The tourism industry nosedived during COVID-19, taking the biggest hit among all industries. Even as flights resume and stay-at-home orders get relaxed, booking and travel preferences appear to have significantly changed, making it seemingly impossible to predict demand.
During this time, travel distributors and operators have been the most affected and have cut investments in technology to save on their dwindling cash supplies.
However, customers are more concerned about safety and ease of travel now. Needless to say, vacation plans for one of the largest consumer groups - millennials - have shifted dramatically. Inconveniences like long turnaround time to curate travel packages, hidden vendor fees, and ever-changing health regulations are putting more pressure on agencies.
Here are some predictions on what the future of travel looks like and how online travel aggregators (OTAs) and travel agencies need to become future-ready to anticipate changing traveller needs.
The rise of online travel aggregators has offered more price transparency to travellers, which has led to commoditization. Giants like Booking.com, TripAdvisor and Expedia’s continued market penetration targeting price-sensitive customers—solo travellers, for example, means agencies often find themselves in a race for greater market share.
Travel agencies lost a lot of revenue during the pandemic. Bouncing back meant expanding revenue streams and finding new ways to stay competitive. In the process, brands have begun pursuing other traveller needs that have become more relevant during the pandemic and go after them to create auxiliary services.
Add to this, the rise of LCCs (low-cost carriers) and ULCCs (ultra-low-cost carriers), who prefer flyers to book with them directly to save on GDS costs. This has led to a further pressure on the top line for travel distributors.
What does this mean for travel agencies?
The only way to protect margins and maintain profitability is to identify newer sources of revenue. Small agencies need to go beyond ticket booking and offer packages that include hotel stays, car rentals, and flight disruption compensation. A few agencies are now considering ‘visible pricing’, or ‘individual fare pricing’, that gives travellers the flexibility to select different components of their package according to budget needs or enable the agent to reach out to multiple airlines for the best quote in real time.
New products we can expect from travel brands include vacation rentals, car rentals, visa guidance process, flexible bookings (including last-minute cancellations), and travel insurance. On top of this, travellers tend to book activities and extras soon after they book their flights and accommodation. Agencies that can tap into this with offerings like tickets to local attractions, spa deals, day-long activities, museum passes, and local SIM cards amidst airport connections and hotel bookings can generate extra commissions while providing a stellar customer experience.
Today, travel agents are creating dynamic customer journeys with AI to understand different layers of customer intent. These data points are then utilised as triggers to target travellers with need-based content. To fulfill this, many agencies are partnering with technology vendors to improve overall digital experiences. Some of these include:
Virtual hotel tours
Augmented reality -- interactive destination advertising, personal tour guides
AI-based travel CRMs
User-friendly reservation systems
Content recommendation engines
Automated email marketing providers
Tour operators are using these to embrace digitisation and grow their online presence. For example, leading global tour operators TUI and Thomas Cook are rehauling their business models to make their websites their main distribution channels.
What does it mean for Travel Agencies?
Creating personalised experiences through data and technology can build a loyal customer base. Online travel aggregators and agencies are investing in web tools to create personalized offers, which includes creating optimised landing pages, targeting different segments and lookalike audiences through powerful automation sequences, and triggering relevant content or product recommendations This personalization is triggered through an engagement tool like a travel CRM to maximise reach and ensure each customer is offered exactly what they’re looking for, precisely when they need it.
We also see a number of travel brands training their sales agents to personalise offerings to each new inquiry. They’ll be tasked with understanding what their goals are: comfort, luxury, or adventure? It could even be family-focussed travel or backpacking. Sales teams can then log this information on the travel CRM to segment like-minded travellers and serve them relevant content and offers.
Someone who’s just begun researching a trip, without deciding on a location, needs completely different content from someone who has been researching for the best deal on luxury hotels in the Maldives. Agencies can start by understanding what stage of the research process travellers are at, their preferences, and the key touchpoints where they seek more information. To unlock these data points, you can tap into:
Your leads from social and Google ads to see what types of people are interacting with your ads and clicking on them
Web analytics to determine the pages that prospects first arrive on and the flow of their journey once on-site
Email marketing analytics to find out what links customers click and where they navigate to, along with email open and click rate
CRM to discover ‘prospect-readiness’ when they feel ready to speak with a travel agent through AI-recommended lead scores
You can further segment your customers and serve them relevant content that matches their requirements. For example, users that have clicked on your ads for short European city breaks are probably going to prefer receiving communications about similar quaint, small-town destinations than exotic beach holidays in the Maldives. At this point, you should also think about the metrics you need to track for success and whether each stage of the journey is getting the results you want.
Every traveller is unique. Agencies that are able to provide a variety of mix and match experiences that target a range of different travellers will have the most success.
You can introduce new or less popular destinations within a chosen location to keep a lid on itinerary costs for budget travellers rather than simply serving a selection of readymade packages. Travellers can then pick local activities and places that match their own unique interests.
Aligning business travellers to the right hotels, conference centres, and activities in their corporate travel locations comes with its own unique set of challenges. However, using technology that can automatically match corporate travellers and suppliers is quickly transforming this segment of the travel industry. The corporate travel world comes with its own set of challenges, including:
Agencies that can streamline this process and provide a plug-and-play experience for business travellers will come out on top. Using a CRM to send travel updates, handle the expense process, and bring together individual parts of a trip can build trust and maintain relationships.
Go one step further and partner with local vendors — hotels, museums, vineyard owners, and tour guides to provide strong distribution capabilities by managing cross-vendor packages through a travel CRM. This will help capture leads from different sources, such as social media ads, email marketing, or sales calls, and standardise the booking process on a single tool. Coordinate with them to chart out an itinerary and track the performance of every vendor.
All of this can be done on a common partner portal that these vendors can sign up to at any time. The information imparted can be integrated with your core CRM to manage indirect sales as well as offer 5-20% commission to vendors for every successful customer win.
Travel CRMs can also help distributors cross-sell and upsell additional travel components, like hotels, hire cars, and insurance that can be personalised by pre-recording information like their travel history, family details, international club memberships, dietary requirements, and baggage preferences.
To cater to changing travel preferences, travel agencies need to invest in customer engagement tools, like a data-driven travel CRM, that are integrated with a suite of backend tools -- booking management and travel inventory system, to focus on consistent product pricing. Travel agencies are using CRMs in a number of ways to provide better customer experiences and bring in new streams of revenue:
The past year has changed the travel landscape dramatically. Customers now prioritise safety, while travel agencies are doing all they can to bounce back after a hard year. It’s difficult to say exactly how the pandemic will affect the travel industry in general, but the new expectation driven economy will make sure that it’s:
Smooth and seamless
Contextual and personalised
Technology is taking on an increasingly important role in the travel industry to align agency offerings with the current-day requirements of travellers. The revival of the industry depends on how effectively companies are able to provide personalised experiences, additional services, and a seamless experience from start to finish.
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