The web has opened up the industry to the masses – leading to a change in the demographic of the travel consumer. Dinah Hatch reports
“One of my favourite cartoons ever is from the New Yorker and shows two dogs sitting in front of a computer where one says to the other ‘on the Internet, no-one knows you are a dog.”
So says David Jones, managing director of TripVision, the website that analyses travel data to produce information on customer behaviour and future travel trends.
The cartoon sums up beautifully what the web has done for travel. In a nutshell, it has democratised it. Anyone with access to a computer can book anything they want. Combined with other factors such as an increased spread of wealth across social classes, the rise of the low-cost airline and the imbalance between ample supply and less ample demand, the Internet has set the stage for people of ordinary means to take extraordinary trips.
Through its price-slashing sites and travel providers’ desperation to draw bookings through the web in a bid to lower overheads, travel products previously only seemingly accessible to the upper middle classes have now become a possibility for anyone.
Jones explains: “The web has come in and lowered prices and it has become a great enabler to people. Premium travel products have become more accessible to people.
“The middle classes have benefited most from this as they are booking the ‘posher’ products, such as club rooms and business-class travel. The lower social classes will still book mass-market producers because you still get more bang-for-your-buck.”
At this year’s Institute of Travel and Tourism conference in Oman former Conservative leader Michael Howard underlined this democratisation of travel when he complimented the industry for bringing travel to the masses when once it was the preserve of “toffs going to Monte Carlo in their Rollers”.
But not everyone is happy about this change in the demographic of the travel consumer.
Earlier in the year Niels Pedersen, managing director of Supranational Hotels, which books reservations at lodgings in Europe, Africa and Asia, caused outrage in the travel industry when he declared that the “wrong kind of guests” are staying in some of Europe’s best hotels.
Wealthy regulars didn’t want their little Camillas and Tristrans having to share the infinity pool with Kylie and Darren – those whose parents had been canny enough to get slashed room rates on sites such as Priceline.com.
Unashamedly direct, he urged luxury hoteliers to keep room rates as high as possible as “cut-price customers can be socially out of their depth and may be badly behaved”.
He added: “Once superior hotels reduce their standard tariffs below 30% — and many cut them to 50% in a panic bid to fill their rooms — the clientele they attract via web portals can harm the image of the property.”
“It’s about a person’s inner values of self-esteem and self-confidence. The key test for the wealthy is whether their children will meet the right kind of people.”
And it seems that, despite the industry’s dismay at this rather elitist approach to the industry, Pedersen has some sympathisers willing to say they agree with him – albeit through the anonymity of the web.
A quick search of the web following Pedersen’s outburst yielded dozens of responses. ‘Larry’ from Jonesboro, Arizona, posted on the USA Today Hotel Hotsheet blog: “I agree with the gentleman’s comments. I absolutely hate being on a concierge level (Marriott) or club level (Renaissance) on weekend nights. They are turned into the family and school groups dorms, with drunken kids and adults running up and down hallways at night, slamming doors, yelling and screaming. I pay for a decent room and expect some modicum of civility. Let them go to a Motel 6 with the kids like my parents did on weekend trips when I was growing up.”
‘David’ from Boston concurred: “I totally agree. Nothing is worse than spending a weekend getaway of quiet relaxation only to have the Joneses and their five kids trot out to the pool with their flippers and masks ready for an afternoon of frolicking. I can hear the dad screaming, ‘last one in…’.”
However, TripVision’s Jones says hoteliers can’t have their cake and eat it. “If they put distressed stock on these sites at lower prices, then they are inevitably going to devalue the brand. It’s like Harrods selling leftover stock at Primark,” he says.
So, how are the travel providers responding to this change in demographic in their clientele?
Hilton Hotels does offload stock on a variety of price-cutting sites but says, in very diplomatic terms, that the wheat and the chaff rarely mix.
A spokesman says: “The likelihood of corporate and leisure guests overlapping in their visits to the hotels is slim due to the latter group usually travelling at weekends and corporate during the week.
“Hilton has a diverse portfolio of hotels, offering some that are more family friendly and some that are more business related. Thus, families and business travellers alike can choose their destination with that in mind.”
The Dorchester, with a high-end premium product to protect, refuses to sell room stock through external sites.
The hotel’s spokesman, Brett Perkins, says: “We don’t sell rooms on sites apart from our own so that we can control what is being charged for a room.
“The rates that we have on our website are not hugely discounted.”
The uncertainty is not exclusive to the hotel industry. Virgin Atlantic head of marketing systems Allison Wightman says the airline’s premium economy market has proved popular with leisure travellers since the Internet boom.
“The web has enabled us to increase client awareness and understanding of our premium economy product and we now see a substantial amount of leisure passengers with increased disposable income choosing to travel in this cabin,” she explains. “As a result, we have more than doubled premium economy seats out of Gatwick. Our site, Virginatlantic.com, allows us to demonstrate to our customers that the price differential for a premium product is not as great as people perceive.
“We have recently improved our upselling capability by offering the cost of an upgrade alongside an economy quote to demonstrate this.”
Lastminute.com travel director John Bevan thinks the web hasn’t made luxury products much cheaper, but has simply widened their potential market.
He explains: “What the Internet has done is make a lot more hotels available to anyone. Before, you might have had to go to a specialist travel agent to get a brochure for Elegant Resorts, or whatever, but now you can access it online. And the business has become much more competitive too.
“These hotel groups are having to fight that much harder for business and airlines still have more seats than there is demand. That’s what causes the price cuts.”
But some travel products remain impervious to any of the web’s client demographic-altering capabilities. Cruise companies, with their complex pricing structures, seem to keep the Wayne and Waynettas away.
Silversea Cruises vice-president sales and marketing Trudi Redfern says: “Undoubtedly, our website has changed the demographic of those who book with us in that they are now that bit younger because our site looks modern and aspirational and the result is it attracts a younger clientele.
“But they are still from the same income bracket and this is because unless you are in the know about cruise prices, it still seems expensive.
“Discounts are not obvious – it’s only through early booking, being in a loyalty club or advance payment that you get your discounts.”
So does Pedersen have a point? Nielsen//NetRating Internet analyst Alex Burmaster believes so.
“In terms of what Pedersen is saying, it is true,” Burmaster says. “The web is a great leveller in terms of access to products and services. All parts of the demographic landscape can now access these products. They would not think to contact a posh hotel directly to find out about room rates but may well see cheaper rates on offer through a price-comparison site.
“But it is not that the web is attracting the wrong clients, it’s the hoteliers who are setting the prices. The web only reports what companies are pricing their rooms at. The problem lies in the keenness to attract custom.
“They have to ask themselves: is it better to open up the hotel to a larger market or protect our exclusive image? Is it better to be full but at lower prices or to maintain the snob factor?”
The rich are still winning
Despite Pedersen’s fears that lower income households are inveigling themselves into premium travel echelons, Nielsen//NetRating statistics show travel sites are still more popular with the high-rollers:
- Some 39% of online visitors to airline sites are from households with an income greater than £50,000, whereas the figure for the entire Internet is 32%. This shows that airlines are getting slightly richer browsers than the Internet does in general.
- You are 20% more likely to find someone from a higher income bracket booking an airline seat online than from lower income levels.
- Although British Airways and Ryanair are perceived to be at opposite ends of the quality spectrum, both over-perform compared with the web in general in attracting £50,000-plus income households.
- With BA, you are 73% more likely to be from a high-income bracket when booking online and 44% more likely with Ryanair. With Bmibaby, the figure is 57% and even surfers on EasyJet’s site are 6% more likely to be from a high-income household than general Internet browsers.
Girl power the gentler sex are getting in on the act too
We’ve looked at how the web alters buying patterns across the income demographic, but what about across the sexes?
Kuoni new media manager Elliott Pritchard reports no change in the income levels of the luxury operator’s customers since they sold product online, but instead a vast gender imbalance.
He says: “The big growth we are seeing with site activity is women browsers. We did an online survey and found that up to 70% of those looking at our site were female.
“This follows a general trend for more women using travel sites. NetRatings’ statistics show that there has been an 18% growth in women using the Internet as a whole and a whopping 33% growth for those looking specifically at travel sites.”