As consumers become increasingly cost-conscious, loyalty, branding and integration with the customer journey are becoming more important for travel companies. Piers Ford reports.
Travel consumers have never been more aware of their power to choose. A potent combination of brand-consciousness and cost-awareness means that online travel companies face an increasingly tough challenge to keep themselves at the forefront of their customers’ minds throughout the complex journey from casual thought to research, decision, purchase and beyond.
In such a promiscuous market, loyalty will always be at a premium. And as consumer belts tighten, the gold-digging days of the online travel boom, when young guns thought brand came a distant, inconsequential second to the purity of search technology, seem like an age ago. The industry has woken anew to the importance of establishing a consistent, relevant brand that subliminally takes centre stage at every touch-point on the customer journey. In order to achieve that, you need to be close to your customers like never before, according to Mark Rae, business development director at branding agency Brandhouse. And that means getting emotional.
“To create a brand that delivers at all points in the customer journey requires a deep understanding of the full range of emotions people experience when travelling – not just the positive ones,” he says.
“Brands need to integrate as closely as possible with the customer’s journey as it shifts and evolves, making sure that they are at the heart of the customer’s thoughts and plans. This requires data-gathering about your consumers – past trip patterns, generic travel behaviour, global customer trends such as eco-chic, premiumisation and personalisation in order to anticipate their needs and inspire future travel purchases.
Rae adds: “The importance of understanding exactly who your customers are and how they behave is key to brand-building online. It’s a perfect way of building a two-way relationship: customers offer their data and preferences in return for useful and relevant tools such as mobile mapping applications and real-time traveller information.”
Chris Armond is business director at media planning and buying group Arena BLM’s new travel division, BLM Horizon. The group was behind Thomas Cook’s high profile, but as yet unsuccessful, campaign based around demand for a new bank holiday, as well as Warner’s sponsorship of glossy ITV royal soap opera The Palace.
He says: “With holidays, branding is all about sticking in the memory, planting an idea in someone’s head. Thomas Cook is a retailer, so the campaign was geared to a shorter, decision-making process, making sure that the brand was at the front of the customer’s mind, encouraging them to transact.
“TV and outdoor advertising work very well at driving brand search terms online, so you need to ensure that budgets online are matched to offline media spend. Brands need to appreciate the role that each medium plays in the consumer decision. TV creates desirability and inspiration as it’s a key entertainment platform. Online enables consumers to make those holiday decisions through information and choices. Making these two media work best together is a key challenge and massive opportunity for travel companies.”
Armond points to the direct impact of Warner’s Palace campaign – a rush of web visits and online brochure requests during the ad breaks – as evidence of how this can be achieved. At the same time, he says, the internet is a blessing and a curse.
“As an opportunity for research, it’s fantastic. The trouble is the dissemination of data: customers have access to unlimited options,” he adds.
And that’s where the complexity of the online marketing medium is really starting to hit home with many brands, particularly as traditional offline tour operators and travel agents have got their act together and invested heavily in their online offerings.
The playing field is once again level as pureplay internet companies have responded by investing in their brands. And most industry watchers expect the market to become a lot tougher, with journey/brand integration one of the keys to survival.
“We think customers will differentiate between the experiences that online travel sites offer, as well as on price,” says Peter Matthews, managing director at web design consultancy Nucleus, which specialises in the travel sector.
“Brand economics work on the basis of a successful brand being able to drive higher margins by cheaper cost of customer acquisition and retention, by justifying a premium price, or both. Awareness is key to lowering the cost of customer acquisition and reputation is key to justifying a premium price.”
Establishing trust and reassurance as an integral part of your brand is a vital hook into the customer journey. Today’s web-savvy consumer is far more resistant to being forced into tunnels that take them to the destinations and choices that will earn the best commission for the operator, says Matthews. That’s why bounce rates are so high – as much as 70% in some cases.
“If you’re paying for those clicks via Google Adwords, the only winner is Google,” he says. “Site usability and relevance have become so important. If you can deliver a good experience and service, you can expect people to at least bring you into a smaller repertoire of sites that they will research.”
“Looking for triggers is the key, identifying them and carrying out focused analytics so that we can respond with appropriate information, relevant cross-selling and up-selling,” says Mark Gristock, marketing director at digital customer experience consultancy Foviance, whose clients include Thomas Cook, Superbreak, Octopus Travel and BMI.
That inevitably means a move towards niche marketing and understanding segments of your target audience much better – not simply assuming, for example, that your single female audience is solely interested in romantic breaks. Get it wrong, and the increased weight of word-of-mouth and social media in the web 2.0 world will diminish trust in your brand.
Gristock’s colleague, director of consulting Marty Carroll, says the need for subtlety has largely superceded site functionality. “It’s about identifying what subtle changes can be made to capture people’s attention sufficiently to warrant them staying on the site, to encourage them to make a booking and to incentivise them to return in the future,” he says.
“We think of this as people moving up the hierarchy of needs: in the early days it was about satisfying basic needs but with more competition and higher expectations the focus is on helping people achieve higher order needs such as ‘belonging’ and ‘esteem’ needs. In the case of ‘belonging’, allowing individuals to connect with one another in meaningful ways must be a key objective for leading sites. With regard to ‘esteem’, brands that offer personalised content and functionality will be perceived as offering a differentiated service,” he says.
“When people talk to others about sites often it’s because they want to be associated with that site – this is because the site is doing something that is deemed to be different, distinguished or innovative. Those sites that enable the creation of content by consumers also satisfy this need.”
But, according to Carroll, the reality is that very few brands are looking at the customer journey with anything like the rigour that this warrants. Tough economic times mean customer retention should take precedence over acquisition but he suggests that travel companies are waking up to this shift in priorities too slowly.
“An absolute imperative in customer retention is gaining a better understanding of the experience offered so it can be modified,” he says. “When price and other traditional differentiators are eroded, the only sustainable differentiator is the ‘over customer experience’ offered. While some travel brands exhibit best practice in specific channels, very few truly comprehend what their ‘over’ customer experience looks like.
Carroll adds: “The answers to some fundamental questions elude them: what are the key pain points along the customer journey? What’s the gap between the experience delivered and that desired? What are the attributes of an experience that matter most to customers? How do the channels compare in quantifiable terms?
How does their experience compare vis a vis competitors? What do the customer journeys look like for key segments? Where should resources be invested in order to maximise impact? How do individual channels complement each other? What customer experience metrics are the most important to measure and correlate to financial performance?”
Detailed and constant analysis of customer reaction at every touch point on the journey is the only way to find these vital answers and arrive at an intimate understanding of how consumers engage with travel company brands. And Carroll is far from alone in believing that long-term customer engagement will be the key to healthy margins for online players.
Gavin Sinden, digital strategy director at agency Equi=Media, says online companies must do everything they can to become the preferred source of travel booking for the consumer.
He believes many of them have made good progress in incorporating dynamic packaging into the customer journey, and this has improved the customer experience while allowing online travel agents to maintain margins.
“However, small factors can make a big difference and there are vital facets of integration still lacking that endanger the consumer journey,” he adds.
“Areas such as being able to save the baskets for all products are key to ensuring that consumers who start browsing ultimately come back to book.
“Challenges that online travel companies face in integrating disparate systems are not to be underestimated, but doing so for the sake of the customer journey is critical. Constant testing and improvement, from media to booking, needs to be carried out. With the launch of the Google optimising suite, the bar is consistently being raised and it is important that these types of tools are integrated into the already complex systems run by many travel clients.”
Reasonably new kid on the block Isango! has seized upon the trend for more experiential marketing and made it an integral part of its strategy, informing the customer’s journey at every stage and, according to chief executive Ranjan Singh, distinguishing it from rival OTAs.
“The key word is consistency,” says Singh. “The customer must feel like they are dealing with the same brand throughout the journey. Whether it’s through PPC, phone/email contact, on site experience, comments read on other review sites, the language in all communications must be coherent and carry the same messages.
“Brand consistency is hard to achieve, unless the brand is totally unambiguous – such as Virgin for lifestyle and fun, Ryanair for low cost, or Orient Express for luxury. For many generalist brands who try to be everything to everyone, it’s more difficult to share a common value set across the whole organisation and therefore the whole customer journey.
“Some of the big OTAs are in this situation right now, where the novelty and value of booking flights online has become a commodity. The question for them is: now what?”
Second-guessing the types of things consumers are looking to do is one answer, and back at Foviance Gristock hails the work of players like BA for the work it is doing in this area. Success depends ultimately on responding to the different ways consumers approach their journey, even at different times of the day.
“People who visit websites during the working day are gathering information for refining their choices further down the line,” he says. “So the experience should be in line with their expectations of information-based searches. But in the evening, they’ll be looking with their partners and friends, and asking very different questions. Experiential content, appropriate sounds and music can make an enormous difference to their engagement.”
At the luxury end of the market, the journey from research to booking is a crucial phase, offering the best chance to secure the brand’s reputation in the consumer mind.
P&O Cruises recently relaunched its website with a new emphasis on its value as a well-constructed information resource that allows customers to research and plan their holidays.
“We are trying to be more experiential in our approach so that if a first-time customer is searching on a particular ship, for example, they can be taken to that content first,” says new media manager Elliott Pritchard. The introduction of a community on the site has proved popular with repeat passengers, helping to achieve the goal of two-way interaction.
“Our ideal here is that we want to increase the number of touch points with the customer,” says Pritchard.
“If they are only holidaying with us once a year, building loyalty is tricky. So we want to give them ways to interact with us even if they aren’t intending to book at that time.
“This is a long-term game for us because we have such a high proportion of repeat bookers – which means one customer’s journey can last for many years. That’s something we need to bear in mind and cater for. The benefit from our side is that we’re able to gather vital qualitative data that will tell us how they engage with us at every touch point – online surveys, questionnaires, feedback, the community – and help us learn as much as we can about them. As an aspirational travel company, that’s so important for us.”
Cutting through the commodity market
Making it to the starting line for a customer’s online research is an achievement in itself for hotel booking companies. Beyond that, they could take six weeks to make up their mind, so it’s a tussle to make sure your brand survives a complex sequence of touch points as they refine their choice.
Ian Ackland, commercial manager at HotelConnect, says few customers are brand-loyal in this market. Most people use Google and will look at up to 12 hotel sites, starting with generic search terms before they drill down into price and availability and start applying their own criteria to the choice.
Making the site easy and efficient to use – booking is a three-click process – is just the start of the journey. Beyond that, Ackland explains, there are a number of touch points built in to instil a sense of reassurance: booking confirmations, 24-hour contact details in case of problems and pre-departure emails. For the long term, a fortnightly e-newsletter keeps HotelConnect in the picture for future bookings, and Ackland plans to improve the relevance of that to individual clients in the near future.
“We’ve only been collecting next-destination information from our customers since the beginning of the year,” he says.
“But when we measure our email open rate, we know it is significantly higher than our competition. And our conversion to bookings rate is three times the industry standard.
“Very few consumers are completely brand loyal – you have to assume that these days, even though we have a high level of repeat booking.
“But because of Google’s strength, we believe people will still research there first. So relevance in search terms will continue to be important as well.”
Converting the digital way
Michael Rhodes, e-commerce manager at Leger Holidays, says the digital medium is ‘brilliant’ for converting sales, but with a customer journey from search to purchase that can take up to two months, the challenge to keep them hooked means that content is still king.
“We aren’t a bucket and spade company, our holidays offer customers an experience – battlefield sites, for example – so we’re constant looking for ways to become their first reference point, creating microsites and other touch-points,” he says.
As with P&O Cruises, a forum where customers discuss their experience with Leger has been a significant introduction, to the extent that Rhodes declares: “They are selling our holidays for us!” The Leger Lounge is another touch-point where customers can browse horoscopes, health and lifestyle features that complement the holiday content. Branding is subtle, says Rhodes.
“One of the most telling things for us is that travel agents are using our site, not just for our holidays, but as a reference point in response to more generic customer enquiries, which suggests that we are making the right moves in adapting to customers’ needs and wants.”