The Internet and social media have placed a wealth of information at the fingertips of travelers, so we should be making better decisions, right?
I put the theory to the test on a recent trip to Europe, when I went decided to visit Lyon for the first time. My needs were simple: a decent, reasonably-priced hotel in a convenient location.
A mere 72 searches, 1103 websites and 67,321 reviews later, I had narrowed things down to the ideal hotel. Upon arrival, however, I discovered an overpriced, substandard hotel in an uninspiring location. It was under renovation, and the next morning I was jolted from sleep by power drilling. Then the power went out.
As I stumbled around in the darkness I got to wondering, if I, a travel marketing consultant who knows many of the tricks of the trade, can be steered so wrong, how are other travelers faring?
Not so well, judging by some of the bitter reviews I see on TripAdvisor.
The online playing field has become so crowded, the information so fragmented and contradictory, we now spend more time planning trips than enjoying them. And yet we still manage to make lousy decisions. If things don't get simpler soon, we'll all run screaming back to travel agents.
And it's not only travelers who are confused. Hoteliers and travel marketers are struggling to keep up with changes in technology and traveler behavior, and it's distracting them from taking care of guests.
To cut through the noise and determine where best to allocate scarce marketing resources, we need to think like travelers. Here are five must-haves for the modern travel shopper, along with some practical advice for fulfilling them.
Travelers want helpful information
These days marketing is less about finding customers than being found by customers. The Internet is the new telephone, and travelers are calling with questions about your business and destination. You can let your competitors answer, or you can pick up and provide helpful, relevant information.
Fresh content and social activity are two powerful new ingredients in search rankings. Not only does good content increase your visibility in search and drive traffic to your website, it converts travelers and will be remembered and shared.
I don't mean inane publicity ploys like hallway snore monitors, human bed warmers and fragrance butlers. Travelers don't want fluff, they want practical information.
Good content comes in many forms—blog posts, news, articles, stories, reviews, FAQs, photos, videos. Mix content produced by you with content curated from guests and third parties (ask permission and give credit). Optimize with tags and titles and add icons to encourage sharing as well as feeds from your social networks.
Finally, organize everything onto a social media page on your website, like Whistler Blackcomb does on The Movement community page.Travelers want to compare offerings
Online travel agencies have now surpassed bedbugs as the number one parasitical threat to the travel industry. They did this by engorging themselves on high commissions and spending millions on advertising to convince travelers they offer the best deals. Problem is, they often do. Hotels have been willful hosts, fattening them up with all-you-can eat inventory at juicy low rates.
Unlike bedbugs, however, travelers love OTAs. They do a brilliant job of organizing product offerings, pricing, features and packages for easy comparison and quick consumption. OTAs now command such a high market share few suppliers can live without them, and they're expected to grow further in 2012.
So the solution is to forge more mutually beneficial relationships. Think long-term strategic rather than short-term desperate: limit access to inventory, negotiate more reasonable commissions, and reduce dependency by shifting resources into more profitable channels. Above all, never, ever allow your direct channels to be undersold. Travelers want reassurance they're making the right choices
Memo to marketing: travelers have stopped listening to the fairytales and fantasies on your website and promotional materials. Instead, they're turning to social networks to consult the people they trust to give them the real story: other travelers.
Problem is, blindly following the advice of strangers also has its risks, especially when that stranger might be the hotel manager masquerading as a benevolent traveler. Friendsourcing trip advice has become all the rage, but just because they're our friends doesn't mean they have good taste. Locals are often clueless about tourism activities, and experts typically base reviews on one experience.
So where to turn for reliable advice? Fortunately, several travel sites allow us to tap into the collective wisdom of crowds, friends, locals and experts. We can filter out the types we typically avoid on vacation and find people like us, who can steer us toward not just the best hotel, restaurant and activity, but the best ones for us.
These sites include Trivago, which aggregates and scores reviews from a variety of websites, and Gogobot, which features detailed reviewer profiles and rates their travel expertise. TripAdvisor and Yelp offer critical mass while at the same time featuring a Facebook interface that puts our friends' advice front and center.
What does this mean for travel marketers? Your listings on review sites, directories and social networks have never been more important. Search for them, claim them and keep them up to date and consistent with contact info, descriptions, amenities, special offers, photos and videos. Travelers want to share experiences
Social networks have performed abysmally as a sales channel, and don't hold your breath for that rush of Facebook bookings in 2012. People go to Facebook to socialize; they go to TripAdvisor and online travel agencies to shop.
Rather, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as customer service channels, where travelers go to make inquiries, share experiences and voice likes and dislikes before, during and after trips. Complaining to the manager is so last year; today it's all about complaining to social networks.
It all comes down to expectations. Travelers don't like surprises, unless upgrades and champagne are involved. That means less hype and more transparency in marketing: being upfront about pricing, fees, services, amenities, location and reviews. Travelers don't expect perfection, but they do expect quality and value, and that can come at any service level. You don't have to be the best, but strive to be the best in class.
Alerts on Google, TripAdvisor and Twitter will help you keep track of the chatter, whereas a reputation monitoring tool will help you manage it.
However, outsourcing social media updates and review responses to a tweet factory that has no clue what's going on on-property defeats the purpose of social networking: getting closer to your guests. Cultivate the talent in-house. Oh, and they want all this on mobile devices
The use of mobile devices is proliferating at a staggering rate, and travelers are leading the charge. You don't need an app, you need a mobile compatible site that provides basic content travelers can navigate on a small screen: pricing, descriptions, location info, photos, deals and booking capabilities. And don't forget a click-to-call option—some people actually use them as telephones too.Daniel Edward Craig is a former hotel general manager turned consultant specializing in social media strategy and online reputation management for the travel industry. His blog and articles attract a worldwide following, and he is a frequent speaker at industry events. Visit www.DanielEdwardCraig.com Copyright © 2012 Daniel Edward Craig. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.