Today’s consumers have a world of opportunity at their fingertips when it comes to researching and purchasing travel. New ideas can come from almost anywhere: the email from a hotel chain that appears in their mailbox; an Instagram, Snapchat or Pinterest photo about a hot new destination; a Facebook or Twitter discussion about the most comfortable airline seats. And that’s before they even set out to actively research a travel experience.
Once the research begins, a whole new slew of information is available. Sure, travelers talk to their friends and family for ideas, but they also reach out to their wider online social network circle for advice and opinions.
And then they take to the review sites, online travel sites and supplier sites for more information and opinions. In fact, according to Travel Weekly’s Consumer Trends study in summer 2015, more than half of those surveyed said they used a travel review site in the past year, with nearly all of those respondents reporting that the review sites had at least some influence on their travel decisions.
And those numbers continue to grow. In 2015, for example, 37% said such sites have “very much” influence in their travel decisions, compared to just two years earlier when only 21% said the same. According to Phocuswright research, traveler-posted reviews are now more widely used than professional reviews, photography, video, interactive maps and information on social networks.
In the luxury sector, travel review sites are especially influential, according to MMGY’s 2015 Portrait of American Travelers. Affluent travelers with an annual household income of more than $150,000 are looking to friends and family less than in the past—37% considered their advice influential, down from 48% just the year before—while 41% visited a travel review site for information, up 7% from the year before. And more than half of these travelers (53%) said they trusted reviews and ratings by other consumers more than the reviews of traditional standard bearers AAA and Forbes.
The onslaught of information doesn’t end with a traveler’s own research, either. Social network sites will serve up targeted advertising and sponsored posts based on their searches while suppliers generate automatic emails targeted to searched interests.
Too Much Information?
Call it the paradox of choice, or simply feeling overwhelmed by options, but today’s travelers are often faced with so many travel options that it can be intimidating. “It’s an interesting challenge for travel providers,” says Lindsay Parker, vice president of Sabre Travel Network Marketing. “Travelers want curated content that is personal and meaningful to them. At the same time, they want to know about all the options that are out there so they know they’re not missing something.”
This is even more true for millennials, who are accustomed to having a world of information at their fingertips. “We’re finding millennials are paving the way in terms of appreciating the value of a travel advisor,” says David Kolner, senior vice president, global member partnerships, for Virtuoso. “They’re comfortable with the web, but also really appreciate the curation of results. The older generations make a purchase and they’re done. But millennials never stop shopping—they keep looking for better prices and different options even after the sale.”
Despite travelers’ seeming love affair with review sites and online travel agencies for gathering information, they don’t seem to be as enamored of such sites for booking their travel. The MMGY survey found that even among travelers who regularly go to OTAs to plan vacations, only 13% typically book their reservations on those sites, down from 36% the prior year.
In fact, after many years of travel agent use declining, the word is getting out again that travelers benefit from working with a travel agent. A teasing of results from new research from ASTA, released in early May 2016, shows that 23% of the consumers polled booked through a travel agent in the past year—the largest share for travel agents since ASTA began commissioning independent research three years ago. (The full research is to be released at the end of May.)
ASTA’s survey, “The Best of Both Worlds: Quantifying How Travel Agents Save Consumers Time and Money Study,” funded by Carnival Corporation and conducted by market research firm TNS Global, also asked consumers about their experiences with travel agents: 63% said using an agent makes their overall trip better, 66% said agents help them avoid costly mistakes and 64% said agents find better deals.
“At this point, consumers have tried it all,” said Zane Kerby, ASTA CEO, in a statement. “They’ve booked online, they’ve gone direct and they’ve used a travel agent. This study dispels the myth that booking direct with suppliers or spending hours online yourself gets you a better deal or gives you a happier travel experience.”
Still, even though travel agents are benefitting from this information overload, the continuing evolution of retail trends means agents must keep up with developments in the overall retail and purchasing space in order to remain competitive and deliver the purchasing experience that travelers desire.
Here’s a sampling of some trends in the larger retail space that affect how consumers want to—and are—researching and purchasing:
* According to Google research on “micro-moments” in late 2014, 69% of leisure travelers with smartphones search for travel ideas during spare moments, and 91% of smartphone users look up information on their smartphones while in the middle of a task
* A late 2013 study of general retail trends by Infosys found that almost one-third of those surveyed (31%) wish their shopping experience was more personalized than it currently is, and 86% who have experienced personalization say this influences their shopping decisions to some extent
* 69% of consumers are more likely to recommend a brand based on a simpler experience, according to the 2015 Global Brand Simplicity Index, a study conducted by global strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale
In short, consumers are looking for a personalized yet simple shopping experience that they can explore and commit to at their own convenience.
And of course, price is always a factor—though not always the final determinant. “Our research has shown that even with a low-fare search, one that’s focused on price, it’s often not just about the lowest price a traveler can find,” says Parker. “So we might find that a traveler is willing to pay a little more to not have a center seat or to fly nonstop instead of having a connection. It’s not a singular focus on price, but about finding the right trip and the right experience for the best price. That complexity is another reason why travelers are going back to travel agents.”
While such trends present challenges for travel agents, they also present enormous opportunities—and technology providers, consortia and host agencies, and individual travel agents are all changing their models and ways of doing business to maximize these opportunities.
Specialization Leads the Way
In days long gone, travel agents held the keys to booking efficiently. Now that travelers have more options than they know what to do with when it comes to booking, the main advantages travel agents provide are their knowledge, expertise and insights. According to Travel Weekly’s Consumer Trends Study, more than three-quarters (79%) of consumers who have worked with a travel agent in the past year believe their travel agent is a specialist.
“Travelers are looking for an insider’s view,” says Parker. “They want travel agents who are the experience experts and can guide them to lesser known aspects of a destination—help them pull together all aspects of a vacation experience.”
To that end, many consortia are helping travelers find the right agent match from the get-go. “We encourage our agents to be specialists,” says Georgann Shirk, vice president of marketing for Ensemble Travel Group. “That can be by destination or by type of travel, such as destination weddings, adventure travel, senior travel and so on. And of course many agents are specialists in multiple areas. Then through our website, travelers can connect with an agent who specializes in the areas they’re interested in.”
Kolner of Virtuoso says the consortium’s website expedites the process of finding the right travel advisor with a verified review system of travel agents. “Reviews are definitely a change that is permanent in terms of how travelers make decisions, whether it’s for their travel advisor or a hotel,” he says. “We’ve found through testing and in real life that the number-one way travelers are choosing the right advisor is by reading the reviews.”
Virtuoso also helps agents keep up with that crucial insider’s knowledge with a network of on-site destination specialists around the globe who work with advisors to create unique experiences. TravelSavers offers similar options. “Creating unique, one-of-a-kind experiences that are native to a specific location has been a growth opportunity for many agencies this year,” says Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer for TravelSavers. “Through our OnLocation program, our agents have access to a global network of local destination experts, including exclusive preferred suppliers who can create unique itineraries…”
Agents can expect a variety of new approaches from both consortia and travel suppliers in this area to compete with expanding options that are now being presented by consumer travel sites such as TripAdvisor, which has recently added options for booking restaurants and tours. “At Sabre, we’re looking to enhance ways that travel agents can become an expert quickly as well as expand their booking options,” says Parker. “They need to know more than consumers, who already have so much information at their fingertips. There’s also the convenience factor—travelers want to be able to do it all in one stop. Part of what underlies this is fast data—that’s even more important than big data, in that we all need to be able to address these trends quickly and efficiently for the traveler.”
Customer Service Drives Satisfaction
“We all know that it’s so much more expensive to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one,” says Parker. “The more travel agents can do to make their travelers loyal, the more that will impact the bottom line.”
Customer service is what drives that loyalty, from the initial interaction through the return home. “There’s no one way people want to buy travel now,” says Kolner. “We have an obligation to give them choices and meet them where they want to be met.”
And Shirk emphasizes that “it’s all about connecting and building that relationship. That could be with a client who comes to a brick-and-mortar agency or it can take place via phone, email, texts—we see agencies using all avenues of communication.”
Another game-changer is the increasing use of itinerary management and other mobile travel apps. Such apps allow travel advisors to continue communication and care through the life cycle of the trip, with anything from the initial itinerary creation to real-time updates, photos, check-ins and more. Plus, reporting functionalities allow agents to collect insights into what travelers are doing—increasing options for ongoing personalization and targeted marketing.
“The most important way to stay relevant is to maintain your brand and profile in the community,” says Mazza. “Agents need a marketing strategy that is fine-tuned yet flexible enough to change when needed. Our affiliates have access to many different marketing vehicles so they can market effectively to their clients utilizing the method the client prefers—whether that’s email, text, direct mail, content rich mobile responsive websites or apps. These marketing applications… allow agents to stay in contact with their clients, reach new clients, and stay top of mind and relevant with today’s travelers.”
For information about how Sabre can help you remain competitive in today's changing marketplace, go to SabreTravelNetwork.com.