Braving new frontiers: five pointers to help travel brands in 2013

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Nobody said it was going to be easy for online travel businesses and it isn’t. EyeforTravel has been hearing from some of our top speakers at this year’s Travel Distribution Summit Europe to find out what keeps them on their toes and awake at night.

In this multichannel, digital world, the landscape continues to shift and change. Newcomers pop up daily and entrenched players are upping their game with new products and services. Mobile transactions will soon be mainstream, the technology is here to truly deliver on the promise of ‘big data’ and driving compelling, personal and relevant messages to the customers’ device of choice is no longer a nice to have. Let’s take a closer look at the big issues this coming year?

1.     If everybody plays fair, could this be the year to heal old wounds?

Not everybody will agree but Tim Henschtel chief executive of online group travel company HotelPlanner believes 2013 should be the year that travel suppliers and OTAs try to make amends and work out how to “stick together” to keep any outsiders, which are “just going to take more money out of the industry [aka Google but other upstarts too]” at bay. After all they both have the same goal, be that for booking a room, plane or car.

This recognition of the need to work with all parties has been taken on board by citizenM a trendy relatively new breed of hotels. The group’s Michael Levie understands fully that the Internet has brought a new transparency to travel booking that is ignored at one’s peril. Even chains like Best Western, the first hotel to become fully bookable on Facebook, realises that forming the right partnerships in this environment will be crucial providing, says Richard Lewis chief executive at Best Western Great Britain those partners “play fair”.

2.     Mobile may be old news but it’s becoming mainstream

Ask just about anybody in the travel industry what the big trends for this year will be and ‘mobile’, as it was last year, will inevitably be on the list. But unlike last year brands realise that mobile is no longer the Wild West, it is an opportunity for today. EyeforTravel’s own consumer research shows that in the US 20% of bookings today are made via mobile and this number is only going to increase. Other research tells a similar story. A recent report from PhoCusWright on the US market says that by 2014 nearly one in five online travel dollars will be booked via smartphone or tablet. In 2012, three in 10 mobile web users booked or purchased travel products such as hotel rooms or flights via mobile phone, up from 26% in 2011. So it won’t be long before mobile transactions become mainstream.

What brands will need to decide is where to focus their mobile investment. So far many have focused on developing for iOS but with Android adoption rapidly growing, this platform can no longer be ignored. This is true for online travel group ODIGEO which expects to have native android apps for smartphones by the end of this year. A strong focus for ODIGEO is growing the business it generates via smartphone, which Dr Andreas Schräder, Group Senior Director, International, Mobile, New Ventures and at ODIGEO believes is the “number 1 travel companion of the future”. He also believes that it worth developing separately for tablets. Interestingly not everybody, including Google, seems to think this necessary.

Of course, mobile search is another growing focus. Unsurprisingly given that a report from Google Think Tank, which surveyed over 6,000 users, found that every mobile search results in two follow up actions, which could include word-of-mouth sharing or a purchase.

3.     The big three…and other disruptive forces

Developments by the big three - Google, Apple and Facebook will continue to be watched with interest. While HotelPlanner’s Henschtel argues that Google Hotel Finder my not be the biggest disruptor ever as initially hyped, there are other developments playing out at the world’s most powerful company that will impact travel brands. As Fairmont Raffles Hotels International’s Barbara Pezzi points out the forthcoming enhancements to Google Analytics, such as Universal Analytics, visitor segmentation and the Attribution Modelling tool should be watched if only because of the sheer impact this will have, being the most widely adopted web analytics tool around. Google Tag Manager is also worth mentioning, she says, as the first free tag management solution.

The impact of Facebook’s Graph Search and how this changes the way people search for content should be closely watched too. Meanwhile, the recently revamped Facebook News Feed will test whether Facebook can really find the right balance between driving much-needed advertising revenues and keeping users happy. This will be something that Twitter – another growing force in travel - must be aware of too as it looks to monetise its user base.

As citizenM’s Michael Levie points out, the transparency of the Internet has given rate consolidators free range to capture the guest long before hotel booking departments. Instead of crying ‘oh the big bad OTAs’ citizenM recognizes that brands need to fundamentally change the way they do business or they won’t survive. Whether that means supporting Apple’s Passbook, becoming bookable via Facebook or building close relationships with the likes of Expedia, Priceline and Booking.com.

4.     All loved up with loyalty means getting personal and relevant with the right people and technology

With the number of touch points on the rise, how travel companies improve the services that matter to their members is an area to watch. Many hotels will be taking their cue from airlines, which have recognised that to survive they need to be far more than a distribution channel.  Greg O’Gorman Head of Partner Marketing at UK low-cost airline easyJet says a growing focus is the “ever increasing targeting of product and content. And this will involve using increasingly sophisticated tools and channels. easyJet has worked hard to make the in-airport experience far more enjoyable by putting information in the hand of the customer – namely on the mobile phone.

Developments like this are being carefully considered by hotels and like airlines, hotels are looking at ways to differentiate with customer service – and mobile is a key focus. In the hotel business, to date, mobile has been used mainly for bookings, but like the airlines, brands will be looking to extend its use to before, during and after check-in.  As Lewis points out to achieve this you need both great technology people and the right people to drive it. This is one of the biggest challenges facing brands. So if you have developed an app that allows a guest to text for room service, you need to ensure the processes are in place to ensure that the request is delivered in a timeous way. Not only does this mean ensuring that the right processes are in place, you also need to understand guest expectations.

5.     Delivering compelling content and cracking customer service

Content has always been king but never before has it been so important to deliver high quality, compelling content. Today this means delivering an integrated product and content strategy, using the right tools and across multiple channels. Developments like the new look Facebook newsfeed, and continued integration of social into Google’s search algorithm, among others, will mean that compelling content becomes imperative.

Unsurprisingly Apple’s Passbook is gathering momentum and many brands are beginning to use this to simplify the travel experience for customers. Passbook apps have emerged as an efficient way for travellers to handle boarding passes and tickets and so on which is exactly what customers want.

Delivering great content means truly understanding what your customer actually wants. Only when you know what your customer truly wants can you deliver exceptional customer service. In the end, customer service is the only thing that really matters and while price will continue to be an important factor, customers are increasingly looking for value. And with so much competition brands that don’t deliver it may be heading for the Bermuda Triangle. 

Fairmont Raffle’s International, HotelPlanner, citizenM, easyJet, ODIGEO are among the brands that will be speaking at EyeforTravel’s Travel Distribution Summit, Europe (May 23-24).

This article was first published on Tnooz on March 28

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