Nearly every travel brand knows that direct bookings offer a powerful opportunity to take control of their relationship with customers. But knowing how to make it happen can be challenging. The emerging set of best practices below offers a road map to move from idea to action.
With digital travel sales expected to pass $676 billion in 2018, it’s more important than ever for travel brands to optimize their front-end customer experience (referring to how people search, shop, and buy). By making better use of customer data and personalization, travel brands can take control of the buyer journey, from the initial search all the way through to purchase, allowing them to provide an engaging and uniform experience.
This customer experience is more important than ever in today’s environment because many travelers are brand agnostic when they begin their shopping journey. According to Skift’s 2018 “State of Online Travel Media” report, most travelers don’t start with a specific hotel, agency, or airline in mind when they begin researching a trip. Seventy-three percent of all initial travel planning searches made in 2017 did not specify a brand.
That’s why the booking process is one of the most valuable moments to not only learn more about travelers’ preferences, but to build a relationship that goes beyond any single purchase. It’s also the point where the customer and travel brand relationship often begins. “It’s not just about the booking you’re going to get tomorrow. It’s the relationship,” says Kellyn Smith Kenny, chief marketing officer for Hilton, which recently launched a direct booking campaign. “We are in the business of building relationships on an emotional level with our customers.”
Travel brands that augment their direct channels with content from other suppliers are better positioned to create more seamless, consistent customer journeys. “The travel industry contains a supplier ecosystem that is as diverse as it is dynamic,” says Justin Steele, vice president of product at Switchfly. “It’s crucial to be able to work with many different suppliers, and to share data in all directions, in order to create better customer experiences.”
How will travel brands make sure they’re building the best possible customer experience, regardless of whether the purchase happens direct or via a third party? Steele suggests three key strategies.
1. Use loyalty to drive personalization
Loyalty programs are not only an important way to retain customers, but also to learn more about their preferences, allowing travel marketers to offer more tailored suggestions and drive purchases.
Sentiment about loyalty programs is shifting, as evidenced by Air Canada’s recent decision to buy back the loyalty program Aeroplan. The move reinforces the idea that travel brands should not leave customer relationships to third parties, choosing instead to own the customer relationship across the spectrum.
“There’s a desire for lots of people to bring loyalty back in-house,” says Steele. “It’s about controlling the customer experience and controlling the customer data.”
What does loyalty-based personalization look like? Imagine a scenario where a customer logs in with their mileage program number. That gives the brand an opportunity to welcome them back, share their points balance, recognize the card that they have, give them tailored offers, and customize the page according to their preferences. The point is, as Steele puts it, to “really recognize the customer on the front-end.”
And even if traveler is not a loyalty program member, brands can still find other ways to customize the experience. They might track the number of times that customer has traveled with the brand using their name or other identifying details, and they can tailor information based on the destination, travel dates, and length of travel.
“There’s a lot more that we can start to layer on and gather versus just what comes back from that member profile database,” Steele notes.
2. Encourage log-ins early, and often
Another way to improve the customer buying experience is by encouraging log-ins. Once a customer has logged in, a travel brand’s opportunity to tailor content grows immensely, making it critical to encourage site visitors to sign on as early as possible.
While travel brands should also give customers the option of staying anonymous if they are browsing, they should make it worthwhile by offering to tailor the front page if they do log in. “It’s okay to let a user remain anonymous at that point, because maybe they’re just looking at price and availability,” Steele says. And if they don’t log in on the home page, travel brands should aim to try again on the hotel or flight results page. “That’s where you really want to communicate to the customer, ‘Here’s where you’re going to be receiving exclusive discounts. This is current pricing for anonymous users, but we really want you to log in.’”
Exclusive deals are a great incentive to drive log-ins, as Wyndham learned with the success of its Wyndham Rewards Wizard program. In 2015, the initiative offered a discount of up to 25 percent off the best available rate when users booked directly with the brand. Over the course of one year, 5 million new members signed up for the program, per Skift. Now Wyndham has a way of identifying those customers the next time they browse for a hotel, and can offer them relevant offers that keep them coming back.
3. Follow the customer throughout the journey across multiple touchpoints
The last strategy to build deeper relationships with customers is by engaging buyers throughout their purchase journey, using dynamic offers and messaging to customize the experience depending on their stage in the process.
This type of dynamic adjustment doesn’t always happen, especially when customers are early in their purchase process. Many booking engines offer customers the option to select whether they are shopping for just a flight, or a flight and hotel, or even a flight, hotel, and car. Relying on customers to commit to all these purchases up front does not work, says Steele. Customers land on your page hoping to get the information they seek and want to focus on inputting dates and seeing their options.
“No one is so committed that they’re going to opt into car rental and travel insurance before they insert the dates and destination,” he notes. “What it comes down to is really giving that customer what they are looking for in a dynamic experience that looks and feels like the brand that they’re trying to interact with.”
Dynamic offers can come in many forms. For example, once a customer has purchased a flight, the travel brand can offer an exclusive deal on a hotel that expires in 15 minutes. That is a way of taking advantage of the closed user experience post-purchase to drive further action.
“You’re creating that quick call-to-action, but it’s within a closed environment where the user is comfortable with you,” Steele explains.
Another opportunity to reach travelers dynamically is through targeted emails in the lead-up to their travel date. Take the example of JetBlue, who reached out to customers after they purchased flights with an offer. Customers could earn TrueBlue points by booking cars with rental partners Avis and Budget.
Brands can even reach out after travelers have completed their journeys, welcoming them to their destination and giving them an easy way to book a recommended hotel. This can accompany information on what to do or see while at the destination, further customizing the experience and building trust with the customer.
“It’s really about mapping out that travel arc and figuring out when is this customer going to be adding additional product into their shopping cart,” Steele says.
Building lasting relationships with travelers is essential if brands want to remain ahead of the game. Direct bookings are a key way of doing that, and there are some crucial steps to encourage them:
- Brands should look for opportunities to gather customer data, such as integrated loyalty programs, so that they can fuel their personalization and engagement strategies.
- They should encourage log-ins and look for ways to identify customers so they can offer exclusive deals and build the relationship through customization.
- Beyond focusing on the individual purchase, brands should understand customers and what additional services they may need on their trip. Make dynamic offers and allow customers to connect with your brand throughout the journey.
- Partner with other travel brands to share data and better understand the customer. As Steele puts it, “I see plenty of opportunity if brands can start to look across and help each other out to drive that direct channel traffic together.”