The new era of travel marketing

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We all know that the travel industry has changed dramatically over the last 10 years, but I still think the collapse of Thomas Cook was a shock and wake up call to the industry. A sign that it’s entering a new era of travel marketing, where consumers are looking for something different to reach their ultimate travel high.

And for marketers our biggest challenge is to understand’ what makes this difference. Interestingly, I recently conducted consumer research for a major travel company, seeking to unleash more insight into the “customer journey” of the typical holiday booker. We interviewed people about every aspect of the holiday journey – from the initial urge to go somewhere “nice”, through dreaming up big summer holiday ideas, agreeing a plan commensurate with their budget, all the way through the booking process, the physical experience of travel, being at the destination, and their return home.

We had expected to hear that they experienced their greatest joy when they were on the flight, or on the beach, or on some cultural adventure. But the consistent message was that the highest “travel high” was at its peak at the moment of booking. Most significantly, it told us that the travel buying process is an experience in and of itself. Once you have an insight like that, it can inform every aspect of your marketing thinking.

Changing consumer behaviour

We know there are fundamental shifts in the holiday decision making process. And there is a list of digital newcomers – from tour operators to online travel agents - that are winning customers and revenue.

Why? These 'digital first' travel players are unencumbered by legacy structures and brand 'baggage' and can tailor their positioning for different audiences as they go through that decision making process. If you just want to book a flight and hotel by the sand, you can do that. But if you want to tailor the activities for your family at the location or if you want to have every aspect of the trip taken care of by the holiday company, these digital travel companies have what you want. They put these differentiating factors upfront, knowing that the booker wants the best of both worlds – they want to feel like they are in control and have choices, whilst knowing that everything will be taken care of.

Data driven strategies

As the travel companies gear up for the big summer push for 2020, it will be interesting to see how they use consumer insights to grow their sales. In digital marketing, consumer insights are generated from data, and this is one of the big differentiators between brands 'born' in the internet age compared to their legacy competitors. Brands need to have an agile technology and data strategy that can evolve with consumer demand and embrace the ability of Cloud computing to analyse consumer signals in an instant and present a different range of options to the holidaymaker based on this. The data they get from their websites and apps is crucial to how these companies form their business strategy and compete in the marketplace.

The best example of this is the difference between what a data strategy can bring to serving existing customers and new customers. Travel companies with tens of thousands of returning customers have a rich potential source of insight into what persuades their customers to rebook and perhaps upgrade, and there are myriad tools to support test-and-learn programmes to improve performance.

Helping the existing customer to make their next booking should be a core competence of a travel company, with prompts and tools that are shaped by the successful paths of thousands of previous bookers. Customers should be surprised and delighted by the feeling that the travel company is anticipating their needs.

Data science

Data science can help you dig into the millions of patterns of behaviour and build very robust algorithms to shepherd different profiles of customers to their next purchase. When you know precisely what 95% of your customers with a particular profile do in a given situation, the travel marketer’s job is to make the next step seem like a great inspired idea, but to take any risk of doubt or delay out of the picture.

And for new customers, there needs to be a completely different approach, but using the same data-led thinking. What are the signals from their first touches on your site telling you about their intentions? Are they price-driven or activity-focused? Are they open or closed to different types of package? What type of family or couple profile do they fall into? If you can identify these factors quickly, and use tried and tested techniques to lead them into a buying funnel that overtly addresses their requirements, you can increase your conversion rates exponentially.

These tactics are driven by having a data-rich, insight-led conversion strategy. To help the consumer get that high of booking their perfect trip, the smart travel company needs to tailor its vast array of offers and options to fit the consumer’s needs and close the deal. The alternative – which is to let customers and prospects do the work – runs the risk of letting them bounce from your site back out to their Google search page. Or from your shop back out to the high street, as happened to Thomas Cook.

Richard Wheaton, MD, Fifty-five London

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