Leveraging Today’s Travel Technology Tools to your Advantage

Touchpoint

Accor just announced they aim to regain power from the OTAs. They will spend $284 million between now and 2018 in digital initiatives that will reverse the 60/40 current OTA imbalance to a more reasonable 40/60 ratio and trend away from OTAs by focusing on “being outstanding players at every stage of the customer journey.” This, on the heels of Expedia Inc. third quarter results (10/30/14) of 50% year over year income growth of $257.1 M.

I applaud Accor’s action to win back the hearts and minds (and wallets) of their customer and I offer smaller organizations a digital strategy for a lot less than $284 million.

How do you become outstanding players at every stage of the customer journey? We start that journey with the first step; gaining actionable insight from relevant available data. Let’s also acknowledge that every single customer touch point is an opportunity to engage.

Relevant insight provided by available technology will allow you to engage more personally, more frequently and importantly – ahead of the competition and is a key step in regaining control from the OTAs.

Success today, in its simplest form, is all about successfully connecting with your audience. The key pillars of success have been built by delivering the right content at the right time in the right place for the right price to the right audience.

This concept has not changed but most certainly evolved as technology has allowed us to gain advanced actionable insights into the demographic, psychographic and other behavioral characteristics of the consumer. This allows a high degree of personalization and relevance. .

The travel consumer of today differs dramatically from the travel consumer of the past. Yesterday’s planning process was linear. There were less research options available. Today’s consumer is more non-linear in approach, almost a mind mapping process, with one thought leading to another, and then another.

Search engines are the reason for this non-linear travel planning approach. Review sites, OTA’s, DMO sites – a plethora of options. There are so many sites visited in the planning process and can be as many as thirty, according to Expedia. “Yesterday” we would visit our travel agent and ask planning questions for a visit to Paris. Today, typing in Paris in Google gets over 180 million results in about one half second. No lack of information! So, how do we as hoteliers, destinations, cruise lines, attractions and tour operators beat the OTA multi-million digital marketing spend, win the customer and yield award winning ROI, increase revenue and intent to purchase?

  1. Increase and Enhance Lead Generation Success

Understand who your customer is. Better still, analyze your high valued customers. It’s this group you want to truly gain valuable decision making insights. Define their DNA. DNA may vary by strategy. Are you looking for a high spending “One and Done” traveler, or a traveler that is more predisposed to frequent visits? Perhaps you may want to identify travelers who have visited more recently, that have more top of mind awareness. Whoever your ideal customer is, understand their DNA. This DNA is what you will use to clone your high valued customers. This will be essential as you embark on getting higher converting guests, visitors, passengers and customers. Once you have your “cloned” group identified your objective is to figure out where this identified group shop. There are service providers who do a great job in this type of marketing and this effort is much more sophisticated that list rentals.

  1. Let Technology Outsmart your Competition

I have always been intrigued by successful non-travel technology and adopting and adapting it for travel, tourism and hospitality. One such technology was developed in California by higher math PHDs and published Neural Scientists and mimics the way the human mind reasons content. This technology’s strongest value is the early intersection of travel planning before destination decisions are made. The kicker here is that your rich media banner ads will be dynamically displayed on over one million potential websites ONLY when the content and consumer is considered a match by the technology. You can also integrate RTB (Real Time Bidding) strategies. This higher degree of relevancy will lead to higher conversions. This is customer triggered and also incorporates “offsite” retargeting. Key data is provided enabling you to make strategy shifts “on the fly”. There are a number of service providers that can access many more websites than available through Google’s or OTA channels. For smaller organizations this lets you to punch above your weight. For larger organizations you can outperform OTA’s.

  1. Get a Better Meta Platform

Until now, metasearch engines only allowed the consumer to book through an Online Travel Agency (OTA). Enter disruptive technology. Today, metasearch has met metadirect, allowing consumers to book directly with destinations, hotels, cruise lines, attractions, tour operators etc. You are getting closer to your customer and increasing your chances of enhanced personalized engagement. Embedding a meta direct booking tool within your dynamic display ad will not only increase intent to purchase but provide increased profitability by sending the customer directly to your site.

Tapping in to these newer technologies will not only give you an edge on your competition but also against OTAs. You will not only be developing your own web of relevance, but you will be able to test, measure and refine. You can now tag along with the travel consumer on their journey as they undergo travel metamorphosis from ideation → researcher → planner → shopper → purchaser. . Your own messaging can also change based upon the point of the travel planning cycle.

Ultimately there is a question of price. Price is relative. Accor have announced their budget of $284 million. What are the projected costs in the strategies I have outlined above? These services can be developed individually or bundled. In my experience, a refined lead generation program can start as low as $10,000. Effective integration of all three strategies discussed in this article can cost about $60,000. Many decimal points to the left of the Accor budget. This can deliver a stunning ROI.

Depending on the size of your business, this represents a compelling investment for customer acquisition and creates a positive environment to level the playing field with OTAs’

In our efforts to captivate the traveling public, it isn’t only the Big Boys that have all the “toys” to deliver the right content at the right time in the right place for the right price to the right audience. Today, we are blessed with incredible resources and leading edge technology that will transform insight into action, leading to increased relevance, engagement and conversion.

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The Art of Content Strategy

Content Strategy 2

For years we have known that Content is King. More recently (our current Social (R)evolution), we have engaged Content in a different place. Namely, at the intersection of Search and Social.

Sometimes we shy away from content because we don’t understand its hierarchy in our attempts to captivate and intrigue the customer. Traditionally, content is for publishers. However, by having a website automatically makes us a publisher. We need to think as a publisher and act as a publisher. Our audience thrives on content. Relevant content, refreshed on a regular basis is a necessity. No news is actually bad news.

Content has re-emerged as the marketing go-to superstar in the social world we live in. Yet so many companies do not have a Content Strategy. First we have to agree on what a Content Strategy is all about. To me, it is simply stated as “getting the right stuff, to the right folks, at the right time, in the right channel, on the right device”. Easier said than done. The customer is at the epicenter of the universe attacked by a non-stop barrage of whirling junk debris and we as customers have become smarter and do a decent job of avoiding this clutter.

How do we avoid being part of the clutter? Embracing the “getting the right stuff, to the right folks, at the right time, in the right channel, on the right device”  definition, where do we start ?

We start with customer insights. Understanding needs and wants and delivering a ‘sensing and serving’ approach to the customer. As seamless as possible. Data driven. Relevant, timely and personal. A good Content Strategy will extend the Life Time Value of your customers.

Successful Content Marketing is developed by organizing your customers into clusters or persona’s. This allows us to message appropriately. It keeps our eye on the ball and we can build Objective Profiles that relate to your defined customer group(s).

As we gain insight from this defined group we determine the triggers that will drive them to (as an example) your website. The goal here is to get your product or service, your destination or hotel, on to the radar screen and in to the consideration zone. But first we need to intrigue them with relevant content to fuel their planning and ideation process.

We should learn the timing of this from insights gained from the characteristics and behavior patterns of the defined group. Maybe even overlaid with transactional data.

Next develop your Communication Calendar. The Communication Calendar should again be driven by data insights. Preferably triggered by the customer as opposed to “Spray and Pray”. If you have specific events, make sure that you have created the persona group that will improve response rates and conversion. Remember the mantra “getting the right stuff, to the right folks, at the right time, in the right channel, on the right device”.

You are now ready to share your content. Make sure your content is the right content for the defined group. Is there anything missing? Do you need to grab additional content. Does the content fit the group. As an example, mountain biking content at a resort might not fit a customer group composed of Boomers. (Although a number of Boomers do enjoy mountain biking).

Today’s Über-Connected consumer can reach you from a multitude of channels and devices. Your content strategy should identify the various customer touch points. This requires some creativity in repackaging your content in to something that looks new and fresh. As an example; a series of top notch consumer generated themed photos collected over the last few months repackaged to tell a themed story. All content shared should be classy, polished and compelling. And remember that the first point of contact is likely to be mobile. Make sure you content renders well in this environment.

As you define your Content Strategy ensure your framework has good metrics. If you can’t measure it seriously consider it being part of your plan. What can’t be measured normally doesn’t get funded.

Another major reason for a Content Strategy (as if we needed another reason) is the continually changing algorithmic playing field from Google as they continue to tinker with their search bots. We have witnessed Google give content a higher priority over keywords. Cramming keywords in to posts and messaging doesn’t cut it anymore. We should be more concerned about the topic searched and make sure it is found in an authoritative and naturally flowing content. This landscape will be in continual flux as Google’s encrypted organic search keyword algorithms change in future updates.

Bottom line is that consumers love content, fresh compelling content…and so do Google bots.

So, let’s head in the right direction at the intersection of Search, Social and Content or you could be headed down Lonely Street and checking in to Heartbreak Hotel.

heartbreak-hotel

Lessons from the World Cup (1 through 4)

Lessons we can learn from the World Cup

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Lessons from the World Cup #1

“It ain’t over till its over”

Your job isn’t done until the final whistle blows. Keep focused until you cross the finish line. It’s not the effort…….it’s the result that counts.

Lessons from the World Cup #2.

Don’t let the past predict the future.

We all know the definition of insanity. Learn from failure. So try something different, daring, bold. That’s what Costa Rica did to lead their group. Their new strategy was bold, daring and refreshingly different. They move on and others are packing their bags.(Update..Costa Rica continue their historic journey to the Quarter Finals!)

Lessons from the World Cup #3

The Ronaldo Effect

We are all know there is no “I” in team. As we have been watching the exciting soccer played at the World Cup, certain talented individuals create moments of magic. Their off-the-ball antics sometimes are less than magical. (Suarez, a point in case). An inflated sense of self takes over. The leadership key is to remember how to manage the ego with the end result being a total collaboration of the entire team. A super star is created as a conscious outcome of the entire team effort. A leader’s objective should be to raise the level of the team effort rather than focus on one-off mavericks. There are always two or three players involved in the collective passing of the ball assisting the team member who scores. The team picks up the win…not just the individual. Ronadlo, as an example, is a talented super star and should be an inspiration to the team but if the Portuguese team is not up to par and the team effort lacks cohesive strategy they go home……Portugal lost and went home….with Ronaldo.

Lessons from the World Cup #4

Competition is the Catalyst

 At each World Cup we see age old rivalries that create levels of intensity fueling extraordinary performance. First minute goals, last minute goals…we have seen them all. There is a winner and a loser. The loser goes home and the winner gets to play again. We see tears of joy and tears of sorrow. It makes for great viewing.

In business we need a fierce competitor. Disney needs Universal. Burger King needs McDonald’s. Nike needs Reebok. Apple needs Microsoft. Coke needs Pepsi. Adidas needs Puma. England needs Germany. Years ago, when I was a VP at Choice Hotels, we had our competitors, Holiday Inn and HFS. We certainly used the competitive environment to sharpen our skills in all departments across the company. We wanted to win, especially against the competitive set. Playing against a fierce competitor galvanizes a team, a company. It helps us focus. It drives us to be better, faster and more creative. Competition drives passion. If you don’t have an identified competitor I would suggest you find one and start to rally your “troops”. Winning is good for business. However, the ultimate winner is the customer and that’s just fine!

7 Tips for Travel Agents to Attract, Engage and Retain Customers

So, here I am…..I am a travel agent/tour operator/DMO…..what the heck is going on? I see the world changing around me. I see consumers finding new channels to go direct. I see many competitors getting more sophisticated and I see myself being disintermediated. What do I need to do to stay in the game?

Life used to be less complicated. Business used to be less complicated. There were less information and distribution channels. I knew my customer.

We have witnessed the transfer of power to the consumer. Actually, it was always there but the consumer didn’t know it.

We see the Boomers getting older and younger generations growing up in a digital connected world, becoming more sophisticated and “iTravel” savvy. We are again at a crossroads. Which way do we turn?  Well, let’s look at the facts.

Is disintermediation a reality or is it a fear based myth leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s look at reality and data. In a recent ASTA study (undertaken by my friend Steve Cohen – Insights guru at MMGY), they found that 59 percent of Millennials, 53 percent of Gen Xers, and 58 percent of boomer leisure travelers, who had used travel agents, stated that vacations planned through travel agents were better than those organized without their assistance. Importantly, those same travelers that use an agent actually travel more (4.7 trips on average) than average consumers.

There was better news for Travel Agents. The use of traditional travel agents appears to be growing. According to the survey, 13 percent of U.S. travelers used a traditional travel agent in the past year, which is up from 11 percent a few years ago. Knowledge coupled with convenience are key factors in using agents. Knowledge and convenience are strong building blocks for value creation.

I started my career as a travel agent, and later earning my CTC. I have been a tour operator as well. (I worked as a travel agent with Thos Cook, and ran the Walt Disney Travel Company at Disneyland).  I learned from both companies that “value” was a key driver in the success of any business. Not the lowest price but highest value. What is the value and how is it measured?

Value is a theme that will continue to resonate. Regardless of price, we all want value. The critical task in today’s environment is defining the word “value”. We, as travel producers, can’t tell a consumer what the value is. Consumers tell us what and where the value is. We just need to look, listen and respond. We need to gain insight on the consumer’s changing needs and ensure we are in a position to sense and serve. It reminds me of a great hockey player – playing the puck to where the player will be, not where he is.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that information on travel and destinations abound. If you ‘Google’ Orlando Travel you will receive over 350 million results in under a half second. To a consumer it is overwhelming, confusing and perplexing.

So how does a Travel Agent leverage the perplexities and confusion :

  1. Become the Convenient Authority

One of the most important elements in any business is how one is perceived. Being recognized as the recognized authority will build business. Ask for recommendations. Share your success stories. You are more convenient that an OTA. You are not anonymous. You have a name and a face. You have been there. You have the answers to complicated questions. You are there if something goes wrong. You are the authority.

  1. Leverage the Experience

Insights gained from a very recent TripAdvisor research paper reported that today’s vacationer is looking for an experience when planning their vacation. This experience is driven by a desire to discover more about the culture of the destination. The experience factor ranks as high as the price factor. Experience divided by price equals value. We need to inspire travel, to intrigue clients, tease and conjure up an alluring destination based on your insight gained from your customers.

  1. Website/Facebook

The moment you publish a website you become, well, you become a publisher. This means your site must never get stale. It must be fresh, intriguing, teasing. The goal is to engage. Is there a clear call to action? Do you have Specials and Last Minute deals. Use your supplier relationships to get great fresh content. They are eager to help you. Your website is your store front. Think of it that way. Maintain your curb appeal.

  1. Knowledge Broker

You must become the font of all travel knowledge. Where to go, when to go, what to pack, how to pack, expected weather, what to see and do, …in fact your are the walking talking human being that doesn’t hide behind a computer screen. Flout your knowledge. Blog your knowledge. Get on your local radio with tips and tricks. Write an article for your local newspaper. Get blogging. Create a Bucket List. Strut your stuff.

  1. Trust

The reason social websites like Trip Advisor have grown leaps and bounds is that they have become part of our circle of trust. It is a community site driven by (mostly) consumers. You need to represent that sense of trust. How do you build trust? Belief in yourself is key, but remember you are communicating to others. You will need to display integrity, intent (how you work and interact with customers), skill sets, and reputation. All of this builds your credibility and ultimately trust.

  1. Specialize

Jack of all Trades – Master of None is figure of speech used in reference to a person who is competent with many skills, but is not necessarily outstanding in any particular one. Don’t just stay alive but thrive by owning a niche. Large Tour Operators have done a great job in creating smaller niche brands. I salute Tauck Tours (founded in 1925!) who have created niche partnerships with filmmaker Ken Burns, as an example, and created experience and cultural based tours with topics that include the Civil War, Jazz, National Parks but all with that special Tauck touch.  Tauck also launched a new river cruise boat in Switzerland but with a focus on a smaller number of passengers. Less is more.

Determine your area of expertise. Cruises – large ship, small ship and river cruise, skiing, Europe, faith based, sports, educational, theme parks, national parks, all inclusive, Caribbean, Mexico, family, rail journeys, safaris, eco tourism, foodie, houseboats, honeymoons, and the list continues. Learn your product better than anybody else. Lean on your Tour Operator partners as well. They have much to give, share and contribute.

  1. Definition of Insanity

The definition of insanity is a well known question and answer. The definition is (if you have been caste off on a desert island) continuing to do the same stuff but hoping for different results. It takes courage to make change. It is a risk taking exercise. It is not for the faint of heart.

My recommendation is to try something different on a small scale. Consider it a test. Your own Petri dish project. Make sure you have your measurement criteria in place. Learn fast. If it fails nix the project and try something new. Keep repeating until you find the successes you are looking for.

So, in closing; look up and down any Main Street USA, there are so many small businesses that do very well. Everyone of them has an online competitor. They succeed in providing a personal service not found online. They aren’t just alive but they thrive by simply leveraging what an online agency cannot provide.

“Good Guy-Bad Guy” The Continuing OTA Debate

OTA

OTA’s are not bad guys, however, over-dependence on any third party channel is simply poor revenue management or perhaps lazy revenue management. I would rather pay a travel agent 10% commission on consumed business than 20% to 30% to an OTA. But ask yourself…..is this business you would not attract yourself?

We are very fortunate today to have an incredible array of tools in our tool box that assist hotel marketers figure out the optimum channel mix and more importantly its ROI. Having been at the sharp end of hospitality marketing for 30 years, nothing changes the overarching objective of attracting, winning, engaging and retaining the customer. Over the years we have seen the relationship with the customer (the guest) erode and have allowed the guest to be the frequent customer of the OTA. Hospitality marketers have to work energetically and smarter to retain the loyalty of the guest. As demographics change and the GenX wave hit us their view of loyalty has nothing to with the definition of loyalty understood by Boomers. But that’s a different story.

OTA’s are big, bold and audacious and are not going away. I suggest that we take care of our own business and grow our own customer base and understand where the addictive reliance on OTA’s has its place in our channel mix strategy. We need to make data driven decisions.

But first we need a stated Channel Mix strategy. Here is my 7 point recovery plan to overcome the OTA addiction :

  1.        Develop a clearly defined Channel Mix strategy
  2.        Understand the real ROI by carrying out an analysis on your channel mix
    •        Property direct
    •        Website
    •        Cres
    •        GDS
    •        Wholesale and Receptive
    •        OTA (Merchant and Opaque)
    •        Group
  3.        Know your revenue-to-cost ratios, flow through costs, and lifetime value by marketing channel
  4.        Understand the value of each channel
  5.        Can you grow a relationship with channels that deliver high value customers (LOS, Rate etc)
  6.        Drill deeper in your existing database and grow the sales pipeline and engage
  7.        Negotiate better terms, especially if you’re not located in a very competitive location (i.e. downtown)

OTA’s are great when you need to “fill a hole” but should not become your number one source of business. Bottom line is that you are in business to grow your business. You are not in business to grow the share value of an OTA and definitely not in business to build their loyalty. Loyalty in hospitality is built on personal relationships. OTA’s after all cannot greet and check in a guest, engage face to face with a guest at all the many guest touch points. These touch points allow you to communicate with your guest post check-out, like nobody else can and extend the Life Time Value. I guess it’s time to reposition the playing field.

What’s Your Story

What's Your Story

Telling a story is an art. If you cannot tell a story, how can you expect to sell, engage, interact, and be relevant. Telling stories is not just about business. In reality, it is about life in general. This is not about B2B or B2B. It’s both. Are you believable. Do you have an air of authority and credibility. When we use the word “story” we mean all messaging intended for a customer or potential customer. So, let’s get on with the story…………………..

Top 5 Story Telling Tips

  1. Own Your Story – Make sure your story cannot be told by somebody else. You need be able to create a story that is 100% “ownable” by your brand. The litmus test is to write your story and put a competitors logo on it. Share it internally and if people believe the story actually comes from the competition its back to the drawing board. Your story and its position has to be defendable.
  2. Add Relevant Graphics – Using relevant and new photography will always help in telling a better story. Make sure you own the rights to reproduce the images. Remember Rod Stewart…”Every Picture Tell A Story”
  3. Don’t Be Predictable – Nothing is as boring as knowing what is coming next. Imagine going to a movie and you guess the outcome in the first 10 minutes. Hardly impressive. Be creative in your delivery. It’s not the story as much as the way you tell it. Using humor has its place but don’t let it get in the way of the key message.
  4. The 30 Second Elevator Pitch – I find it very useful to develop a mental storyboard for my story. Treat your story or message as if it is an advertisement. You have one page. What is your headline. What is your sub headline. What is your (brief) copy and call to action. If you can tell your story in 30 seconds (as in an elevator pitch) you will be on the right track.
  5. Know Your Audience – Today we have the ability to drill down deep in to the group of people you are trying to engage. Is your story relevant to the target group. One size does not fit all. Your story needs to be authoritative, compelling, timely and relevant. You do not wish to become irrelevant to your target audience.

So let’s start telling great stories, share those stories and remember…The best story wins.