Standing out from the crowd

Consumers’ online behaviour is changing and travel companies should be using the recession as a period to raise their game, get wise to the competition and innovate, as Yahoo! head of travel Hazel Checkley explains.

The travel industry, like every other, is currently facing major challenges: the credit crunch, rising fuel costs and lower disposable incomes. This, combined with the threat of a consumer panic over swine flu, means people are more discerning than ever to spend money on holidays.

There’s no need to panic – it’s simply a natural slowdown for the sector. However, to get ahead of the competition, companies need to smarten up, look closely at what consumers now want when buying a holiday, and use this to differentiate themselves.

Yahoo! recently undertook a survey across its European network, looking at how consumer behaviour is changing and the key drivers in creating a loyal website user. More than 11,000 users responded, who confirmed they had visited a travel website at least once in the previous three months. It found that ‘high priority’ factors were: quality and breadth of content available, layout and design, special offers and deals, and ease of finding the reviews. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary there, you might think – but what consumers really want is changing.

The use of the web in the purchasing process is now huge, with 96% of respondents having researched some form of travel purchase online. This comes as no surprise, particularly since the respondents to this survey were all active online travel site visitors. However, it marks a fundamental shift in the decision-making process, which now relies heavily on the internet, especially at the research stage.

Trust remains an important factor. Where trust was previously found in the form of a high-street travel agent, it can now be found in a trustworthy online brand, with 60% of respondents selecting it as the most important characteristic when choosing a travel website.

This change is not detrimental to the traditional travel agent (online or offline), who still provides a human element of trust and convenience. For some, agents are clearly still the first port of call, in particular when consumers are pushed for time and not experiencing a work/life balance.

At the end of last year, Yahoo! undertook another study looking at the changing ways in which internet users are consuming media online. The study, entitled Return on Attention, found that for nearly 70% of respondents, life is busier today than it used to be. As a consequence, they are demanding better and faster information, presented in a more intuitive manner.

One dominating factor that consumers look for when purchasing a holiday, is cost. With constant supply, but falling demand, price reigns supreme. The domination of price in the decision-making process, has been accelerated by the emergence of more price-comparison sites. Never before has the playing field been so level, promoting the need for transparency, honesty and openness too. As the competition gains pace, travel sites must raise their game.

With competition on the up, many companies are slashing – or soon will be – their prices in order to keep business. Most however, are finding ways to recoup the loss via ancillary services such as surcharges for food on-board or checked luggage. While this is proving an effective way of keeping costs low and attractive, it can pose obvious challenges for website developers.

Usability is key – so it’s crucial these options are clear and explained succinctly and easily. Consequently, in our survey, ‘offers and deals’ were identified as one of the top four high-priority elements to be found on a travel website.

So, with competition at its highest and spending on travel at its lowest, companies need to find new and innovative ways to differentiate themselves from rivals. But where should this innovation be focused?

From our insights into consumer buying behaviour online, we’ve learnt that both functionality and inspiration are important to our users. Kayak is a great example of a clever, yet attractive user interface supported by slick and robust back-end technology. The company has invested heavily both in the technology behind the site and technical support teams and benefits from fantastic usability as a result. It’s fast and intuitive to use. Users simply want to go online and check out availability, prices and options for their holiday, flight or car hire. Customers expect searches at lightning speed and for these results to be displayed clearly and simply. And Kayak achieves just that.

On the other side of the coin, with online research so popular, sites with a heavy ‘inspirational’ element that offer something ‘different’ to users are also proving a success. Blacktomato.co.uk is another excellent site that combines real travel expertise through bespoke holidays. Its passion to give travellers the insider knowledge on destinations helps provide people with a real flavour of what they can expect from a holiday. The site is visually fantastic and beautifully designed.

Content is paramount but the information must also be succinct and relevant, with ‘quality and breadth of content available’, featuring as one of the top four elements of the respondents’ favourite travel website. The real winners will be those who can combine functionality with great content.

Social media, undoubtedly, is becoming an important factor. The online travel community needs to fully embrace Web 2.0. User-generated content provides users with ‘real-life’ feedback and an element of trust they previously found in the traditional high-street travel agent. Some 45% of respondents to our survey said they look for Q&As and 38% want recommendations and advice from other users when booking a holiday online.

Multimedia is important too – with nearly half of all those surveyed (45%) being interested in some form of video footage. STA Travel’s website is a great example, which includes blog entries and photo content.

Furthermore, companies must innovate in the mobile space. Our mobile phones are our lifelines, our cameras, our internet access and our email – so why couldn’t they also be our mobile travel companions?

Companies such as Lonely Planet already have a mobile application to complement the traditional hard copy. Sending live updates and snippets of timely information to travellers while en route is a quick and convenient alternative to the often cumbersome travel guidebooks.

In difficult times, the best form of attack for any business is with innovation. Investing in technology to help make the user experience faster, clearer and more inspirational will equip companies to ride the storm.

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