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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You Have the Power. Use it Wisely.

As we approach summer, there are many that feel the need to create a summer campaign because that’s what’s expected and what we have been doing since summer vacations were invented.

I suggest we turn the concept of a summer* campaign on its head.   (* spring, fall, winter)

It’s not necessarily a radical approach when you really think about it.

As sophisticated hoteliers, we have data everywhere. As an example, we know:

  • The guest name
  • Where they live
  • When they book
  • How long they stay
  • How much they spend
  • Visits to spa, golf, dining and other activities
  • How often they visit
  • The channel they book
  • Their credit card of choice
  • Etc.

So, at the very least, you have what I would call the basics. And it’s a great place to start.

Multiply this data by all the guests that have stayed with you over the past few years. Hopefully, your records go back several years. This is your active database. You collect guest data from all key touch points. If you are lucky they have opted in to receive information on your property.You are sitting atop a gold mine.

Let’s create a scenario.  Mr. and Mrs. Seymour Profit visit your property 2 times every winter because they enjoy cross country skiing. They are in your database. They live a 3 hour drive away. Fast forward. Your Summer Family Special is emailed to your entire database because it’s your Summer Family Special. It has a great rate and kids eat free. You blast your past guests with this Summer Family Special.

You may give your Summer Family Special a fancy marketing name but it’s what we call Spray and Pray. There is no defined strategy and clearly no targeted focus behind this promotion, other than summer is coming. There is no benefit to Mr.  & Mrs. Seymour Profit, who have no kids and only visit in winter. You may perceive it as a great offer but meaningless without relevance and good timing. In fact, you have probably upset Mr.  & Mrs. Seymour Profit because they feel you really don’t know them and they now have you in their Junk Mail folder. Goodbye Seymour Profit.

This illustrates a one way communication path reminiscent of the 1980’s.  More importantly you have valuable data, but not gaining insight from it. Correct analysis of basic data provides wisdom to create relevant, well targeted promotions that will provide a higher ROI. Highly personalized, relevant and timely. You have rich data that assists in extending the customer life cycle. It enhances engagement. You can begin or expand the conversation with your guests on their needs. This is not new.  I remember successfully working on these types of models several years ago with hospitality and DMO clients. Baby steps, leading to more sophisticated modeling.

What you have is powerful. More powerful than the dollars OTA’s spend on search. You own the customer relationship built on all the data that an OTA does not have. You know the guests likes and dislikes.

Einstein said “We should take care not to make the intellect our god: it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.”

OTA’s may have intellectual transactional  data but you have powerful insights into the behaviors and characteristics of your guests. You have the ability to learn more about your guest than any OTA.

You have the power, use it wisely.  And Seymour Profit will become a very good friend and frequent visitor.

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.