Buzzwords to bookings: The OTA imperative

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Whether shopping for bagels in Whole Foods in the U.S. or butter in Waitrose near my new home in the U.K., I know I'll have an array of choices, a distinct experience and the occasional piece of reassuring personalization.

I take all this for granted. And I get it from smaller retailers and Amazon, too.

But I sometimes wonder if some in the travel industry, even within its leading-edge OTA sector, have really taken grasp of what it means to be a retailer who just happens to be selling travel?

Rob Brown
Rob Brown

Because that is really what an OTA is. Its backbone is the dynamic technology and comprehensive content of the sort companies like Travelport provide, but its craft is in deploying it like a smart retailer.

We work in a world of weird acronyms -- PNR, BSP, PAX -- in which we might be expert but too often lose sight of the reason they exist: to help us manage and sell travel.

But OTAs are in a great position even before a customer becomes a customer. Our research shows that 70% of travelers have used one when simply looking for inspiration. The same number trust the reviews on their sites, and 73% would rebook with an OTA if they could book the whole trip in one place.

That is a fantastic advantage. But how effectively do OTAs exploit this position?

Some do it extremely well. Just as the fragrant and timely waft of a freshly baked bagel lures me into Whole Foods, the clever OTA can offer instant illustrated ideas instead of just a spinning clock while the full results of a search populate the screen.

This technology is called "asynchronous search," and it can make a big difference between engagement and frustrated abandonment. It returns results from providers as they become available, rather than aggregating all results before returning a single response.

Once inside an OTA, 71% want to be able to add to the basics of a flight and a hotel with ancillaries. It's like being in a shop where the retailer puts other inviting ingredients right next to that delicious pasta you were going to buy anyway. It's a highly relevant cross-sell.

OTAs can do this with personalized offers based on data insights that suggest flights, hotel rooms, car rentals and activities that might suit them.

Data helps them know when to run marketing campaigns, offer specific destination advice rather than actual deals and promote content for families and not backpackers, thereby improving typical shop-to-book times.

This takes the friction out of the shopping process, reducing the time that travelers spend searching and showing that the OTA understands them.

As well as significantly improving the customer experience, streamlining shopping also brings significant commercial benefits, such as increasing conversion.

The traveler, just like any shopper, wants as much information on the choices as possible. And so they should. They can literally be very big-ticket items. For example, it is important to show branded airfares for comparison to avoid customers having to visit airline websites. That is why Travelport now displays more than 275 airlines with these types of fares, enabling the agency to offer more than just basic flight times and prices.

Sometimes, when I am thinking about my groceries, I use my phone for recipe ideas even if I don't make an order. I am not alone. Google reports that when in a store, 82% of smartphone users turn to their devices to help with a product decision.

Similarly, about half of travelers with smartphones say they make their decision on mobile but then book on another device. Enabling users to start a booking on one device and continue it on another is a way to add value throughout the booking stage, leading to higher conversion rates.

Every retailer textbook highlights the need for continuous customer engagement. It is no different in travel. Pre-trip, OTAs can provide guides and recommendations, advise on disruption, prompt to book taxis, suggest ancillaries or add insurance.

During the trip, while eight out of 10 would welcome suggestions from their OTA for things to do, our research also found that 38% of leisure travelers think not being able to talk to a human is a pain point when booking travel.

And after the trip, opportunities keep on coming: added loyalty points for reviews, personalized travel suggestions based on previous journeys and newsletters featuring discounts.

So whether on Main Street, at the mall or online, the concepts of personalization, data, automation and similar buzzwords are the imperatives of retail and commercial success. The key is making them a reality and converting those passive browsers into active bookings.

Rob Brown is Travelport's global vice president and managing director for OTAs.

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