Approximately 180 million people visit online travel agent (OTA) sites each month, according to analytics company Comscore. And these users’ options are proliferating.
From niche companies like SecretEscapes.com where consumers go for luxury trips at value prices to the meta comparison sites serving as intermediaries between consumers and hotels — the largest of these being Booking.com, Expedia and Expedia’s many brands — OTAs have carved themselves a sizeable slice of the travel and hospitality market in recent years. Their success is set against a backdrop of global tourism growth. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, tourist arrivals worldwide increased by 6% in 2018, reaching 1.4 billion total arrivals two years ahead of projections. Further, Allied Market Research has noted that the global online travel market is estimated to reach $1.09 trillion by 2022.
Research shows the rise in people booking through OTAs is driven by greater demand for quick and convenient flight and hotel bookings, as well as the desire to compare various available travel options — particularly on mobile, which is the preferred platform for today’s young professionals.
If they’re not careful, however, OTAs may only contribute to the commoditization of the industry, as they are inherently focused on finding customers the best price. Most OTAs provide similar content offerings, which may explain why half of all airfare searches on OTAs are primarily price-driven, according to a Phocuswright survey. If that’s the case, their single most important differentiator is content marketing. And not just any type of content marketing.
To be clear, the types of (and need for) content is just as similar among OTAs as their offerings. The well-worn phrase “content is king” has become a truism, and for OTAs it has become a requirement. Yet there’s a problem, as pointed out by Deloitte’s “2017 Travel and Hospitality Industry Outlook” guide. Unlike in other industries, the consumer’s path to purchase in travel is fragmented by many micro-experiences. Any one trip can involve a myriad of suppliers and businesses, including hotels, airlines, tourist attractions and multiple modes of transportation. Each touchpoint is highly influenced by personal preferences, including where to go, how much to spend and which activities to add. While this deluge of possibilities provides travelers the level of choice they demand, fragmented experiences have spawned fragmented content, disrupting the travel marketer’s goal of helping tech-savvy customers score the best deals and options quickly and to keep customers engaged throughout their journey.
What if content could instead glue these experiences together? Beyond simply enabling each siloed transaction, OTAs would be smart to provide a seamless experience end-to-end, delivering the most relevant and accurate content to the traveler along their journey. At each touchpoint, digital or physical, relevancy and accuracy are the keys to reducing the friction consumers have come to expect of travel — it’s bad enough to deal with slow boarding processes, lost luggage and complicated visa requirements. The brand that reduces friction wins loyalty, as theirs is the experience travelers are more likely to buy into again.
What should this experience look like?
Content can aid each stage before, during and after the traditional awareness — consideration — decision buyer’s journey. For the traveler, this content must:
1. Be easily discoverable by search engines at the pre-sale stage. OTAs must pay special attention to SEO for their homepages and property pages, including optimized imagery, keywords, special offers and easy ways to search according to destination features. Content can (and should) serve as much more than SEO filler, but it must first be easy for travelers to find.
2. Raise awareness of potential destinations. Like how Expedia’s Travel Guides provide a broad overview of various locations — the idea is to engage and inspire the top-of-funnel user with general information about a location. This gives users an idea of why they would want to go to a certain place at a certain time.
3. Narrow down available options. The evaluation and decision stages of the buyer’s journey are where hotel-specific information becomes important. Accurate and up-to-date property descriptions and reviews help distinguish the user’s choices.
4. Provide post-booking support. According to Google, 85% of travelers arrive at their destination before they decide on activities: “Travel marketers may think that a secured booking is the end of the road when it comes to serving travelers’ needs. But providing useful information in these particular micro-moments is a way to build your brand, drive word of mouth and increase loyalty among travelers.” Location-aware app content ensures relevance here by suggesting relevant activities, like the best places to eat nearby, for an example.
5. Providing post-travel support creates ambassadors out of customers. OTAs should find ways to empower travelers to share and amplify their experiences, such as through email or social campaigns. Given that 70% of consumers value recommendations by their peers over recommendations made by brands (according to Econsultancy), this social proof helps inform the next customer’s decision.
Due to the fragmented nature of the OTA landscape, travelers can cherrypick various trip components from multiple OTAs or individual suppliers (airlines, attractions or event venues). When one OTA provides relevant and accurate content along each step of the buying journey — which begins building trust — the buyer becomes less inclined to shop around, and more inclined to stick with that brand. It’s a win-win, since the OTA keeps the traveler and the traveler gets the correct information they need at the correct time. Trust is the true differentiator. As for how travel marketers can build trust, particularly on a global scale, they’ll want to align content not just with the right step in the traveler’s journey, but also with their cultural preferences. Let us now delve deeper into the considerations involved in this.
Machines tell, but humans engage
Not all travel content is built to impress. If you look at major booking sites, you’ll notice most content is heavily templatized: the same paragraphs reappear again and again in the same order, with the same themes. Only the data points differ.
Hotel descriptions, for example, tend to be factual and straightforward. Booking.com and other big players tend to provide standardized pieces of text. The content is so formulaic that it could be generated automatically from a checklist of hotel amenities (Wi-Fi, breakfast included, spa and so on). To ensure accuracy, a human must verify this data. But even if the content is done by a writer, these factual descriptions can be created by anyone about any hotel in the world, leveraging desk research rather than personal knowledge. Most of the time, this is sufficient.
On the other hand, if they’re writing about French cuisine in New Orleans, content creators would have to know the area and its French restaurants to make the content valuable. In this case, readers are relying on an in-country writer’s personal knowledge to guide their decision. The writer themselves can add a certain level of credibility. As long as many OTAs continue to deliver content that is cheaply produced and designed only to improve search engine results, there is still a potential point of differentiation for other OTAs to deliver content that’s professionally written by travel journalists or bloggers associated with their brand.
That said, it’s important that OTAs understand when to prioritize facts and accuracy versus when to have an expert describe a selling point in a creative and engaging way. High-volume, data-generated content is just as valuable, even if similar in look and feel to its counterparts on competing sites. This kind of data is still critical at the point of booking, especially if it’s accurate, timely and verified by humans. However, for the purposes of differentiation and trust, creative content generated by humans is where the deeper value lies for OTAs.
Cultural preferences are everything
Even well-planned content means little if it’s not provided to the right buyer at the right time and at a local level. The wrong content at the wrong time will alienate buyers and erode trust. OTAs must invest in understanding the buyer, who, will be prioritizing their needs in various ways: by budget, by type of travel, by age or lifestyle or even perhaps by geographic market or specific interest group. One example is Lourdes, a small town in southern France, which ranks second in the country only to Paris for hotel beds thanks to its six million pilgrims annually.
Not all groups of travelers are equal, but neither is one group more viable than another. Each segment is worth billions, so it’s not a question of concentrating your budget on one buyer type. It’s instead a question of mapping content to the right buyer types. This is difficult, especially on a global scale, but important for OTAs that want to cultivate loyalty.
Sophisticated analytics help. From basic data on who comes to their site, how long they stay, where they’re from and the type of user they are, OTAs can look for all sorts of patterns to help inform their content. They can draw distinctions between international and domestic travelers, for an example. Data is reductive to a degree, but there is evidence to support that people who travel within their own country do tend to look for particular points of interest at destinations that a foreign traveler wouldn’t, and vice versa. For example: the data shows that Chinese travelers to the UK take a far bigger interest in outlet shopping venues than European or American visitors. When searching for hotels, Chinese travelers are more likely to prioritize spas.
This is more about products and services than content, to some extent. But it’s important for OTAs to make sure that their content reflects the points of interest travelers want to see, is easy to access and skips what might be irrelevant.
Ensuring that content reflects traveler priorities, along with content mapping, requires the specialized cultural knowledge of localization departments and their in-country resources. As humans, localization professionals trump machines when it comes to generating content that inspires trust. And as market experts, localization professionals can help OTAs understand the preferences for certain types of information from country to country. OTAs could just translate hotel descriptions from English to Simplified Chinese, but what about the descriptions of features Chinese travelers aren’t interested in? They could literally translate keywords (assuming travelers search only in their own language) but what about popular keywords that don’t have direct translations? For example, “bed-and-breakfast” might not translate directly into a keyword that draws as much traffic. These kinds of considerations require robust localization and a laser focus on what motivates consumers to travel.
The right channels tie it all together
One major challenge OTA marketers face is how to allocate budget to the many content distribution channels available across markets. Pressured to keep in step with travelers’ media preferences, OTAs must evaluate the potential of emerging content formats and channels, from disruptors like virtual reality to new formats on the same old channels.
Take social media, a channel that continues to grow constantly. We often talk about content in terms of words, but OTAs are increasingly prioritizing visual content marketing strategies for platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Social media can support both pre- and post-purchase decisions: first by generating demand for attractive destinations (40% of consumers under 33 evaluate potential destinations by their “Instagrammability,” per a study by UK-based holiday rental home insurance provider Schofields), then by creating ambassadors out of visitors who will share their experiences with their networks. Social media proof is intrinsically linked to relevancy and trust.
As far as device use goes, travelers switch often between desktop and mobile on their path to purchase. Expedia found that prior to booking, American, British and Canadian travelers visit an average of 290 total websites across multiple devices over a 45-day period. It would make sense for Expedia to not only account for responsive design, but to serve a seamless and relevant continuum of information across users’ devices — based on cross-device tracking — and any supporting tools or apps. Take hi Inc’s “hi hotels” platform as one example of technologies travelers are using to guide their experiences. By putting hardware in the form of a mobile phone directly into the traveler’s hands, hi Inc can accompany and deliver them relevant information on their journey, further helping travel brands manage the traveler experience from end to end.
The future of travel marketing
OTAs have many moving parts to consider. They need skilled, hyper-local writers who are knowledgeable about locations and even specialized in a relevant niche. They also need to know what their various audiences are interested in, based on where they are traveling from. And they must prioritize accuracy as well as creativity in their content, and have translators able to transfer and adapt their content to local languages. Finally, OTAs are doing this at scale: creating and refreshing content for hundreds of cities and points of interest, all while maintaining quality and consistency of service.
Meanwhile, enabled by technology, travelers have higher expectations than ever “for assistive experiences that are useful, personal and frictionless,” according to Google. What does the future look like as travel marketers strive to meet this demand? A recent study by Google and Phocuswright found that nearly six in ten (57%) US travelers feel that brands should tailor their content to personal preferences or past behaviors, a sentiment echoed across other countries studied. Google believes there are growing opportunities to use tools such as predictive analytics to better stitch together the many pieces of trip planning and assist buyers with their decision-making every step of the way. Companies that leverage this just might find themselves producing more trustworthy content.
From big OTAs to boutique hotels, it seems everyone has travel advice to share online. The challenge for any competing brand is to become the go-to fount of this knowledge, building the perception that theirs is the content upon which travelers can depend — the right content at the right time in the buyer’s journey. To come out on top, travel marketers and their partners must go the extra mile to offer advice that is reliable, relevant and personalized to the traveler’s linguistic and cultural preferences, while distinguishing the brand’s assistive prowess — using content to give travelers more control over their journey and enable unforgettable, repeatable experiences.