Holly V. Kapherr
Holly V. Kapherr

On Jan. 3, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau released a new version of its Vacation Planner tool. More than 150,000 new users accessed the tool in 2018, 74% from mobile devices. This information helped the bureau make decisions on what to improve upon in the latest iteration of the online tool.

Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of the CVB, made it a priority to use feedback from travelers as well as usage data to assist with the reboot. In an interview with Ritter, she told me that the tool now enables users to fully create customizable itineraries, make reservations and organize trip details all in one place. "The mobile enhancements highlight nearby experiences and attractions in real time, based on the user's current location," she said.

Dayna Shaw, a travel agent at Mystical Dream Travel, latched on to the tool's mobile-friendly interface immediately. "It's very user-friendly," she said. "I tried the site on my phone first, as most users probably will, too. The site is not overwhelming, and the layout is very visually appealing."

Ritter said that the Greater Fort Lauderdale area is a diverse region, and curating a travel itinerary can be overwhelming. The updated Travel Planner aims to help travel agents narrow down their clients' interest through several strategies: grouping experiences by popularity, creating "travel personas" to target individual experiences and attractions, and enhanced search and filtering functions to easily pinpoint trip additions.

Casey Thomas, an agent at Knoxville, Tenn.-based She's All Booked, "I like that [the Vacation Planner] acknowledges the different neighborhoods and districts within the area. It showcases the personalities across the city. They've done this particularly well in the 'Beaches' section."

The updated planner also enables "deeper dives" into an area or attraction's information, meaning that users can click through to an attraction's original online content rather than simply reading the digest provided by the CVB. "The goal is the same," said Ritter, "but the execution is more evolved and streamlined than before."

Thomas agreed with Ritter's assessment. "I like that the descriptions on the site are short and engaging, because they leave me wanting to do more research so I can give my clients a more-informed viewpoint, and my clients are more likely to ask about it themselves," Thomas said.

One of the biggest improvements to the tool is the "popularity" distinction, which shows users the local bars, restaurants and events that are most viewed and added to itineraries. Additionally, video capability is greatly enhanced. The CVB's TV channel, Visit Lauderdale TV, is available on the tool and features both live and on-demand programming for users to get a closer look at some of the area's offerings. "This improvement to the too has already seen a 250% increase in users completing the video they've chosen to watch," said Ritter.

Ritter added that "travel agent utility was a priority" when deciding what updates to make to the vacation planner.

The aim was to create a turnkey tool that agents could use to build itineraries for their clients. "Certainly some consumers will choose to use the tool themselves, but agents planning vacations for clients will find the vacation planner an indispensable resource for creating an itinerary in just a few clicks," she said.

The click-to-share feature is one designed specifically for agents to collaborate with each other and to easily share the curated itinerary with clients. "I especially like the option that allows clients to edit the itinerary themselves," said Shaw. "I appreciate that clients can add or change plans without needing to contact me to make changes. So, if they decide they want to add something late at night or at the last minute, they can easily make the change themselves, which is very convenient."

The international market was another key component of the updated Vacation Planner aimed at assisting agents working with international clientele. The tool is now available in six different languages: Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish in addition to English. The tool automatically adjusts to the user's language based on location, even through the sharing function. This means that agents can share an itinerary they've created in English with a client who speaks a different language and the tool will automatically translate the completed itinerary.

"Through analyzing and monitoring how people were using the Vacation Planner, we were able to tailor the tool to suit our guests' preferences. The real-time feedback button also allows us to continue to make improvements as the year goes on," said Ritter.

The main goal for the CVB, according to Ritter, is to elevate the area's image within a younger and more affluent customer base. "Later this year, Greater Fort Lauderdale will launch a new brand architecture to target the next generation of travelers, with this Vacation Planner as the initiative's practical tool."

Shaw and Thomas offered some feedback to me, upon reviewing the site.

"The only thing that wasn't intuitive was the search filter," said Shaw. "I clicked on the filters I wanted and was looking for an 'Apply' or 'Search' button, not realizing that I didn't need to use one." The site automatically repopulates based on the filters selected.

Thomas hopes to see more verbiage regarding travel agents in future improvements to the tool.

"It would be nice to say something like, 'talk to your travel agent,' or even a listing of agents who specialize in the area," she said.

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