From major retailers, like supermarkets, all the way to the convenience shops around the corner, consumers know how to find a range of choice, a distinct experience and the occasional piece of reassuring personalisation.
But does this hold true in the travel industry, even within its leading-edge OTA sector? Many do not recognise the meaning of being a retailer which just happens to be selling travel.
Because that is really what an OTA is. Its backbone is the dynamic technology and comprehensive content of the sort people like Travelport provide, but its craft is in deploying it like a smart retailer.
Much of the travel industry operates in acronyms – PNR, BSP, PAX – and technology, which can lose sight of the reason OTAs exist: to help us manage and sell travel better.
But OTAs are in a great position even before a customer becomes a customer. Our research shows that the vast majority (72 per cent) of Australian travellers have used one when simply looking for inspiration. The same number trusts the reviews seen on their sites. And 64 per cent want the convenience of being able to see details of the whole trip in one place.
This is a huge advantage, but are OTAs making the most of their opportunity?
Some do it extremely well. OTAs can offer instant illustrated ideas instead of a spinning clock while the full results of a search populate the screen, buying time with the customer and acting like an enticing in-store display.
This technology is called “asynchronous search”, and it can make a big difference between engagement and frustrated abandonment. It returns results from providers as they become available, rather than aggregating all results before returning a single response.
Inside apps, more than half (56 per cent) of business travellers want the ability to add extras, like Wi-Fi and extra baggage, on the go. This is where OTAs can harness effective merchandising to easily display these extras. It’s like being in a shop where the retailer puts other essential ingredients right next to that delicious pasta you were going to buy anyway. It’s a highly relevant cross-sell.
OTAs can do this with personalised offers based on data insights that suggest flights, hotel rooms, car rentals and activities that may suit them.
Data helps them work out when to run marketing campaigns, offer specific destination advice rather than actual deals and promote content specific to the traveller (eg. family-oriented content), thereby improving typical shop to book average times.
This takes the friction out of the shopping process, reducing the time that travellers spend searching and showing that the OTA understands them. This dramatically improves the customer experience; streamlining the shopping process also brings significant commercial benefits, from increasing conversion to reducing the window between shopping and booking.
The traveller, just like any shopper, wants as much information on the choices as possible. And so they should. They can literally be very ‘big ticket’ items.
For example, it is important to show branded airfares for comparison to avoid customers having to visit airline websites to check.
The power of mobile can’t be underestimated when it comes to creating a sophisticated OTA experience. Around half of travellers with smartphones say they make their decision on mobile, but then book on another device. Allowing users to start a booking on one device and continue it on another is a way to add value throughout the booking stage and provide a smoother user experience that leads to higher conversion rates.
Retailers always emphasise the need for continuous customer engagement. It is no different in travel. We have so many opportunities to do this, but they need to be maximised to truly drive results
Pre-trip, OTAs can provide guides and recommendations, advise on disruption, prompt to book taxis, suggest ancillaries or add insurance. During the trip, whilst eight out of ten would welcome suggestions from their OTA of things to do, our research also found that 41 per cent of Australian travellers think not being able to talk to a human is a pain point when booking travel.
And after the trip, opportunities keep on coming with added loyalty points for reviews, personalised travel suggestions via an app based on previous journeys and newsletters featuring discounts.
The basics of customer success in the digital era are the same, whether you’re a brick-and-mortar retailer, supermarket or online OTA.
While it’s easy to get lost in the buzz around personalisation, data, automation and other jargons, the key is to use the technology available to meet customer’s expectations of a frictionless experience from the planning to long after a traveller’s trip. Making this a reality can convert passive browser into active bookings, who come back time and time again.
Scott Barber is the managing director of Travelport for Australia and New Zealand.