Gone are the days when it was sufficient for travel companies to put thumbnail pictures of hotel exteriors and a few lines of brochure blurb on their websites. Beverley Fearis reports.
With high-speed broadband penetration already at 64% in the UK, and expected to rise to 93% by 2010, customers are now coming to expect a whole new interactive experience when they research and book their travel online.
When it comes to creating the look and feel of a holiday and inspiring people to book, the web is a more powerful tool than any printed brochure, and the technology is developing fast.
Thomson is perceived by many to be leading the way and its website now has 1,500 video clips, customer reviews, large pictures, podcasts, weekly webchats, customer feedback scores and e-brochures, all designed to boost sales. “The technology is getting classier and slicker,” says TUI head of new media Graham Donoghue. “You can no longer just have a website that is dull, boring and flat. There is a huge appetite for rich media.
“We are now in an era of social computing, almost like a family gathering, where people are spending time together researching their holiday. They are using the computer like a trip to the travel agent.”
When Thomson first began putting video clips of its properties on its website a year ago, the clips were being viewed around 50,000 times a week. Since January, when it started to promote the service, this has grown massively to around 350,000 a week.
Viewings are particularly high for villa holidays, cruises and the more far-flung, non-mainstream destinations such as Egypt and Morocco.
Most clips are generated from Thomson’s TV station but the operator is now looking to bring in videos of resorts and destinations from outside providers. It plans to have 5,000 videos on its website by the end of this year.
But do these video clips actually boost sales? Donoghue is tight-lipped on actual conversion rates but claims Thomson has definitely seen an increase in sales for those holidays that have video footage.
TUI is also using new interactive technology to boost sales through its affiliates in partnership with marketing company, Commission Junction.
“We have just uploaded links to all our podcasts and the top 10 destination videos, so our affiliates can really offer something different to their users, in addition to basic creative such as banners,” explains TUI new media affiliates manager Pete Norwood.
“These functionality improvements are on top of the holiday, flight and villa search forms already available to affiliates, which make a huge difference to traffic conversion. The days of banners, buttons and text links being all that affiliates need are gone.”
Thomson’s arch rival Thomas Cook also has video clips from its TV station, TCTV, on its website but head of e-commerce Andrew Doe says it does not yet have any firm data to show that they are increasing sales of product. But despite this, he adds, the tour operator will continue to add video content.
“We’re working our way through, prioritising according to resort popularity,” he explains. “But 40% of our visits are still from non-broadband connections so it’s important not to alienate these users. We’re not interested in gimmicks. We’re only interested in really valuable content.
“We need to play to our strengths as a large integrated travel company with lots of sources of content to draw on.”
Longer term, both Thomas Cook and Thomson are also considering allowing customers to post their own holiday video footage on the website.
“We already have customer reviews, so this is the natural progression,” Donoghue predicts.
This type of user-generated content, where travellers are given the chance to share their holiday experiences and learn about the experiences of others, is already key for travel content providers.
For example, Lonely Planet’s ‘Thorn Tree’ is a discussion board on travel topics and is now used by 250,000 members. Business development director Nathan Clapton says: “Users are looking for an environment in which to exchange information and communicate as much as possible. They’re looking for information from a trusted source.
“The issue people have is that the sector is dominated by travel companies that just want to shift rooms – there is a lack of editorially driven recommendations and information.”
The big players in the search arena are also looking at the user-generated content approach.
Yahoo! recently launched the UK version of Answers – a platform that allows users to pose and answer questions on the site. The search giant believes integration of the service into its Travel portal is more than likely and the format is well-suited to the holiday market.
However, now customers can so easily access unbiased reviews and recommendations from fellow travellers and independent sources, travel companies are realising they too must create user communities to boost customer confidence and generate sales.
“Travel sites will want to have interactive message boards allowing potential customers to talk to clients that have experienced that particular holiday,” says Fiona Canavan, market development manager for Netizen, which builds and powers websites for a range of travel companies.
“This will build brand loyalty and make their website much stickier. The beauty of interactive content is that it doesn’t need to be extremely expensive and can assist in the selling process.”
TUI’s Donoghue agrees. “A lot of these technologies don’t involve big investment. That’s a misconception. What stops a lot of travel companies is their ability to grasp the technology.
“It can all seem a bit geeky and techy. A lot of this stuff is relatively cheap to create. For example, getting podcasts out across the Internet is free.”
Podcasts (audio guides of destinations, for example, that can be downloaded to iPods and MP3 players) are now being provided to customers by Thomson and other travel companies, including Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin advertising executive Simon Thorne says with the proliferation of broadband and digital music players, the take-up of podcasts and videocasts will increase in the next 12-18 months.
“The Diffusion Group in the US forecasts that by 2010, 75% of all people who own portable digital music players will listen to podcasts, a growth from less than 15% last year,” he says.
Laurence Lennard, co-founder and director of Yada Yada Productions, a London-based podcast production, distribution, training and consultancy company, says the technology has huge potential for the travel industry.
“Podcast subscribers fit a valuable demographic – upwardly mobile, technology-savvy travellers, who pack their iPod charger after they’ve packed their toothbrush. They appreciate good content and are likely to be frequent travellers,” he adds. “The driving force is that travel companies can ‘push’ content straight to the end user. We currently rely on a ‘pull’ system. The next stage will be delivering the content straight to users’ mobile phones and other portable devices.”
Indeed, the latest range of MP3 players have been developed for videocasting – the logical next step.
According to TUI’s Donoghue, this ‘pushing’ of content will be taken to new levels with the advent of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) at the start of next year. This will effectively mean the convergence of your computer, TV and phoneline all into one box – your TV.
“Customers will be able to watch our TV show on demand, flip into our website, browse through our libraries, see a videocast. Instead of crowding round a desk everybody will be sitting on a sofa,” he explains.
Donoghue believes it will create major opportunities for travel companies when it comes to targeted advertising.
“People will be able to go on to Google, buy an episode of Survivor for, say $2, and it will get delivered to their TV,” he says.
“While it is taking time to get there, the crystal-ball gazing computer already knows what they like and about their travel spending behaviour, and can tailor-make four minutes of personalised holiday adverts.
“It will happen. I guarantee it.”