The Heat is On: Five Online Travel Trends Set to Explode.
TDS North America 2012
Thursday, 6th September 2012
The global economy is uncertain at best, travel is a hyper-competitive landscape with new services and products are launching daily and the travel consumer becoming ever more savvy, fickle and demanding. 

In this environment how can travel companies possibly survive, let alone thrive? With less than one week to go before the EyeforTravel team head to Las Vegas for TDS North America we consider the most pertinent emerging themes in online travel and consult some of the events most exciting speakers for their expert insights and predictions.

1. Get ready for a mobile-only world  

The decade of mobile is FINALLY here. By 2015, IDC is forecasting that smartphone sales will reach 982 million and all research points to mobile use surpassing traditional desktop use within the next few years. Against this back drop there are numerous emerging trends the industry needs to keep pace with.

According to Marco Saio EyeforTravel's Director of Global Research, we should ‘‘anticipate an even greater rise in the same-day mobile booking trend. Expedia reports that 65% of hotel bookings within this last 24-hour window are via mobile, and 15% for flight bookings. Vegas is a particularly striking example of this last-minute mobile booking trend with 32% of all bookings coming in via mobile," he claims, adding that "the opportunity this creates for mobile revenue growth is both staggering and largely untapped".

Expect also to see increasing numbers of mobile-only companies entering the fray. Mobile specialist HotelTonight has already done so and its mobile app recently hit the 3-million download mark. So does this mean that traditional travel companies and online travel companies should, if they haven't already, rush into launching a mobile app? The short answer is no. Mobile apps are expensive to develop and there must be clear business-driven justification.  HotelTonight's Chief Executive Sam Shank, who believes hot trends "will be for on-demand services" like ‘uber' and ‘hailo', is clear on one thing: mobile services must fulfil a basic need. So apps may not be for everybody but firms should be optimising for mobile.

Before doing so they must carefully consider their target audience.

You can't really talk about mobile without thinking about social and of course local. If any further proof is needed: in March this year 350 million Facebook users (who are also consumers!) had accessed the social network via a mobile device.
Hotwire President Clem Bason argues that: "A number of companies have integrated social media into their mobile offerings, but no travel company has completely nailed it yet."

In this respect there is still room for growth and innovation. 

2.  Four ‘C's to think about: convergence, commerce, content and how these impact customer behaviour will be an ongoing theme  

In an increasingly converged world, there is a risk that firms focus too much on one particular channel at the expense of others. Says Bradley Wilson, Chief Marketing Officer, Travelocity, North America: "There is a need to consider behaviour on our website as well as in other environments to have a better picture of our customers' needs." Consumers are after all using a range of different devices to plan, research, book and even review their travel experiences.

While reviews have been a positive development for consumers one area where innovation can and should happen "is in improving the framework within which consumers do their research thus creating more efficient channels," says Priceline's Todd Henrich, Senior Vice-President of corporate development.

Ultimately the objective is to achieve ‘the all important booking'. But what the industry really needs to do now is focus on how the customer got to that point, how they moved through and interacted with each channel and what role each channel played in getting the customer to book.  

This brings us to m-commerce. "Any technology that makes commerce even easier on mobile devices is going to gain huge traction," argues Jared Simon Chief Operation Officer at HotelTonight. Though still in its infancy it seems inevitable that people will become more comfortable transacting via mobile and some standards should start to emerge. People are becoming more reliant on mobile and the purchase window is shrinking.  So one thing firms could focus on now is developing a mobile booking engine, bearing in mind that this is not the same as a normal website booking engine.

Getting the right balance with content – both user-generated and curated - will be another ongoing theme as Google's recent acquisition of Frommers, a respected source of travel information which also offers travel deals, photos, blogs and user-generated content, has clearly highlighted.

Expedia is one firm that is across all channels and has been particularly innovative – and successful – in its experiments with content although even it "has a lot to learn", Expedia USA's Director of Public Relations, Sarah Keeling.  This year the company worked closely with over 30 bloggers.  "People who travel read travel blogs so this is such a rich community to mine and work with," she says. So far this work has had some measurable success.  One promotion -Kids in the City – focused on 12 US cities using 12 bloggers and the #ExpediaKids on Twitter generated over 4 million impressions in the first 18 days of the campaign.

3. Big data, personalisation and being relevant is key in the marketing battle

A report by eMarketer indicates that ecommerce sales in the US are expected to hit $119 billion in 2012. But the market has also matured. So as travel companies find themselves locked in the battle for business, marketers need to identify those channels that are helping to drive more conversions, or can influence the conversion funnel.

When it comes to marketing being relevant and understanding the travellers ‘intent' is the new holy-grail. Customers that book with you will tell you how many children they have, whether they want a cruise or a campsite, a big-name 5-star hotel in a big city or a boutique hotel in the country. They may book leisure and business travel with you. But are firms mining this data to maximum effect?

"When it comes to data analytics we are only just scratching the surface," says Max Starkov President and Chief Executive of HebsDigital and more can be done to better understand the needs and preferences of customers.

But as Atique Shah, VP Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Analytics, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) recognises: "Not all data is created equally."  So those firms that identify which data is mission critical and apply that to the business, measure its success and then move on will be the winners.  

Of course it is not easy being relevant in a world where there is a constant stream of new opportunities in the form of mobile services and social sites, all vying for the customer's attention and promising to be the next big thing – Pinterest, Foursquare, Path, near-field communication and Google Wallet to name but a few. Paolo Torchio Vice-President, E-Marketing & Revenue Consulting at Sabre Hospitality Solutions says the question should always be: does the effort warrant the return for the time and cost invested?

For Torchio one of the most interesting emerging trends is that of the device responsive website – one where the information architecture, navigation and content transforms to best suit the screen it is being viewed. "This is a very interesting form of relevance and personalisation based on the device itself and an inherent assumption of what type of information a consumer might need based on their device and associated location."

When it comes to location-based marketing this is a huge opportunity but again relevance of message is essential. "I would expect location awareness to be built into most technology we are using today in some way: device responsiveness will be the strategy to employ to assist in managing what could become an increasingly complex situation for a hotel marketer and operator," says Torchio.

4. Revenue management: it may not be sexy but it's essential

The position of revenue manager is all too often undervalued. For Tom Walker, Director of Sales at The Rainmaker Group, ideally the revenue manager should have the managerial skills to sit on a hotel executive committee or at least be on a level with other senior executives at a regional level. Increasingly revenue management needs to integrate with all the disciplines – sales, marketing, channel optimisation, loyalty marketing and operations.

One recommendation from Dev Koushik, Director, Revenue Optimisation and Analytics, InterContinental Hotels Group is that firms evaluate booking on a profit and not just a revenue basis. 

In the RM space some positive trends are emerging. Rosie Akenhead EyeforTravel's Director of Events & Industry Analysis is most excited by the convergence of social media with RM practices. "Travel brands can now analyse and concretely prove that social recommendations are driving new, repeat and overall booking rates," she says. "Just think of the vast potential this holds to more accurately predict demand and optimise price levels according to qualitative social data."

In the travel world where senior managers will want to know exactly what the ROI on any project is Theodore Botimer, VP Revenue Management, Xojet has this to say: "Plugging the leaks associated with RM policy implementation has always provided one of the largest returns on investment." 

5. Think new markets. Think new customers. Think ‘glosolomo' 

Your social strategy is coming together, you understand the importance of location, your website is optimised for mobile and you even have an app. But are you thinking global?  If not you should be because the face of the global traveller is changing and Asia is leading the pack. Unsurprisingly the biggest growth is in China where the number of outbound tourists rose by 70% in the first six months of 2012. Other outbound travel markets like India, Brazil and Russia are growing too.  By 2020 about 50 million Indians are expected to travel overseas, according to estimates drawn up by Tourism Australia which has been actively targeting this market.
Kathleen Bostick Vice President of the Travel and Hospitality Practice at the global translations firm, Lionbridge tells us: "The day you set up a Facebook page, you're global whether you like it or not."  Firms that ignore this really could be missing out, she says. So if your target audience is Chinese, then you need a Chinese site. You also need to optimise for SEO in various languages. The strategy of Hotels.com which supports 37 languages across all platforms is worth a look. 
And the last word...what is going up and what is going down?

Well Facebook's share price. Jokes aside, how Facebook starts to monetise travel will be an interesting space to watch. It recently dropped Facebook Credits in favour of local currency pricing which implies it aims to become a serious contender in the payments world.  Other interesting developments: Google stepping up its travel game with the acquisition of travel content and reviews firm, Frommers. And the battle for the consumer wallet is hotting up with Apple and Google likely to go head-to-head. Will Apple dominate with iTravel and its Passbook or will Google Wallet win the day?

HotelTonight's Shank is certainly not convinced by social travel planning tools or none of which have become "wildly successful". Nor is he keen on inspiration boards for vertical categories.  What will continue to work, he argues, are social networks which combine personal expression with personal communication as the core of their offerings. And Priceline's Henrich believes that as technology develops and standards emerge, mobile bookings may not just be for the last minute.

There is so much more going on and the discussions at TDS North America 2012 in Las Vegas are going to be informative, enlightening and maybe even a little heated. To book one of last-remaining places contact summit director marco@eyefortravel.com asap!

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