The Essential Guide to Personalisation in the Travel Industry
Global travel bookings reached $1.6 trillion in 2017, making it one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in the world.
An exciting time to be in the industry? No doubt. But with massive growth comes hot competition.
As travel brands scramble to win consumer attention online, they need something to make them stand out.
Beyond being found, brands also have to deliver on what today’s consumer expects across the entire customer journey—from researching and booking, through planning and experiencing.
In this guide, we look at how personalisation enables travel brands to take advantage of changing consumer behavior in the industry.
The changing behaviour of the travel consumer
In recent years, consumer behaviour has changed in the travel industry. Travel brands that understand these changes are well-placed to use them to their strategic advantage.
Rising interest in experiential travel
Gone are the days when people aspired to go on package holidays. According to Airbnb, over 80 percent of consumers seek unique experiences.
The modern traveller wants to build a personalised trip. One which they can proudly share online to assert their own individuality.
In 2018, travel consumers want to hand pick every part of their trip. But that doesn’t mean they are prepared to work harder. Travellers have come to expect convenience, choice and the ability to find the best price.
Your customers want complete control. Your customer experience needs to support that.
The death of the package holiday?
There’s no surprise that the rise of in hand-picked travel experiences poses a risk to businesses offering package holidays.
Monarch is a high profile example of a company that was swept away by the wave of choice available to consumers. But the package holiday isn’t on death’s door just yet.
There were similar predictions on the death of the package holiday in the early noughties with the emergence of low budget airlines. The package holiday survived and, in many ways, evolved to offer bespoke and classier experiences.
With the likes of AirBnB making it increasingly easy to craft every travel element, expect package holidays to continue to evolve to stay relevant.
The reliance on indirect bookings
20 years ago travellers had two options – go direct or use a travel agency. Now they’re spoilt for choice thanks to aggregator websites such as Expedia, Booking.com and Trivago that offer a one-stop-shop for all of their travel needs.
It’s a game that many travel brands are having to play. While direct bookings could offer better margins, not being on these websites risks not being found at all.
In 2016, 27% of US hotels bookings were indirect. With commission from aggregator website going up over time, travel brands are starting to fight back.
But there’s work to be done. Research shows that Millenials heavily favour these websites. 36% of aggregator website customers are between 25 and 39 years old. They value the choice and convenience. And unfortunately, for brands pushing direct-booking, they aren’t particularly swayed by loyalty schemes.
Only 31% of Millenials use more than two travel loyalty programs. That figure grows to 38% with Gen-X and 54% with boomers.
Standing out on the long path to purchase
Creating the perfect holiday takes time. This is why UK travellers visit an estimated 38 sites over five weeks before making a booking.
With such a lengthy purchase journey, it’s essential that you’re making it easy for the visitor to move along the research phase. Simply put, if you’re not using personalisation, you’re going to be starting from scratch with every interaction.
Every interaction with your website or marketing is an opportunity to learn more about that individual’s needs and motivations. Personalisation allows travel brands to get proactive, rather than hoping researchers stumble their way into the perfect trip.
They can surface content such as travel guides to reflect real-time browsing behaviour. Or make smart recommendations based on demographic data and booking history.
Increasing expectations around personalisation
Travel consumers actively want you to personalise the offers you show them. According to online travel group Amadeus, 86% of travellers value personalised offers.
Building a personalised experience for your customers shouldn’t sit on the backburner. It’s no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘must have’ if you want to meet consumer expectations.
How travel brands must adapt
The experiential travel trend, the long path to purchase, the abundance of choice, and rising consumer expectations – all of these become much bigger challenges for travel brands that don’t personalise. As a result, the risk of being squeezed out of the marketplace increases.
With more choice open to consumers, travel brands face a race against the clock to fill hotels and flights. This means they’re under even more pressure to drive success from their website and marketing.
If your brand is feeling this pressure and is yet to invest in personalisation, you may be missing a trick.
Personalised marketing helped Lake District Hotels increase direct bookings by 4%
Understanding the travel customer journey
Before we can think about using personalisation to enhance customer journeys, we have to first understand what that journey looks like.
As noted earlier, the path to purchase is long and spreads over many interactions. It’s also time consuming with the typical traveller investing over 30 hours when booking their holiday.
Despite this time investment, the travel customer journey is far from erratic. In fact, according to Google, a traveller’s online behaviour follows a distinct pattern.
Seizing the moment
Instead of flicking through brochures and visiting travel agents, we’re now browsing and booking our holidays on smartphones. 60% of holiday searches now start on mobile.
But mobile doesn’t just provide another way to book. It has radically changed our holiday choices and behaviours.
Google describes the modern-day customer journey in travel as being made up of ‘micro-moments’. These are the little snippets of time when we casually browse the web on our mobiles. Each search on a mobile subtly influences our behaviour and the brands we go on to choose.
Researchers have now been able to identify four specific points that make up these micro-moments. Put your brand in front of the traveller at just the right time and you’ll be in the running.
1. The ‘I-want-to-get-away’ moment
We’ve all spent time dreaming about white sandy beaches on a rainy day. But this can be more than just daydreaming. It’s often the first step towards booking a holiday.
Google has termed the point where consumers are inspired to take a break as the ‘I-want-to-get-away’ moment.
Here’s a practical example: I’ve spent the weekend dreaming about a city break so I tap ‘top city breaks’ into my phone. Google serves me up the results. I click on the links and start browsing.
It’s at this point I narrow down my choices based on the suggestions. It’s also at this point where dreaming becomes more of a reality.
If your brand happens to be a link I click on, you can influence me. I’ve seen you, you’re useful and relevant to my search. And I’m already easier to influence than you might think.
Travellers are so open-minded at this stage that many haven’t even decided on a definite destination. You can inspire me, encourage me, and move me from dreaming to actually planning.
Most of your visitors are viewing your content on-the-go, so create content that’s easy to read and digest. Bite-size articles like top travel tips and destination shortlists go down a treat.
2. The time-to-make-a-plan moment
Back to our example: once I’ve sussed out my options, I start to make a plan. I’ve narrowed down my choices and decided on a destination. Now I need to fill in the details.
In this example I’ve decided on New York for my city break (hey, we said dreaming, didn’t we?).
I want somewhere near Central Park with a gym to work off those extra calories. So, my next move is searching ‘Hotels near Central Park with gym’. It’s not hard to follow the thinking, but your brand has still got to come up when I hit search.
Once I click through and land on your site it needs to be easy to find what I’m looking for – I want to see relevant information instantly. Make sure you give your customer accurate information with real-time updates on the latest prices, offers, and availability.
When I’m feeling excited by what you’re offering, I’ll need to pass it by my other half to get the green light. To get this moment right, make it easy for visitors to share the information with others.
And don’t forget they’ll be swapping between mobiles, tablets, and desktop—so personalisation is key to creating seamless customer experience across the lot.
If they take a break from looking or swap devices, don’t ask them to start all over again. It’s easy to send an automated email featuring a round-up of their search so they can pick up where they left off.
It’s these little things that will push their planning towards the crucial booking phase.
3. The ‘lets-book-it’ moment
So, this is it: the crunch moment. The moment when all that planning becomes a reality and they bite the bullet and press ‘book’.
It’s surprising how many brands drop the ball at this late stage simply by not having their website set up to make booking as frictionless as possible.
The first lesson when it comes to booking moments, is to instantly provide people with what they want. At this stage they want deals, up-to-date availability, and pricing.
In my fantasy city break scenario, I’m now intent on booking a hotel in New York and will be looking for specific and accurate information. Once I click through on a link, I want a super-slick onsite experience. We’re talking:
- fast bookings with minimum fuss
- real-time availability
- clear pricing
- mobile optimised websites
- fast payments options
This doesn’t mean asking the traveller to enter information multiple times or wait for a callback. And there’s no excuse for leaving your customers watching the ‘spinning wheel of death’ as your backend processes play catch-up. Because they’ll go somewhere else.
Travellers may initially be slow to plan their break, but once they’ve decided to book, they want to do it instantly.
And even though they might have been planning for a while, their actions may still be last minute. A staggering 85% of non-branded hotel searches are for a stay on the same or next day, so make sure your calls-to-action provide instant gratification.
And don’t frustrate visitors by hiding your contact details. They might have a quick question they can’t find an answer to or simply need to speak to a real person for reassurance. Make it easy to talk to someone quickly so you can secure the booking as fast as possible.
4. The ‘Can’t-wait-to-explore’ moment
Just because they’ve booked, doesn’t mean your job’s done. 85% of leisure travellers only choose activities once they’ve arrived at their destination.
You’re now in a position to guide, inform and upsell. And they expect it – nine out of ten travellers rely on the travel provider to give them relevant information about their trip.
The holiday maker is spontaneous so you need to be on-hand to suggest experiences that will make their trip one to remember.
The traveller is likely to be in unfamiliar surroundings and their behaviour will reflect this. When I’m travelling to New York I’ll want to know where my nearest subway station is. I want to find out where the best restaurant is and which block the mini-mart is on.
They might have booked their holiday but these things will make sure it’s a great experience.
Optimising the customer journey with personalisation
Now we understand how the customer journey works, it’s vital to ensure your website and marketing is ready to react to each moment of intent.
It’s not enough to have a beautifully designed and easy-to-navigate website. Or to have killer content that answers every potential question.
To make the most of each ‘micro-moment’ requires travel brands to be proactive. This is where personalisation comes in.
We’re not talking about sticking a first name into an email and hoping for the best.
We’re talking about creating a contextually relevant experience that empowers customers to plan the perfect trip.
Or inspiring the undecided traveller with the right recommendation at the right time.
Or re-engaging people who showed high intent but then started to slip away.
Personalisation is there to shape behaviour, not just make your marketing more relevant or your website easier to use.
Seven ways personalisation transforms the travel customer experience
In this section, we equip you with seven tactics you can use to personalise your customer experience.
1. Personalised recommendations
Being able to make relevant recommendations is key to effective travel marketing. That applies to winning new customers and securing repeat business.
Yet there are so many factors that will influence what is relevant for each individual.
- Are they travelling for business or leisure?
- Are they looking for a beach holiday or a city break?
- Do they have a destination in mind or are they open to inspiration?
- Do they have set dates or are they flexible?
- What is their budget?
Given the choice available and the variables that influence buying decisions, making relevant recommendations using just segmentation is impossible.
It’s a headache that needs to be solved by personalisation.
Recommendation technology has come a long way in recent years. Machine learning can analyse all types of data to ensure the right recommendations are shown for each individual.
From the moment a visitor hits your website, they’re going give off all kinds of signals about what they’re in the market for. Browsing behaviour, where they went on previous holidays, demographics, location – all of this can inform what is recommended to each individual.
Being able to stay one step ahead and make relevant recommendations in real-time will give you a massive advantage during the highly competitive research stage.
2. Behavioural targeting
It’s unlikely that potential customers are going to move through the entire buying process in one go.
Behavioral triggered emails based on browsing history help your brand stay present within the mind and support your prospect’s path to purchase.
These could include destination guides to get them excited about the places they have recently viewed. Or alerts to let them know a hotel they were considering is filling up.
They also allow you to steal a march on the competition. Don’t just wait for a prospect to pick up their research again and hope that you’re part of their consideration. Behavioural emails allow you to claim exclusivity of the entire research phase.
3. Booking abandonment recovery
Basket abandonment is a big issue in eCommerce. As many as 70% of baskets are abandoned.
The stats are even more bleak in the travel industry with 82% of people dropping out before they complete a booking.
This is even more damning when you consider the difference in buying behaviour between retail and travel. In retail it’s not uncommon for abandonment to be caused by a loss of intent – do you really need that extra pair of expensive trainers?
In travel, purchase intent doesn’t just evaporate. If someone has decided to go on holiday, the chances are they’ll end up booking a holiday. Those 82% of people who abandon bookings aren’t just scrapping their holiday plans altogether. They’re going to your competitors!
Booking abandonment emails are a must-have for every travel brand. They invite potential customers back to complete the bookings they dropped out of.
When should you send them? As soon as possible!
Research by Forrester showed that 90% of abandoned baskets go cold within an hour.
And in travel it’s likely that a prospect who abandons a booking might still be active in their purchase journey – doing further researching, hunting down deals, or comparing prices.
This is a key time to act and get that prospect back on track.
Letting them know their quoted price will only be held for a limited time creates urgency to buy. Adding a countdown timer will ramp this sense of urgency up and increase conversion rates.
4. Personalised promotions and dynamic content
Amazon has long been considered king of personalisation. And for good reason. The brand invested heavily in personalisation since the very beginning.
All the way back in 1998, Jeff Bezos laid out his vision for how personalisation would transform the web. He said:
“If we have 4.5 million customers, we shouldn’t have one store. We should have 4.5 million stores.”
Amazon has a lot more than 4.5 million customer today. And it also carries A LOT more products. Over 12 million products to be exact.
Trying to translate that wealth of choice into a one-size-fits-all website experience would be near impossible. Instead Amazon translates what it knows about each customer into a personalised experience from the moment they hit the Amazon homepage.
Makes sense, right?
Yet many brands are still offering the same homepage experience to every visitor.
Personalising what you show each person on your homepage is an effective way to grab their attention across the path to purchase.
As the travel purchase journey is a long one, having a personalised homepage is a real advantage. It allows you to quickly re-immerse customers in trips they have already looked at, helping them move closer to buying.
You can also surface relevant deals and promotions based on past trips to help you secure repeat bookings.
And you can get really clever with it.
Say you were running a ‘cheap flights to Orlando’ promotion. You might identify a several target demographics for this promotion.
- The young family who want to meet Mickey Mouse
- The thrill seekers who want to be hurtled around a rollercoaster at 80mph
- The couple looking who are looking to grab some winter sun on a relaxing beach break
Rather than using the same content for everyone, you can instead adapt your creative to reflect each persona:
- The young family are shown the Magic Kingdom
- The thrillseekers are shown Universal’s Islands of Adventure
- The couple are told that Cocoa Beach is only a one hour drive from Orlando
5. Weather-based personalisation
Weather plays a huge role in when and where we choose to go on holiday. For this reason, weather-based personalisation is an excellent tactic for travel brands.
Personalisation technology, like our own, can use location-specific weather data to determine what content is shown on your website and within your email marketing.
It may sound gimmicky, but the weather has a profound impact on buying behaviour.
According to research by The Weather Channel, the weather affects consumers in three ways. Changes in the weather may cause consumers to:
- postpone or bring forward planned purchases
- buy (or not buy) a product immediately because of an immediate need
- substitute the purchase of one product or service for another
Another study found that even major purchases like car and houses are affected by weather.
Consumers overvalue warm-weather features of cars and houses when it’s warm, and vice versa when it’s cold. So if you’re house hunting in winter, you may find yourself tempted by the cosy house with the wood burning stove!
The same can be true for travel and there are many tactics you can use:
- Promote last minute beach breaks on your homepage during a rainy day in August
- Show the real-time weather data in the locations your visitors are researching
- Send triggered emails during a downpour to give your summer holidays ultra-relevancy
- Offer weather specific discounts to tempt people to book
Beyond maximising for conversions, you can also start to create deeper experiences using weather data.
How you engage with customers in the period leading up to their holiday can leave a lasting impression.
- Making suggestions of what to pack based on forthcoming weather forecasts
- Sending alerts if there are weather risks that might delay their trip to the airport
- Recommending things to do based on the weather – e.g. museums if rain is expected
6. Scarcity and urgency
Travel brands are constantly working against the clock.
Occupancy means that there’s only going to be a limited supply of what travel brands have to sell. Hotels only have so many rooms. Flights have a set number of seats.
The travel marketer is always going to look to drive maximum occupancy, even if that means slashing prices. If a flight leaves half full, that’s a lot of lost revenue disappearing into the clouds.
But it’s important to bear in mind that lower rates don’t create demand. They can set the wrong expectations and harm your price integrity.
Occupancy can be used to the advantage of the travel marketer. Consumers know that there’s only a certain number of rooms or flight available to them. If they have their mind set on a certain location on a certain date, then they’re more likely to make a booking if they think they might miss out.
Personalisation allows you to play off dynamic content by showing them the real-time behaviour of other browsers. This works in two ways:
- It helps them justify their choice by showing them it is a popular one
- It triggers their fear of missing out, which creates urgency to buy
A hotel brand could drive urgency by highlighting:
- The number of people that are browsing the dates they’re looking at
- How many bookings have been made in the last 24 hours
- How many rooms are left overall, or at that particular price
You don’t have to limit these tactics to a single session. You could retarget the visitor via email to let them know how many people have recently booked on the dates they were interested in.
7. Post-purchase personalisation
Post-purchase marketing is often neglected, but in travel what you do after a booking can have a profound impact on revenue and loyalty.
Upselling and cross-selling is often viewed as a dirty tactic in travel. Trying to squeeze more out of customer by selling upgrades or flogging partner products.
But done right, it can actually add value.
80% of people find it helpful to be able to book all travel elements on one website. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to book everything in one go.
Personalised post-purchase emails journeys are an effective way to make sure your cross-sell and upsells are relevant and timely.
Beyond driving up additional revenue, post-purchase marketing is your opportunity to start building loyalty. The more you can personalise your communications with customers, the better chance you have of securing repeat business.
Think about how the customer journey works beyond the booking.
What do they need to know in the lead up? How can you help them prepare? What do similar people like to do on their holiday?
If you know it’s a family booking, you could recommend kid friendly activities or restaurants.
Or if someone has booked a five star hotel, recommend fine-dining restaurants nearby.
If you customer has also rented a car, let them know about the best day trips.
When done right, personalisation allows your brand to become a concierge – one that puts the customer’s needs before its own.
Personalisation in travel is not new, but in the age of experiential travel, it is increasingly relevant.
As consumer expectations rise, using personalisation to enhance the moments that matter is a smart way to meet them.
Personalisation also helps travel brands make sense of customer journeys which span multiple devices and multiple sessions over-extended periods. It helps them stand out and be proactive at the moments that matter.
The over-reliance on indirect bookings means that travel brands are at risk of losing more direct revenue. Personalisation gives customers a reason to keep coming back and helps travel brands break free from the pack.
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