobbyists/political parties.

The reality is that the industry, known for its incredible resilience, manages to adapt to these obstacles remarkably easily. Indeed, perhaps this is why we hear of new ‘crossroads’ on such a frighteningly regular basis.

Nevertheless, these apparent turbulent intersections on the path the travel sector attempts to traverse are almost always born out of the actions of the industry itself or official bodies.

So, therefore, it is perhaps the current ‘crossroads’ that we find so fascinating.

Indeed, the fundamental shift in consumer online behaviour is a veritable spaghetti junction in the grand scheme of things – and one not of the industry’s making.

There is evidence to illustrate this switch: four of the top 10 websites in the UK in October this year would be classed as experiential rather than solely providing information or a transactional element.

This is not to say that sites popular just a few years ago (such as Amazon) are on the wane. Far from it, in fact – consumers are just behaving in a different way on the Internet.

They are also asking for more from the providers of services during their time on the web.

This is a problem for the travel industry because, until very recently, it has been focused primarily on the transactional elements.

So-called ‘user experience’ has invariably been left to ensuring accessibility guidelines are complied with (or not, as is often the case) and sizeable sums of money being spent on flashy designs.

Research from Forrester a few months back indicated that online bookings in the US are falling despite an increase in the number of visitors to corresponding website. This is a disturbing trend.

At a recent conference, Travolution faced the wrath of the industry by declaring that if the sector as a whole fails to improve the user experience on its websites then this trend will actually become a serious issue. This argument irritates many because it comes just a few years after they have been urged to go online in the first place.

Nevertheless, consumer behaviour is changing at an astonishing pace – a fact of life, unfortunately – and the travel industry needs to react accordingly.

A concerted effort by travel companies to improve user experience on websites can only benefit their consumers, and the sector as a whole. Indeed, there are a number of key advantages for the modern travel company.

Providing value for consumers’ time on the Internet will inevitably lead to a better relationship with them, earning the company more than just the recognition it variably gets from the – often vast – sums of money it spend on online marketing.

Meanwhile, as consumers develop that much-coveted relationship and use a site to do more than simply book a travel product, companies will inevitably understand more about their customers – where they LIKE to go, what they are KEEN on doing, who they PREFER to go with.

These are aspects of a consumer’s preferences that are difficult to determine through a one-way relationship based on booking a product.

The cultural shift in consumer behaviour on the web has to be matched by the industry, simply in order for it to meet the needs of consumers now massively empowered by the ability to assimilate information and share their experiences.

This is the real and exciting crossroads the industry now faces.

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