Catherine Millar
Catherine Millar 23 November 2017

Fortune favours the ambitious: travel brands that achieve personalisation at scale will win

2017 wraps up a turbulent year for travel and hospitality industry. So as we hurtle toward the new year, and with it the approach of peak booking season, we wanted to take a look at how technology, such as artificial intelligence, is set to transform the fortunes of those that invest early. 

Now more than ever, consumers are looking for experiences rather than linear, static trips. According to Airbnb, over 80% of millennials say they seek unique travel experiences and that the best way to learn about a place is to live like the locals do. Consumers are seeking out more than just the nuts and bolts of a getaway, and this extends as much to the booking process as the trip itself.

The digital revolution has enabled travel businesses to evolve. More importantly, it has led customers to expect booking experiences that are seamless, convenient and relevant - and to avoid brands that don’t deliver these experiences. The last fifteen years have presented opportunities for travel businesses, but they’ve also brought fresh challenges and heightened consumer expectations in how technology is applied.

Tailored Travel Is Here To Stay

There's a reason why this year's travel industry events were dominated by talks on personalisation and use of data - customers want online brands to provide the personal service of the traditional high street travel agent, and they’re willing to develop a relationship in order to get it. Big brands are already employing tailored online experiences for different audience groups, curating hotels and stays for business travellers and family markets, bargain hunters and culture vultures.

But the real driving force behind differentiation in the travel market will be the achievement of personalisation at scale. In the inspiration and purchase phase, that means understanding customer data and using it more intelligently. Superficial, ineffective marketing techniques must be abandoned in favour of tactics that are proven to work, such as scarcity (highlighting dwindling plane seats or hotel rooms) or social proof (reinforcing confidence by flagging which items are trending with similar customers). Moving into the trip itself, many brands are taking Airbnb's lead, utilising their data to curate experiences for customers. I expect the next 15 years will see even more dramatic evolution in travel, with the entire process - from first click through to exiting the airport on the return journey - personalised to the customer's tastes and behaviour.

The Digital Revolution Has Given Us Data Mountains

With such a wealth of available data, collecting and actioning the right information is often a difficult process for today's travel businesses. The ones getting it right combine past history and live behavioural data with the ability to scale all this information into tailored online experiences that inspire customers and drive revenue.

Key to this unlocking the personalisation ‘sweet spot’ with consumers is the ability to combine data across all of the customer touch-points, from the initial planning process right through to the final booking stage. Travel brands often work across a multitude of systems, all collecting and processing vast quantities of data, so it's important that the data isn’t kept in silo but is visible across all departments. For example, data on popular searches can be effectively cross referenced with where website visitors are coming from to deliver relevant, real-time offers that resonate. By doing this, brands can begin to build a full picture of their customer and offer highly targeted experiences.

The Mobile Conundrum

Ten years since the first iPhone was released, mobile dominates our online browsing habits. Over 60% of consumers have made a mobile purchase in the past six months, but travel has a natural disadvantage to secure online sales compared to the wider ecommerce market - holidays are a big purchase that customers often prefer to complete over desktop. Even so, many brands aren’t helping themselves, caught between pushing poorly optimised mobile websites which consumers hate to navigate, or producing expensive, dedicated apps which consumers will never bother to download.

Rather than pursuing a mobile travel sale surge that consumers aren’t ready for, brands should instead approach mobile as the ideal funnel to push inspiration, harnessing the time users spend looking at holidays while commuting, waiting to meet friends or even watching TV. Social channels such as Instagram are clearly useful here, but brands should also consider applying the personalisation techniques familiar from desktop to mobile, promoting relevant blog posts or customer reviews to users in search of motivation.

As habits continue to evolve in the coming years, customers will become more comfortable with booking travel on devices rather than just desktop - and those brands that have understood how to provide engaging mobile experiences will be best placed to capture the mobile sale surge.

With travel appetites and technology evolving so quickly, it’s certainly an exciting time for our sector. But we should remember that with such a rapid pace of change, there are always risks that some brands will be left behind. Competition is high and travellers will reward businesses who can provide both booking and holiday experiences that are curated and convenient. The next fifteen years will belong to those brands who aren’t afraid to be ambitious in how they offer adventures.

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