Few travel companies have embraced rich Internet applications. But Siblu took the risk and has subsequently won this issue’s Tr@vel Pioneers award. Nathan midgley talks to head of e-commerce Will Goodridge
If you want proof of usability’s impact on the bottom line, look no further than the success of Siblu’s new booking engine.
In January, the company, which operates family holiday parks in France and was formerly Haven Europe, rolled out a rich Internet application to handle online bookings. It allows users to build and purchase a full package on one content-rich page; it is intuitive and looks great, but most importantly there is evidence that it helped boost sales during the busy January and February period.
Previously, Siblu had been running the kind of booking engine that is all too familiar to travel shoppers. Head of e-commerce Will Goodridge says: “It sent users from one step to the next, HTML form to HTML form, checking prices and availability. There were about eight page loads in an average booking.”
HTML forms are predominant in travel e-commerce, and having one did not prevent Siblu’s online sales from growing as Internet shopping became widespread. But it was aware it was losing some customers during the booking process.
“What really let us down was that we couldn’t put prices together with availability,” says Goodridge. “People would have to go back and forth, back and forth performing searches. They would get lost and end up phoning us.”
In addition, the tendency to ‘get lost’ during booking meant some users were missing certain products or components – so even converted sales were not always being maximised. Goodridge says: “People weren’t sure whether we did ferry bookings, for example. We do.”
Conclusions from Siblu’s own research – which drew on web metrics, call-centre feedback and 20 focus groups across France and the UK – reiterated those issues and threw up a few unexpected usability problems. Goodridge offers an example: “The old engine required you to enter the age of your children before you got to pricing, and that annoyed a lot of people. Obviously, it’s something we are required to do, but we were doing it in the wrong place – now we do it right at the beginning of the process.”
The decision to build an RIA emerged after design and development agency Monochrome pitched for a redesign of Siblu’s core site. Monochrome didn’t win that contract, but was first on the list when the operator moved on to a refresh of its booking site.
“We weren’t actively looking at RIA technology for Siblu, but we’d seen it, we knew about it,” says Goodridge. “When Monochrome came in, it brought it to life quickly. Monochrome also had good partnerships with Adobe in terms of Flex [Adobe’s RIA development framework]. When it came to redesigning the booking site, we didn’t need to see anybody else.”
The finished site, which took around six months to develop, brings inventory and availability searches, product information, pricing, extras – from insurance to laundry packs – and data capture into a single dynamic, multi-window interface.
Vertical navigation on the left and right of the screen keeps users oriented, and a tabbed content window at the bottom brings in media assets – meaning shoppers who want to review their choice of park before confirming can access videos and virtual tours without breaking the momentum of the booking.
Goodridge considers the use of media at the booking stage a natural extension of Siblu’s content strategy. “We’re trying to differentiate ourselves by being better at what customers want to do. We were one of the first travel companies to offer videos, and to add a Google Earth layer.”
This was also taken into account when developing the site with Monochrome. “We built the template knowing we’d want to develop it. The media section is there at every stage of the booking, and we can effectively put whatever we like in there.”
Although bugs pushed the roll-out of the new site back by a few weeks, the benefits manifested themselves quickly. “We’ve now been live for 10 weeks,” says Goodridge, “and on average we’ve raised sales by 10% across both markets.”
Year-on-year comparison of visit-to-conversion ratios suggests that this is not just the effect of the peak sales period – the new booking engine is genuinely making a difference. “We are getting the same number of visitors as we did this time last year, but sales are up,” says Goodridge. “We are converting more.”
He says he is confident of achieving a 15% increase in online sales by 2009, a target Siblu set when the changes to its website were announced in December.
Anecdotal evidence from the call centre is positive, too. Goodridge says: “People contact the call centre with questions, and our operators will offer to continue the booking over the phone. Most callers used to be happy with that, but now more people are saying, ‘No, I’ll go back to the website and book’.”
New features will be added this year, including the ability to save searches under a username and password, which will be ready in May or June. The addition of user accounts is unlikely to lead to community or user-generated content elements. “We’re looking at social media, but we worry how many people will use it.”
In addition, there are plans to improve integration between the booking engine and Siblu’s core site. “We’re looking to integrate them further. We’ll put a form on the core site’s park pages that will take you straight to step two on the booking site. We’re also looking at bringing pricing into [the core site’s] destination pages.”
Finally, Goodridge wants to add video feeds from the Siblu call centre. “I want a video link to our operators within the booking engine. We feel it would help break down some of the barriers people have to booking online.”
The reasoning here says it all. Siblu’s booking site uses technology to help users feel comfortable and in control – and that user-centric approach appears to be reaping rewards.
John Harding, sales and marketing director at Hotels4u.com and sponsor of the Travolution Tr@vel Pioneers award
Another worthy winner this month, which endorses the value of regularly reviewing one’s website given the ever-changing applications that are constantly being developed to enhance the user experience.
I was particularly impressed with the level of research and evaluation that Siblu carried out to help it get every aspect of its new site in correct focus. It only goes to show that you can’t do too much research or create too many focus groups to ensure that the richest possible customer experience is realised.
It also highlights the benefit of dealing with a specialist agency such as Monochrome – which has an in-depth knowledge of what is available in the marketplace – when deciding to ‘refresh’ your website.
Experience shows that navigability of a site and the ease and relativity of filling in boxes is of paramount importance when it comes to keeping the customer on the hook. Customers do get frustrated with seemingly unnecessary or irrelevant requests for information that add little or nothing to the booking process and lengthen the time to completion.
Websites that maintain interest throughout the booking or ordering process are a challenge to build and those that do so are a pleasure to use as they create a feeling of involvement and anticipation that by the end of the journey the customers’ wish will be fulfilled. There can be no greater endorsement of the practicality of the site if more customers are indeed saying “No, I’ll go back to the website and book”. To get that comment means that they really are enjoying the experience.
Despite the undoubted success that Siblu has enjoyed from the new site, it can see the benefits of further review and improvement. I wish the company luck in the creative development of additional features that can only improve the customer experience and, of course, conversion levels and profitability.
At hotels4u, we too are actively looking to improve our site with substantial video content. Only nine months ago this enhancement was considered a luxury that was little more than a gimmick.
But now we feel it is a necessary part of the web experience that is fast becoming the norm. However, it does present a further challenge to keep the site fully and comprehensively updated to avoid falling foul of the Trade Descriptions Act – but let that never be an excuse for not rising to the challenge of creating a truly captivating user experience.