Virgin Holidays is just one part of an enormous worldwide brand, but its challenges remain the same as other travel businesses. John Kavanagh examines its web strategy, how it slots in alongside trains, mobiles and airlines, and why Richard Branson is still so important
Maintaining a useful website is quite a job for a travel company, as Virgin Holidays will testify: it has recently reviewed and redesigned every one of its 20,000-odd web pages and restructured the navigation through the site.
Innovation is one of the Virgin group’s stated brand values, so it is fitting that Virgin Holidays was one of the first companies on to the web, offering online booking at a time when many were still tentatively just putting up static information pages.
Virgin Holidays was formed in 1985, a year after Virgin Atlantic Airways was launched as the group’s first venture outside music. Online sales are now a “significant” percentage of Virgin Holidays’ total, although the company does not want to give a more precise figure than “less than half”.
Web development manager Steve Evans says: “For every travel company now there’s more and more emphasis on the Internet to pick up bigger and bigger proportions of total sales, and we’re expanding our e-commerce department to support that.”
The huge number of web pages reflects the fact that Virgin Holidays produces 27 brochures a year covering products ranging from beach holidays in Florida to skiing in the Rockies, safaris in Africa, cruises on luxury liners in the Caribbean or sailing boats around the Great Barrier Reef and many more.
Web sales and promotions manager Vicky Smith says: “The brochure content is constantly updated on the website, which will always have the current information – and much more detail than you can put in a brochure. The website can show prices for both this year and next, for example, and detail such as the fact that a hotel has added a swimming pool and the date that it opens.”
Such a wealth of information and holiday options means a website has to be constantly under review, Smith says: “Over time, as a product range expands and develops, a website’s design and structure get tweaked as things are added, but at some point you have to start again and look at how to encompass all the evolving content.”
The site underwent a mini-review in 2004, when the homepage and the main section pages were redesigned, but the past few months have seen major redevelopment.
“With 20,000 pages we found there were many that people simply weren’t visiting,” Evans says. “The navigation and the look and feel needed refreshing.
“We’ve redesigned the site to make our content more easily available to users, so they don’t have to use so many clicks or dig deeply into the site to find what interests them. The new system of navigation makes it easier for people to find their way. Features now include booking availability forms on most pages, for example, and a direct link to the homepage on every page.”
Smith agrees: “It’s a much more consumer-friendly experience with better routes into the content – and into the products.”
Also, Virgin Holidays has software, developed just for its use, which can track every mouse click and follow visitors as they move through the site.
“We get a huge amount of metrics data,” Evans says. “It helped us develop the navigation structure for the new website, and we use it in many other ways: for example it helps us prioritise sections of the site for promotion.”
Smith adds: “We use it to aid our marketing activities. It helps us to be more consumer and demand led, so we work on what our consumers are looking for rather than what products we might have. It also informs us about our clients and how to interact with them. For example, we might then use letters or e-mail depending on whether they book through a call centre or a travel agent or online.”
Before customers get this far they have to find the website, and search engines such as market leader Google are an important consideration in site design, Evans says: “We keep search engines in mind for any development; we have to make sure the site is designed in such a manner that all the search engines will want to index us and position us as high as possible.”
Smith says: “The search engines change their search algorithms from time to time and we just have to be alert and vigilant.
“However, search engines do want to provide the best results for their users, so if your information is relevant and extensive, then in theory you should have a decent ranking. By the same token we wouldn’t want to appear in places that are not relevant.”
As well as keeping up with search engines, Virgin Holidays is working increasingly on online marketing. Smith points to more pay-per-click advertising, with sponsored listings on Google for example, and other current or planned initiatives, including online price comparison services and possibly marketing to people’s mobile phones.
“Web development is fast in the travel industry, and advancing technology mean we’re able to do a lot more online than five or 10 years ago,” Smith says.
Virgin Holidays comes out very well on Google searches for holidays in its traditional areas of Florida and the Caribbean, and less well on searches for some other types of holiday. Smith says Virgin is among the top 10 most recognised online brands in the world. Being on the web among thousands of other companies, big and small, makes brand recognition important but does not detract from people’s perception of the brand, she adds.
“The web allows access to a company’s information and products for a much larger audience than a purely geographical standing provides, so in that way it does level the playing field to an extent,” she says. “But there are still barriers to entry for a small company. You can create a presence and market it cheaply but it’s not easy to compete against the amount of content and size of site that we have.
“Our brand is important online and offline. You can’t underestimate its importance. For example, it means a banner ad is instantly recognised because it’s the right colour of red, before people even consciously look for information. And the connotations and perception of the brand, which go through all Virgin products, speak to consumers about what you are like and what your products are like.
“Consumers have expectations of Virgin, such as innovation and fun. We have to live up to these and take them into consideration when developing the website. The amount of content makes this a bit tricky: there’s not much you can do to make information on baggage allowances fun.”
Virgin group founder Richard Branson is personally important here. Smith says: “The brand perceptions have come from him and his character. He’s popular among our loyal holidaymakers, the Frequent Virgin Club. There are more than 110,000 members, and many are keen to have more and more information about Richard.”
All Virgin companies are run independently – indeed some are joint ventures with third parties – but there are guidelines on issues around the use of the brand and the logo in particular. The guidelines include the distinctive shade of red and the amount of space to be left around the logo.
All this is overseen by group brand marketing director Ashley Stockwell and his team. “Companies have to stick to the brand and identity in all they do, not just on the web,” Stockwell says. “We leave specific site design and navigation up to them: we make no specific rules – other than that their sites must comply with the Disability Discrimination Act.”
Virgin’s attitude to the DDA is reflected in its response to a critical study in 2003 of travel company websites by charity AbilityNet, which advises disabled people, employers and others on IT.
Virgin Atlantic Airways was the only one to respond publicly, saying: “Virgin Atlantic is committed to providing the highest levels of customer service to all our passengers and we recognise we are currently letting down our disabled customers in this area. We’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to any of our customers who have experienced difficulties in accessing our website.” The company went on to say that it had set up a programme of changes to make the site more accessible.
Evans says impaired users are a major consideration: “We strive to make the site as accessible as possible. We’re proud of the program code behind our site: it’s been designed to meet as many international standards for accessibility as possible. The code is thoroughly checked and validated by an external agency to make sure it’s accessible to all types of browsers and to other types of devices such as speaking screen readers.”
Smith says this is all part of Virgin Holidays’ general aim of providing access to holidays for impaired people: “We have a specialist group who deal with their bookings and help to meet their specific requirements. It’s really important to us that all our products are accessible to everyone.”
Although Virgin Holidays and other Virgin companies operate independently, the group brand marketing team do control some aspects.
“Each company has a trademark licence agreement that allows it to use the Virgin name,” Stockwell says. “As part of this they are told the URLs they can or can’t use. It tends to depend on the territories they trade in: for example some only have the right to trade in the UK, so they can only use ‘.co.uk’.”
This applies to Virgin Holidays. A separate company in the US, Virgin Vacations, uses ‘.com’.
The Virgin.com site has promotional space that group companies can request. The top five companies in terms of visitors are also featured: Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Megastores entertainment shops, Money, Trains, and Mobile phone services. Visitor statistics are reviewed each week.
“The Virgin.com site is unusual in that most sites try to lure you in and get you to stay as long as possible – we want to get you out as soon as possible, to a specific operating company site,” Stockwell says.
With 20,000 pages to browse on the Virgin Holidays site, most people will probably welcome this approach.
Take off – don’t land
The strip across the top of the web browser can have more influence with search engines than unsubtle references to search terms in the text on a web page, says Brighton-based Spannerworks, a search engine specialist which advises Virgin Holidays.
“Search engines look at text in the title bar to see what the page is about,” says account manager Tom Morphy. “If you put ‘Florida holidays’ there you’re more likely to rank highly.
“Previously, Virgin Holidays had lots of ‘landing pages’ – pages with text optimised for search engines. But this gets frowned on by companies such as Google: they’re clunky and obvious.
“We recommended Virgin used its content and optimised it for searching, using tips and tricks we showed them. We also advised more functionality in its content management so staff could change the title lines themselves without having to ask web experts.”