The next stage of the journey

Travel has long been criticised for its ‘me too’ culture on website functionality, but with new techniques the industry now has a chance to dramatically improve the customer experience. Linda Fox finds out more.

A trawl of web definitions for ‘innovation’, describe it as a new device or process brought into play after research and testing. It doesn’t have to be a revolutionary new tool or redesign to be innovative. In fact, another definition describes it as something that ‘lowers the cost and, or increases the benefits of a task’.

It’s not about integrating new functionality such as maps, videos and reviews and expecting conversion to go through the roof, and this is where the travel industry has come up against some major criticism for poor usability, design and conversion but most crucially, lack of customer focus.

At the Travolution Summit in April, the travel industry came under scrutiny from start-ups and other observers
with one delegate summing up its shortcomings: “Travel sites are among the worst legacy sites. There is no consideration for search engine optimisation, content or multivariate testing.”

Harsh but fair words in many cases, and usability experts are hard-pushed to come up with names of any travel companies who are getting it right. For too long there has been a ‘me too’ culture in the sector with companies throwing new features up with little consideration to whether consumers will use them, their fit within the overall design and whether they simplify the process or add any value at all.

Studies have established a clear message from consumers about what they want and it’s about the basics. Most recently, research from Frommer’s Unlimited shows consumer demands of online travel retailers are similar to those of traditional agents with pricing transparency, honesty, easy price comparison, detailed information and someone to talk to all critical.

Armed with this knowledge, newer technologies such as Ajax, Silverlight, Web 2.0 techniques and analytical tools, the industry has the opportunity to shake off the constraints of legacy technology and drastically improve the online experience.

Innovation is likely to come from many directions but experts agree the two biggest areas will be in search experience and end-to-end journey management – not least because companies that don’t improve in these areas risk going off the consumer radar as well as accessibility lawsuits.

Within these areas there are likely to be many smaller innovations, such as search filtering and inspirational tools helping people explore destinations before making a decision.

Webcredible senior consultant Abid Warsi believes the inspiration element and helping people find where to go is critical and especially for companies offering a luxury travel experience such as Kuoni. The upmarket operator has redesigned its site with large destination images and tabs allowing users to search by deals, destination, type of holiday, style of hotel or time of year.

Warsi also highlights the power of video as a tool that has not yet been fully exploited by travel websites although sites such as could be about to change that.

“Videos are inspiring. On holiday you are going for a multi-sensory experience and that comes across well in videos. They also give you a picture of what it is like to go to a place. These are things that have been talked about for a while but have not yet found the right way to be used,” he says.

Allowing consumers more input in design is another area of innovation with more companies asking for customers’ input on what they should do. EMC Consulting’s Paul Dawson points to Dell’s IdeaStorm unveiled in 2007 to gauge views on the ideas most important and relevant to the public. He adds the challenge is to strike a balance in consumer-led design but that if achieved, customers feel they have a stake in what happens.

Advances already made by many companies give a good indication as to the way things are heading. Virgin Atlantic’s fare calendar, for example, was developed based on how consumers want to search for flights, while other companies, including Frommers, are introducing ‘slider’ technology allowing people to dynamically filter search results quickly and providing real-time updates.

Thomas Cook believes it is also making strides in terms of simplifying the consumer journey and improving usability. The company has unveiled a web chat service to help customers who are stuck in the booking process. The next step is to introduce a co-browse function so travel consultants can walk the customer through the website.

UK and Ireland e-commerce director Russell Gould says: “We’re targeting people who we think are good leads then engaging them with online chat and helping them find the holiday they’re looking for.”

There are further clues to what’s around the corner in techniques being employed by the hotel sector. Peter Matthews, managing director of web design agency Nucleus, cites Morgan Hotels Group as a good example of a company experimenting with larger images, integrated mapping and using Ajax and Flash to improve navigation and enrich the experience.

“Travel is highly evocative and highly visual but website design has not been in a position to explore that until now.”

The experience of sectors outside travel can also be valuable with the retail sector being an obvious one. Dawson believes retailers such as Asos have managed to create an emotional connection between consumers and the brand while shoe specialist Zappos has put customer service at the heart of everything it does and the anecdotes are out there to prove it.

“You can’t buy that sort of affinity or attachment to a brand, it goes beyond price and promotion, it’s about creating service differentiation,” he says.

The gambling sector is also one to watch and learn from according to Foviance director of consulting Marty Carroll. “People have preconceived notions about it and it’s seen as a dirty industry but it’s the most innovative of all sectors. If something looks good, they will develop it. There’s no decision by committee because it’s a very competitive industry so they are forced to innovate on the website.”

Another potential area for innovation, according to Carroll, is for travel companies to take the view that website design and user experience are inextricably linked to the customer’s journey across all distribution channels and a more holistic approach is required.

Carroll says: “They should be mapping the customer experience across all touch-points, whether it’s people walking into shops and picking up a brochure and then going online or phoning the call centre. The experience is haphazard or chaotic.”

Mobile as a distribution channel feeds into the total experience idea and many see innovation in how travel companies will use it to enhance customer service and create loyalty. Dawson says: “Mobile is a big topic at the moment. The only way is to think of the entire customer journey end-to-end and that is where mobile is going to have its sweet spot.”

The beauty of the mobile phone is that it’s always with you and always on, enabling travel companies to communicate with consumers outside the booking journey.

Warsi says: “The more engagement you have with people, the more likely they are to come to you for their next holiday. Companies such as with its branded language guides are going into that space so that consumers associate the company with going on holiday.”

Progress will not only be about innovation in tools and processes but also in thinking and approach.

Until now travel websites have been designed around the basics of when and where do you want to go and how many people are travelling. That leaves a huge hole in terms of catering for those that are simply looking for inspiration, or those that have found some options and now want to go away and share them.

Sites have also been too focused on driving the consumer through to the transaction stage, again showing a lack of understanding of where consumers are in the holiday buying cycle and this is where the conversion debate is hotting up. Google figures show shopping basket abandonment rates of 60% with 12% dropping out before checkout and 48% at checkout.

On the one hand obsessing over conversion rates could mean a 1% improvement and therefore millions on the bottom line while, on the other, travel websites are now expected to provide so much more than prices and a booking engine.

Alun Williams, TUI Travel UK and Ireland director of e-commerce, says: “There is the look-to-book view and there has been a decline throughout the sector but there is also search to book, once people are researching a holiday they are seriously looking to buy.”

There is also the view that the sheer volumes involved will always distort the conversion picture. Gould says: “The difficulty with travel is there are so many people going to websites to find information or inspiration and the research process can last for months so it means conversion is always going to be low.”

Design and usability experts disagree. Carroll argues that many brands simply don’t understand the lifecycle of the booking and what the drivers are.

“All the sites accommodate people who are in the purchasing mode but don’t equip them with knowledge and value to make them come back to actually book if they’re not in that mode.” 

A final argument is that travel is too complex for conversion rates to ever be really good, but Williams doesn’t believe that holds any weight.

He says: “The core of this business is a flight, transfer and accommodation and that is not inherently complicated.

“As an industry we are probably over-complicated and our job online is to smooth those background issues away and remove the complexity because you don’t get the hand-holding on the web.”

The common strand that ties the current shortcomings of industry websites as well as innovation going forward is simplicity – the size of images, clear pricing, ease of booking, how and where content is used within a site and customer centricity.

Gould says: “There’s going to be more of the same around simplifying the customer journey and using focus groups to get to the little things on the website. I think there will be a lot more use of technology that has been around for a while but not used properly.”

If travel can shake off its legacy shackles, conversion rates will head in the right direction and perhaps consumers will begin to see the website experience mirroring the actual holiday experience.

Web design and usability tips

1. Adopt a user-centric approach in everything you do. Find out what users want and if you don’t understand who your customers are create personas to represent them.

2. Try quick things such as search engine optimisation and usability optimisation, multi-variate testing and bookability barriers.

3. Look at what is happening in the mobile space, its potential for growth and how it can bridge the gap between the customer booking and going on the holiday.

4. Be prepared to experiment and don’t have big bets, have lots of smaller bets.

5. Think about Web 2.0, social networking and reviews – many are using it but not integrating it well.

Tips supplied by EMC Consulting and Webcredible

The innovative viewpoint

Olly Wenn, managing director, Zolv sees potential disruption/disruptive forces in new user interfaces across television, gaming and mobile devices as well the increased sharing of information

As the major browsers finally converge on common standards, new hardware platforms with alternative input methods such as touch, remote control and the Wii wand etc, threaten to once again disrupt the goal of write once and view anywhere. Despite being unable to agree how to render HTML, at least the desktop browser wars were fought on the same battlefield.

Big screens, keyboards and mice at the end of the wire were pretty much a given and although it took some effort, regardless of their choice of browser, you could deliver the same user experience to all. Well, almost all…

Over the years screen readers and alternative input devices have been developed to help disabled users access the web, but it’s important to note that very few websites have been designed FOR these devices.

Guidelines exist to ensure that we do not unduly hinder these enabling technologies, but the economics are such that it’s just too expensive to design user interfaces for anything other than keyboard and mouse input. This will change.

The web has left the desktop and is now turning up on games consoles, mobile phones, PDAs and fridge doors. In addition, new developments such as Yahoo’s Connected TV promise to bring the internet to our televisions.

Keyboards and mice are nowhere to be seen on these new devices and although they currently represent little more than a blip on our web stats, the rise of the iPhone, the launch of the HTC Magic and Google’s continued assault of the mobile device market should be making us all think about how our customers are going to navigate our content and interact with our booking flows in the future. 

But it’s not just the devices that are becoming more portable. We can learn much from the entertainment industry, which provides it’s finely segmented customer base with a multitude of ways to pass on recommendations and product links.

User-generated content may be getting a lot of attention lately; after all, it’s easy to drop a TripAdvisor panel into your hotel pages, but peer-to-peer recommendation or social bookmarking is where a lot of the Web 2.0 thing is happening.

‘Share this on….’ Digg, Facebook, Google Bookmarks, MySpace, StumbleUpon…  The challenge for travel websites is to better support this kind of segment and share approach, allowing users to pass around ideas for skiing trips as easily as they pass around album and film recommendations.

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