Previously, here at SiteVisibility, we’ve made predictions for some of the major challenges we expected retailers and hotels to face in the year ahead. We had a great response to each of these blog posts with both proving extremely popular and as such, we thought we’d follow up with similar posts for 2019.
The travel industry is one that is going through major disruption and so this time round, I’m going to be investigating the top challenges facing the travel industry in 2019.
In this blog post, I’ll be covering:
- Social media and reputation management
- The decline of high street travel agents
- The popularity of sharing economies and peer to peer travel
- The importance of voice search
- Google’s monopoly of the online travel space
Read on to discover in more detail the top challenges facing the travel industry this year.
1) Social Media and Reputation Management
For most of us, booking a holiday is a huge expense and an event that we wait all year for. If you’re anything like me, it also entails painstakingly planning every detail of your itinerary right down to the minute. Anything that remotely jeopardises this has the potential to provoke a highly emotional reaction (we’ve all seen those old episodes of Airline).
Be it a delayed flight, an inadequacy with your travel operator or a less than satisfactory hotel service, in years gone by we’d be forced to wait until we returned from holiday to write a letter or an email of complaint.
Then along came Twitter.
Suddenly, we were able to share our bad experiences and dissatisfaction with airlines, hotels and tour operators on a large, public platform.
To some extent, we’ve come to expect the usual, low level, everyday complaints, such as flight delays, made via social media and often, these social outbursts aren’t enormously damaging to the reputation of the company in question.
But then there’s the next level blunders which are damaging. They’re the big daddy of PR crises. The full-on ‘OMG THEY DID WHAT’ situations which quickly escalate like social media wildfire.
Few industries have suffered as many of these publicly harmful social media gaffes than the airline sector and last year presented some particularly high-profile cases.
Take United Airlines, which became a social media sensation for all the wrong reasons when a video of a passenger being forcibly removed and dragged from an overbooked flight went viral.
As such, the incident was picked up by all the major news outlets and seriously damaged United’s reputation. In fact, it was documented so much that there’s even a Wikipedia page covering it and according to the page, one video that captured the incident was shared 87,000 times and viewed 6.8 million times in less than a day.
The incident also led to Yelp users, outraged at what they’d seen, give United Airlines low ratings in Chicago and San Francisco among other cities.
Pretty bad huh? And this wasn’t even the first incident involving United.
Only a few weeks prior, United was the subject of a social media backlash after it prevented two girls wearing leggings from boarding a flight, causing the hashtag #leggingsgate to trend on Twitter.
Another incident doing the rounds on Twitter, again concerning United Airlines, was that of a dog dying on a United flight. This occurred following the cabin crew’s instruction that the dog be put in the overhead bin. Naturally, once again, social media was ablaze with criticism and outcry. Not a good year for United…
Ryanair was similarly in the spotlight recently when a passenger was captured on video being racially abusive to another passenger. The clip racked up millions of views on social media. In response, Ryanair released a single line statement via Twitter which many PR experts deemed inadequate.
The fact of the matter is, situations like this can no longer be contained or muted. Airlines, and other services in the travel industry, need to make sure they are adequately prepared to manage their reputation in the event of a PR crisis in 2019. Otherwise, as the famous saying goes, it can take minutes to ruin a reputation which has taken a lifetime to build. The only difference being, in an era of Twitter, those minutes equal mere milliseconds.
So what steps can those working in the travel industry take to help them manage their reputation online?
Here are my quick tips for online reputation management:
- Actively engage with reviews online, even if they aren’t positive.
- Monitor and engage with those talking about your brand on social media. Platforms and tools such as Google alerts, Social Mentions and Reputology can help you do this.
- You obviously won’t be able to engage with every Tweet or Facebook post, so learn when to respond and when not to.
- Be transparent and open to feedback and criticism. Avoiding negative press will only come back to bite you in this day and age. If your company does mess up, fail or do something wrong – own it and offer a genuine apology to anyone affected.
- Remain polite and authentic in any online communications or conversations.
2) The Decline of High Street Travel Agents
Who remembers booking a holiday before the world wide web?
When you’d have to – brace yourself – enter into a real-life dialogue with a real-life human person at a real-life travel agent? The horror.
Gone are the days of flicking through a brochure and taking the travel agents word as gospel. As are, thankfully, the days of keeping your fingers crossed the travel agents hadn’t strategically removed the building site next to your hotel from the marketing shots.
Yes, the internet has changed things drastically. We can now shop around ourselves for the best deal on the likes of booking.com or lastminute.com, as well as read reviews on TripAdvisor to inform our decision making. We can also avoid face to face conversations, interacting via new technologies such as live chat and chatbots instead.
With this unrelenting shift to digital, high street travel agents have taken a big knock. According to a report from the Local Data Company, 700 high street travel agents went out of business in 2017 due to overwhelming online competition. This is supported by research from RSM group which discovered only 1 in 5 people booked their holidays at a brick and mortar travel agents in 2017.
Granted, this is hardly new or exclusive to 2019. However, the trend for booking holidays online continues to be a challenge the high street travel agent, especially independent chains, must navigate.
Younger generations, in particular, are unlikely to have ever step foot inside a travel agent and feel more at ease booking online. Chatbots, specifically, tap into millennial’s need for instant gratification and they generally prefer this form of communication above any other.
Travel booking website Expedia are an example of a company which utilises this technology. For instance, Facebook users can book flights via their Facebook messenger app. It presents the user with the 5 most popular hotel options in their chosen location. By clicking any of the hotels suggested, the user is then redirected to the Expedia website where they can book directly. Following a transaction, the user receives a message within messenger with a link to their itinerary. Simple stuff.
That said, some believe that we shouldn’t write off the high street travel agent in favour of online competition just yet.
Exciting initiatives such as VR and immersive content are just a few ways travel agents are luring people back in store. For instance, in 2018 Thomas Cook offered holidaymakers the chance to experience destinations like Greece, Singapore and New York via VR headsets made available in store. As a result, the travel agent saw a 40% return on investment. Particularly impressive, was their visualisation of New York City which saw a 180% uptick in conversions.
If you’re a high street travel agent, here are just a few other ways you can compete with your online peers:
- Online travel agents are successful as they cater to today’s need for immediate gratification, as well as offering a seamless approach to travel research, booking and payment. Ensure your payment process is similarly streamlined by introducing mobile and online payment methods.
- As the saying goes – “strength in numbers”. Make mutually beneficial relationships with other industry players to strengthen your travel service offering and increase your reach/customer base.
- Encourage customers to write online reviews and testimonials about their experience of booking in store.
3) The Continued Popularity of Sharing Economies & Peer to Peer Travel
According to cmo.com “the sharing economy has disrupted the travel and hospitality industry almost as much as the arrival of the internet affected the way airlines and travel agencies do business”.
Also known as swap and share experiences, the sharing economy refers to the collaborative consumption of goods using a peer to peer service. It is often significantly cheaper than purchasing a similar product/service from a well-known business.
Airbnb is the most obvious and successful example of this. Rather than stay in a recognised hotel chain, travellers can instead opt to stay in someone’s home – at a fraction of the cost. Other alternative accommodations, such as CouchSurfing and TrustedHousesitters (which caters specifically to animal lovers), are also chipping away at online travel agents and hotels. Indeed, a 2017 report suggests the threat posed to hotels and online travel agencies by Airbnb is bigger than first thought and is forcing hotels to up their game.
For some online travel companies such as Expedia, it’s a case of ‘keep up or get left behind’. In 2015, the company purchased HomeAway – a holiday rental marketplace which allows customers to search for vacant holiday homes internationally.
All the same, whilst these kind of platforms are increasingly popular, there will always be individuals who prefer the security and luxury of a hotel stay and have the means to do so. Of course there will. However, the clever folk at Airbnb know this and are hot on their heels.
In 2018, to mark its 10-year anniversary, Airbnb launched Airbnb Plus. This new hotel-like service offers high end accommodation and allows the company to compete more easily with hotels. It differs from ordinary Airbnb as hosts must fulfil criteria and a set of amenities typically found in a hotel, plus they are expected to have a 4.8-star rating or higher.
Interestingly, Airbnb now officially recognises and classifies boutique hotels and B&Bs on its platform. Whilst this may appear at odds with a brand which values smaller, intimate accommodation, Airbnb’s hotels program manager has reiterated that mass produced hotels will not be listed.
If you’re particularly concerned about challenges to the hotel industry, we’ve written about this in more detail here. We’ve also examined ways Airbnb are designing for trust in their marketing. Go on, give it a read.
4) Voice Search
Digital marketers have been drumming this stat (now a classic) into the brains of anyone who will listen for the past couple of years: By 2020, at least 50% of all searches will be voice orientated.
There’s no doubt that if you’re not already prepared for voice search, then you should be. The travel sector, in particular, need to be well equipped for this. Why? Many reports are emerging which suggest that voice search is especially relevant to those planning or researching a holiday.
Travelport’s 2018 Digital Traveller Research, for instance, found that 36% of UK travellers use voice search to research travel. Similarly, according to Microsoft, British travellers are increasingly researching accommodations through their Cortana Digital Assistant on mobile devices. Indeed, they discovered that hotel searches in 2018 increased 343% year over year and flight searches increased by 277%.
Considering the above, if travel businesses aren’t ready for voice search this could be detrimental to their performance online. In order to flourish, rather than flounder, there are many things travel companies can do.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that there is a difference in the way people search with their voice compared to typing. An ordinary typed search is usually limited to a couple of keywords whereas there’s a tendency for voice searchers to use several words or complete sentences – often in the form of questions. If fact, they might even have discussions with their device. Therefore, content on travel websites should be optimised to reflect this more conversational tone and utilise long tail keywords.
In order to answer these voice search queries, it is good practice to gather data through CRM systems, customer surveys and common questions asked by customers. Also, as young people have been identified as the demographic more likely to use voice search, this might steer which content online travel companies should focus on first. For instance, an online travel agent might optimise content targeted at young solo travellers and couples.
Some businesses in the travel sector are already being proactive and experimenting with voice search in an interesting way. Heathrow was the first airport in the UK, for example, to launch an Amazon Alexa skill last year. The Heathrow software allows consumers to download up to date flight information to their Echo device, free of charge. This flight information can be checked simply by users voicing their query out loud. Who knows, fast forward a few years and Heathrow airport may have added flight booking and secondary services via voice?
5) Google’s Monopoly of the Online Travel Space
Google Flights, Hotels, Maps and Trips – It’s no secret that the search giant has slowly encroached on, and continues to expand into, the online travel space.
The launch of Google Flights and the ability to book directly from the SERP’s has, in particular, been an industry gamechanger. Fans of Google Flights hail it for being clean, ad free and fast compared to Skyscanner and other flight search aggregation sites. More crucially, however, Google Flights tends to feature right at the top of the SERP’s which leaves less real estate on the front page for travel companies providing a similar service.
This is something the company has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for. Having been slapped with a hefty fine in 2017 for abusing its market dominance as a search engine by giving an illegal advantage to a Google product (it’s comparison shopping service), some argue that Google should be liable for a similar fine for its dominance in the travel sector. Bobby Healy is one such critic who believes that due to the way Google displays its results for flights the consumer inevitably uses their service first, despite Skyscanner and Kayak et.al providing a better service.
It’s not just flights that Google are targeting. Another product in Google’s travel product offering is Google Trips. Gmail or G Suite users can organise their travel plans and group travel related information in one easy to access place. Any incoming emails with travel related content (flights, hotel, car rentals, event tickets) are automatically detected. Beyond the data that it extracts, Trips also goes one step further by making recommendations based on your itinerary. Those who are committed and loyal to the brand tend to applaud the fact it can be integrated with other Google products such as Google Calendar and Google Now.
Clearly, Google is making significant inroads in the travel sector. At present, it’s common for holidaymakers and travellers to use various platforms such as, Skyscanner, Airbnb, Expedia and TripAdvisor to inform and book their holiday. In the future, however, it might be that we research, plan and book an entire trip via Google.
So, what can those who aren’t Google do to start defending themselves against the search giant?
Well, one obvious thing Google lacks compared to other online travel providers is that human element. Consider, for instance, the difference between Airbnb and Google Trips. Airbnb offers context, insight, recommendations and opportunities for authentic connections with real people (which is ultimately what travel is all about, isn’t it?). Google, on the other hand, is all about automation and algorithms – its Trips product offers recommendations based on high search volume terms. Airlines and other travel providers can use this to their advantage and build a brand which emphasises human connection in the travel experience.
Do you own a travel company or work in the travel sector? Have you identified any additional challenges to the industry? If you’d like to discuss them with us, please don’t hesitate to get in touch using the contact form below. Alternatively, leave a comment below. We’d love to hear your thoughts.