When Travolution first hit the streets and screens in 2006, the established brands of Thomson, MyTravel, Thomas Cook and First Choice were the market leaders.
Tens of millions of travellers booked through their high street agents and call centres. Their websites were at best an afterthought and at worst an embarrassment. Marketing budgets were dominated by TV and print ads, with the focus still on the post-Christmas rush for early discounts, free insurance and BOGOF campaigns.
The online travel sector was about to go global with Sabre buying lastminute.com and Cendant buying ebookers. Ryanair, easyJet and TripAdvisor were a fraction of their current sizes. Booking.com was building slowly. Search engine marketing was a new concept. And web analytics was in its infancy.
Outside of travel, Mark Zuckerburg paid $200,000 for the facebook.com URL. Mobile phones could only make calls. Twitter’s founders had yet to start shaving and there was no such thing as an app, a Kindle or an iPad.
Fast-forward to today. Customers’ demands and expectations are very different; technology is now embedded into our lives. Advertising and marketing are multi-channel, multi-discipline industries. The global slowdown of 2008-09 forced marketing to prove itself, not in the soft focus 1980s world of positioning and awareness, but in the new hardcore austerity of return on investment.
Travel was, is and shall be at the heart of this new world order. Arguably the biggest and most relevant change is that consumers are now very much in control. Travellers decide how and when they want to buy their travel, who they take advice from and how they share their experience. Digital marketing is the connection between the supplier and the customer, and needs to work for both parties.
Dynamic packaging was the driver of traveller empowerment. New technologies made it easy to book a flight with Airline X and stay at hotel Y for Z number of days. Businesses such as Travel Republic, On the Beach and Lowcost Travel Group became established on the back of this, operating on smaller scale but in the same space as the better-funded global OTAs.
These so-called virtual tour operators were able to change the marketing dynamics towards digital. Successful businesses could be built online. A big pay per click campaign was more cost-effective and targeted than having a chain of high street shops or an advert on primetime TV.
Digital marketing and search campaigns are also easier to track than traditional channels, delivering a definitive return on investment. However, some companies pulled back on pay per click as demand-led economics of keyword bidding made the return on investment parameters more difficult to achieve.
Ironically, the old channels bounced back, and TV became an affordable medium. The same technology that drove the dynamic packaging fund also helped the price comparison sites to gain market traction. Search and digital played their part, but Travelsupermarket and Teletext Holidays in particular used TV slots alongside digital to build the brand.
While the TV ad industry struggles, paid search remains a multibillion-dollar revenue stream for Google, but Facebook will emerge as a viable alternative for digital marketers. Three years ago a brand’s dot-com was the call to action from offline campaigns. Today, an ad is as likely to direct you to the brand’s Facebook page.
Last year, the inaugural World Travel Market Industry Report revealed that more than one in three UK holidaymakers used social media when planning their 2010 break.
Significantly for travel suppliers and marketers, social media had a quantifiable impact on the final decision – six out of 10 users changed their mind as a result of what they found out on Facebook, Twitter or TripAdvisor.
Brands need a presence in the social media space, and need to be active in the search opportunities surrounding it. All major social channels – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn – offer marketing opportunities. Facebook analytics will be as established in five years’ time as web analytics is now. In five years, there could be specialist LinkedIn and Twitter tools too.
The personalisation of communications between the brand and travellers via social media is now established. Individuals’ use of the web is personalised, and new entrants into the travel sector are exploiting this. Groupon and the other flash-sale sites are moving in. Private sales sites such as Jetsetter and Voyage Privé are also claiming the ability to target specific offers for specific groups. Travelzoo has worked the deals model for a number of years, growing a global business slowly but surely. Its Local Deals service continues to grow alongside its Top Twenty email.
The next five years
Looking forward to what may appear in Travolution’s 10th anniversary edition is daunting. But the one killer stat that everyone needs to be aware of comes from Google itself: it says that in 2014 more travel searches will be made from mobile devices than from desktops.
And what sort of mobile devices will be around in two years’ time, never mind 10? The popularity of the Kindle and iPad took most of us by surprise, and the touch-driven interfaces are changing yet again how travellers interact with the digital world.
Google will also be an even bigger player in the travel industry. Its just-launched Flight Search product is likely to be a fully fledged flight comparison channel within years.
Margins are tight in flights but the hotel sector will always need intermediaries. Google Hotel Finder could be bigger than its flight search.
Digital marketing has established its role within the travel industry in a short space of time. Over the next five years, its presence and importance will increase, with mobile the next frontier.
Consumers will continue to adapt their buying habits to the devices and platforms that are still being tested, while the current products out there will mature and evolve.
Travel companies – and their digital agencies – need to be more than active: they need to be engaging and engaged.
I Spy is a digital marketing agency. Launched in 2005, it devised a marketing technique called uptimisation and a social advertising tool called Upcast.