Friday, 24 October 2008

Destination Marketing

Destination Marketing at a Crossroads

Not so very long ago a traveler had few options and the world of travel was pretty straightforward and perhaps a little too expensive।

Travelers went to their neigbourhood agent and pored over brochures, got advice and booked with the agent. Agents got to know the traveler well and could recommend vacations that suited. Travelers were well served, although the service was not necessarily timely or convenient.

Today the traveler is overwhelmed with armchair choices. Travelers who still go to agents often will first research on-line, and more and more of them are booking on-line. Arm-chair booking a holiday can be a tedious and time-consuming process. Travelers will look at several sites, consult friends and agents, read reviews on social sites, check airlines and look for the best value. Back and forth, they go looking at maybe a dozen sites.

Most people begin their holiday research by searching for destination guides (typically through Google). Often, they end up on Destination sites such as Tourism Authority sites, where the information is general, helpful but often limited in its ability to offer real in-depth comparison, shopping and planning services. The destination sites are often great for finding official resort websites, but the resort websites don’t present information in a consistent form and they are hard to compare.

Travelers move on to shopping sites like Expedia to compare resorts, to Trip Advisor to read reviews and to other sites to get more information and find deals. In the process they have a confusing and muddled array of information. The sites that help them most stick. The sites that don’t stick fall off the radar.

In the end the traveler will narrow down options to the few sites that help them most, the ones that give the best information and the best deals. They will narrow down the options to a few preferred resorts (unless it is an opaque site) and many will want to review the resort website, if they can find it. The traveler soon learns that it is impossible to get back to the actual resort because the shopping sites like Expedia, are a closed loop. All too often a search for a particular resort links them back to a shopping site. The big online portals have the budget and the knowhow to get listed on the Internet search engines (SEO); small hotels often don’t.

Destination sites are often the best place to find links to the official website of selected resorts, so the “clicked out traveler” may come back to the destination sites in the last stages of the decision making process. Many travelers prefer to book direct and most like to see the resort website. Convenience, value, service and after sales support drive the decision of where to buy, but all to often the hotel website is not convenient, does not offer the best value and can be difficult to find.

This buy cycle is not well documented, but it is intuitively understood. Its implications for travel websites are important.

The buying cycle and its implication for the destination supplier website

The Destination site is a pivotal point, Shoppers often use it first and may return to link to the resort that they have subsequently selected. The questions we ask are; how can the destination site hold onto that traffic or how do they get people to come back. It is unrealistic to expect the destination site to be the only place travelers go. So the real question therefore is, how do they get them back.

Building a compelling reason to return!

1. Provide online shopping

The challenge is in balancing integrity of information with on-line shopping, channel conflict and channel competition. The cost of a good destination site is rising. So operators are moving towards a business model that stresses income generation in an effort to make the site self-sustaining. But this comes at a price of muddling the roles and creating conflict with destination trade partners. Destinations can involve trade partners with affiliate marketing, but it is not always equitable and the question is who are the affiliates and where do tour operators fit. Destinations are reluctant to cut out the tour operator and agent and they don’t for the most part want to be either a travel agent or a tour operator।

2. Offer the tools travelers need.

Destinations can help travelers research by providing expert intelligent systems that learn who the traveler is and configure the experience based on unique requirement. These tools will necessary include offering comparison-shopping. Ideally the result will be to give the traveler the option to choose the channel, including dealing direct with the supplier. Word of mouth reviews and a traveler forum will also help keep them on the site and give the site top-of-mind recall. It is not appropriate for a destination site to link to Trip Advisor and such, as these are shopping channels that will not keep them coming back. Cost conscious travelers are always looking for a deal and the destination needs to offer a list of specials and deals and the ability to sign up for newsletters on specials and deals।

3. Award & create loyalty
Destinations have a great opportunity to reward repeat travelers and cooperate with airlines point systems to encourage them to book a destination hotel

4. Offer travelers their own website itinerary and own planning tools
There are huge opportunities for destinations to lead this charge by providing destination specific planning and a place to return to manage and share a holiday itinerary and the memories। Travelers should be able to build a personal website brochure by adding any page they look at to it. The traveler website should also be a comprehensive personal information resources and planning tool. Travelers may read and add reviews here, see a calendar of activities and events taking place during their holiday, and link to other social media sites and others like Tripit and Traveldk. It may include personalized maps showing the options they are interested, ranking them according to preferred and final selection etc.

Ultimately the Destination site is the key portal to support direct marketing for the destination suppliers. It must move beyond being a information site to becoming a system to help shoppers plan, compare and book, in harmony with its trade partners.