From Research To Booking To Check-In: Prepare, Tune Your Site For Traveler's True Needs

Travel is one of few industries bless with reliable, built-in buying seasons, and therefore, predictable consumer buying patterns and behaviors. From research and booking to take-off and arrival, the opportunities to capitalize on travel promotions and discount offers, as well as relevant upsell and cross-sell opportunities, are virtually limitless. Despite working with a highly predictable target audience, however, many online marketers make the mistake of waiting too long to test, optimize, and personalize their various online initiatives in anticipation of the masses -- or simply don't do it all. As a result, they decrease what could have been their company's rightful share of the buying action and miss opportunities to increase consumer lifetime values.

If you're waiting until a week before Memorial Day, Spring Break, or Christmas to start targeting your travel deals and optimizing your site to turn researchers into bookers, you're way too late. And what about when your customers come back to print boarding passes or add a car rental? You must be ready to tailor and target their experience based on the data you already know about them.



A recent study by eConsultancy shows that nearly 53% of consumers are purchasing their vacations online, and that "the Internet is involved in almost 85% of vacation purchases." Since we know when and where most travelers are making their purchases, the obvious question is, What exactly should we be doing to prepare our sites for these mass booking extravaganzas?

1. Keep overall site navigation and usability simple. Start by addressing your site's overall usability. Vacation planning and booking decisions are daunting enough on their own; if your site is too complex, buyers will flee your site faster than New Yorkers leave Manhattan on Labor Day. (Trust me, this is very fast.) Twenty-nine percent of eConsultancy's respondents complained that travel websites aren't easy to use. So, ask yourself: Are you helping visitors save their research data? Can they easily find what they're looking for? What pages have high exit and bounce rates? A quick dive into your web analytics should reveal key problem areas. Consider these the low-hanging fruit -- pages you should address immediately to secure more bookings.

2. Establish consumer trust with clear pricing. Sixty-four percent of eConsultancy's respondents cited "unclear pricing" as the most frequent reason they abandon the online purchase process. Are your pricing packages transparent enough? Are you including hidden fees that will turn the visitor off at the last moment? Why?

3. Get visitors' "real" feedback. Asking visitors to rate their experience is one thing, but actions speak louder than words, so you'll want to conduct multivariate and A/B testing to get a real sense of their experiences. These tests will allow you to identify your site's best-performing content, based on live visitor data. Very often, changes to the most minor of details -- such as the color/size of a "book now" button -- have the most impact on conversion (in this case, the number of visitors who enter the buying process). For example, when travel site OnTheBeach wanted to decrease the abandon rate of its "Holiday Builder" tool, they tested and optimized its various icons, buttons, and pricing presentations, and ultimately experienced a 30% increase in the number of visitors who proceeded to the payment page.

4. Target and personalize. If you captured information correctly along the way, you should now use this data to personalize the visitors' experiences when they're ready to make their purchases. Start by thinking about your promotional line-up: What do you have to offer? How are you presenting it? Where is it occupying space on your website? And what users should be seeing what promotions? We know you have great offers, but if users don't see them or aren't interested, your enticing deals aren't very enticing.

5. Test the elements. Next, try out different promotional texts, link designs, placements and banner ads. When we worked with a leading global hospitality chain to perform multivariate tests and apply behavioral segmentation strategies on their promotions, we discovered that the best combinations yielded conversion-rate increases of anywhere from 16-78%. Additionally, we applied website personalization techniques to the promotional pricing messages, banner designs, and target geo-locations of the product images to increase booking confirmations over 30%.

6. Upsell and cross-sell -- but only when the time is right. No matter which sector of the travel industry you play in, you always have another opportunity to interact with a customer before they take off. Consumers typically return to their chosen booking site to iron out any last minute details --seat upgrades, bag check, rental cars, excursions, insurance, you name it. And since you've already collected information about them during the research and booking phases, this is the perfect time to throw targeted recommendations their way. Travel sites often make the mistake of "forcing" these extras during the booking phase, automatically selecting add-ons for them, and subsequently raising a high-level of annoyance at the point-of-purchase. It's likely that they already have a pricey amount of goods in their cart -- and that they're not ready to think about the bells and whistles -- so try not to be too pushy the first time around.

Budget airline, Bmibaby, has found that its ability to effectively sell add-ons, such as travel insurance and paid seat booking, has become a critical factor in their success. But a challenge it faced along the way was figuring out how to accomplish this without decreasing actual flight bookings. After making a number of changes to the seat booking page -- such as moving the call-to-action on the "seat selector" page, repositioning and reordering the "help" copy, and adjusting the right hand vs. left hand position of the seat selector diagram -- Bmibaby experienced an 18% increase in paid seat bookings, without any repercussions to its bookings.

At the end of the day, it's important to keep in mind that while the timing of buyer's purchases may be predictable, their travel experiences and preferences are unique. Shouldn't their booking experience be built for them as well?

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