Interactive maps, videos and widgets can all improve user experience. But how much is too much? Are travel companies in danger of overcomplicating their offering, causing consumers to browse elsewhere? Dinah Hatch reports
If you’ve ever seen the front page of a newspaper from the 19th century, you’ll appreciate how much easier our papers are to read today. The tiny ads that fussed across the page are gone, the lead story is clearly indicated by the largest headline and the font is clear and easy to read.
And the evolution of websites has taken a similar path. When the web was in its infancy and the rush was on to get a web presence, travel site homepages were a mass of flashing offers, crammed-in information and pictures that took an age to download.
Content, as the saying goes, was king and no operator, large or small, was worth its ATOL licence if it did not make the most of this amazing marketing tool by loading on as much information as possible. Then came widespread access to broadband, kick starting a whole new trend on travel websites as designers realised multimedia elements such as virtual tours and interactive maps could now be easily accessed.
Suddenly, visitors to a travel site could take a tour of the hotel room they wanted to book, take a wander around the restaurant or check out the swimming pool in the spa. Interactive maps came on the scene, allowing users to pinpoint exactly where the hotel they liked the look of was, right down to what side of the road it was on along the seafront.
These days travel website designers and managers have a vast array of tools at their disposal, but are they using them for the benefit of the customer? And are they improving conversion rates – which is, at the end of the day, the bottom line?
Thomson was an early adopter of multimedia and continues to use 360-degree tours, videos and interactive maps on its various sites, saying it believes they enrich the user experience immensely.
Thomson head of web sales, content and operation, Neil Swanson, says: “Our interactive maps are crucial. Google Earth suddenly made maps interesting and people were fascinated by them. To be able to see exactly where you are on the map is quite a powerful tool and we have always got good feedback from research groups on that.”
The user can see a satellite picture of a hotel location, a road map of it or a hybrid where the map is overlaid on the satellite picture. Swanson adds: “We have invested heavily in videos and we have more than 2,000. It’s something that everyone now expects to see on a travel site and we are always spending money improving and updating them.
“You can’t hide any information about the location and what is around it – and customers really appreciate that honesty.”
But sites must constantly evolve and as the operator beds down after the merger with First Choice, a sea change is occurring again.
Swanson explains: “Although our aim is to put as much information as we can into the customer’s hand, there’s a danger that you can give people too much multimedia and it takes them away from the booking process. We have now had a complete review and our focus is on simplification. We have introduced a lot but now we want to keep it simple, something First Choice is good at.
“Conversion rates are a closely guarded secret, but I can tell you that ours are up this year and the simplification of the site has helped this. We have listened to what our customers have been saying and kept the site as simple as possible.”
And multimedia content providers also stress that there’s a balancing act to be achieved. Travel content provider Whatsonwhen has been operating since 1999 and works with the likes of Hilton, Eurostar and British Airways. It believes multimedia tools have improved the user experience but feels travel firms are just as concerned with incorporating independent travel writer reviews on to their sites.
Director Joel Brandon-Bravo says: “Travel websites used to be just booking engines but people have always needed to find out and talk about a destination before they go there. Pre-Internet, travel agents fulfilled this role, so there needed to be something similar online. People have realised it’s not just about providing a price, it’s about adding images, 360-degree tours and good descriptions. That’s where we come in.”
(And that’s where Trip Advisor came in too. The big online players saw punters clicking away to the social networking phenomenon but often getting sidetracked and not returning to book. No wonder Expedia snapped it up.)
Brandon-Bravo thinks the key to easing the journey of the site visitor from browser to booker is simple. “If you are a big player, there is a risk of your homepage being a cluttered mess. Instead, make suggestions for holidays based on the type of user. Family holidays, cultural holidays or cheap and cheerful sun packages should be clearly defined from the start, so that you don’t make the user drill through 50 pages of content.”
The company is now about to launch its recommendation form, which will ask the user to give a profile and describe the holiday they are seeking to which a filtered, tailor-made response will be given.
Brandon-Bravo continues: “This sort of pseudo-travel agent conversation experience using content and web tools will grow in popularity as ultimately they are replacing the travel agent.”
Meanwhile, online travel agency Expedia says it is aware of the importance of multimedia but believes it’s easy to take your eye off the ball.
Patrick Oqvist, marketing director of Expedia sister brand Hotels.com, says: “Let’s not forget that the customer does appreciate the value of traditional content too. There is such a rush to figure out how to get video on your site that people forget that good hotel descriptions written in an informative way is of immense value.”
He adds: “Having said that, we are expanding our collection of 360-degree tours. But we are convinced that the traditional content – good descriptions and pictures – are still key. People sometimes get fed up with having to fathom out how new toys work on websites.”
Paul Baderman, marketing director at 360travelguides.com, whose travel clients include Thomson and Holland America Line, also champions simplicity.
He says: “Having 360-degree tours of hotels allows the site to build a relationship of trust with the consumer, as they realise through the tour that nothing is being hidden.
“Our product is a simple design. You can use clever tools that require downloads and plug-ins but we try to keep things very intuitive, because there is a danger of having lots of features that look good in the design studio but just turn customers off.”
The company is now looking at the possibility of providing travel companies with the latest multimedia must-have – streaming on to mobile phones.
Baderman explains: “It’s coming soon. We are working on it and there’s so much potential.
“GPS means the holidaymaker can get information on their phone about the tourist site as they are looking at it and that’s an area we are going into next.”
Clearly, all web managers have different strategies for making the user experience as informative and smooth as possible but they all agree that the days of flashing offers and complex navigations are over.
As Brandon-Bravo concludes: “It’s the customer that’s king. You should be presenting content in a way that suits the way they want to book their travel. And that, simply, is it.”
All interviewees for this article had different views on what made the user experience a smooth one except on one issue: social networking.
Following the huge success of TripAdvisor, everyone wants to get in on the act and offer peer reviews. Thomson’s Swanson says: “Customers want to hear others talking about a travel experience – not us. We have dabbled with blogs, we’ve tried podcasts but it’s the person who has already had the experience that they want to hear from.”
Patrick Oqvist, marketing director at Hotels.com, part of the Expedia empire, which owns TripAdvisor, adds: “We have dedicated travel writers but we also have reviews written by Expedia customers. These days people want that as well as the professional travel writer’s opinion.”
Case study: Virgin Holidays
When Chris Roe was appointed general manager e-commerce at Virgin Holidays, he took a long look at the task ahead. The brand, he knew, was very strong but he felt the website was not giving potential customers an easy ride.
He explains: “It was a case of one size fits all. Whether you wanted a trip to Orlando or a tailor-made holiday in the Far East, you were treated the same. There were too many entry levels into the site. It felt there were funnels inside funnels inside funnels and it was hard for customers to do what they wanted.”
Crucially, the site was constructed in a way that it was also hard for Roe to track customer movements too. So he went back to basics.
He says: “We had a total site refresh concerning usability and employed Bunny Foot to help us. First, we went back and defined our customers and segmented them, from frugal families to top-of-the-pile concierge-loving upgraders. We gave them all a profile.
“Then we got real customers in, showed them our site as well as others and we listened to what they said. They said they didn’t like getting lost, there were too many ways in and not enough out and they wanted simplification. Then we designed a site that met their needs.”
Virgin also used eye-tracking devices that followed what the eye looks at on a website. Says Roe: “We could see that customers were not looking at our banner ads, didn’t like certain colours and were irritated by small things that were easily changed.” And the result? “A 90% improvement in conversion.”
He concludes content is not king but neither is user experience. “It’s the customers themselves that are all important. You can think you have a sexy bit of kit but remember to ask yourself if the customer will like it. Make sure you test everything you employ on the site with customers every step of the way.”