Will Uber evolve into a major disruptor of the Travel Market?

The rapid migration of customer interactions to mobile devices undoubtedly poses a major challenge to travel businesses, who need to contextualise their booking path to users’ locations, as well as device size.

Clearly, this will allow some businesses to gain an edge for a period of time before the chasing pack copy all their good ideas, which they unfortunately have to publish to the world wide web!

With marketing costs remaining the biggest online cost of sale, it is difficult to see beyond the existing major brands in terms of who will dominate online travel in the near future. I say this because the likes of Expedia and Priceline have the resources to either copy new concepts and introduce them to a wider audience, or simply buy the innovative start ups.

The only threats to their dominance, that I can see, are likely to come from the domineers of mobile traffic, such as Facebook or Google e.g. Google Destinations or the sharing economy in the form of Uber and Airbnb.

Within the sharing economy, the massive valuations that Uber and Airbnb currently enjoy reflect the view of the financial community, that both are only just at the start of their massive growth potential. Obviously, financiers can get it completely wrong but in my experience, it is rare on companies of this scale.

Just as the online travel community has consolidated into two major camps, headed by Priceline and Expedia, I would not be shocked to see consolidation in the sharing economy given the major players’ abilities to raise the vast sums required to buy the likes of BlaBlaCar etc. The logic of combining Uber’s city-centric taxi services with BlaBlaCars’ 200 mile plus intercity service seems a highly synergistic move for territories outside of the US. However, given BlaBlaCar’s stated intent to avoid the US in order to concentrate on emerging markets, this deal may not be a high priority for Uber’s US-based financiers. A merger of Uber with Airbnb may initially appear less obvious, although audience synergies and cross-selling opportunities do exist.

The high transaction frequency of Uber makes it a logical creator of a “Western Super App,” in similar way to how C-Trip now dominates the Chinese travel market.
Apps allow a richer consumer experience, but “Appnesia”, where even customers who have downloaded the app forget about it, is a key problem. C-Trip overcame this by driving the frequency of use up, packing every conceivable travel service into one app in order to create a deep and broad travel vertical within a one stop shop.

High frequency usage drivers, like taxi services or domestic train/bus services could be the key bedrock for a “Western Super App.” Hence Uber with its high valuation and deep pockets, may be better positioned than Expedia to deliver this app via an acquisition drive. I say this because as an established player, Expedia can take less risk on acquisitions, as each one is expected to be earnings-enhancing. Conversely, the loss making Uber’s valuation is based on its potential and as such, it probably has more scope for riskier acquisitions.

Airbnb poses a major threat to hotels because its individual home owners often take a “Sunk cost” approach to pricing, looking to cover just their operating costs whilst making capital gains on disposal as house prices increase. This makes this accomodation much cheaper than traditional hotel stock.

I have recently invested in a start up called “Experiential Breaks,” which seeks to “package” private accommodation with tickets to “Events” e.g. NBA basketball and shopping/dining, to deliver a “Live Like a Local” holiday experience.

Ironically, the biggest problem with this niche type of product is that customers do not know they want it until they know it exists. Creating B2C brands to carry out this form of marketing is very expensive. Hence, Experiential Breaks’ strategy will be to work via travel agents on a B2B2C basis, selling ATOL bonded packages with the required H&S policies and insurance required to take this type of accommodation into a packaged environment.

However, this is just one niche and so far, sharing economy businesses such as Airbnb or Uber, have shown little appetite to disrupt the holiday market, focusing instead on the lower hanging fruit of the business traveller sector.

Disruption seems like an every day event in travel as a whole, but it’s hard to see the top online players loosing their grip on the current travel market.

BrightOn Travel to explore “Roads to the Supermarket”

The upcoming BrightOn Travel seminar, on Friday 25 September, will focus on different ways to drive cost effective traffic to travel websites and look at how the advent of mobile traffic may require a complete re-engineering of many booking paths.

I often use a supermarket analogy when looking at travel websites. In my opinion, too many companies focus their attention on re-arranging the shelves, putting up special offers and training check out staff, when their main focus should be on making sure people can find their supermarket, and park.

Google has long powered the main travel to our theoretical supermarket. Google is the motorway, and has well signposted SEO routes and increasingly expensive PPC ‘toll roads’. However, alternative roads are now being constructed, such as social media channels and mobile; to use our analogy, these act as satellite navigation tools which are changing the way we find and travel to the supermarket.

As PPC costs continue to escalate, travel companies are reverting to traditional marketing methods in order to develop brand identity. However, offline advertising on TV, radio and billboards still present challenges for the marketer.

An obvious one, is that companies seem to be re-allocating spend from highly measurable PPC budgets, to areas such as TV. Demonstrating the return on investment from offline advertising is much harder. Years ago one major price comparison site, described their TV advertising campaign as “Taking a big bucket of water, chucking it against a wall and then making sure you have an even bigger online bucket to catch it with”. The implication being that, ironically, PPC budgets need to increase when you do offline advertising and not decrease!

Historically, accountants within many organisations typically treat marketing expenditure as an overhead with fixed annual budgets. However, to accommodate the above quandary, many are now moving to defined metrics around Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) and treating marketing spend as operating costs; as long as the increased spend is delivering a return, why restrict it?

How companies are rated by review sites such as Feefo, Trust Pilot and Review Centre, contributes to the size of the catchment bucket. A lack of star rating, or poorer star ratings than competitors, operates in reverse to offline advertising, driving higher CPA costs. Review metrics are bit like making sure you have sufficient parking at the Supermarket.

The second big topic of the BrightOn Travel seminar is trying to get companies to look beyond responsive design, as their main mobile first strategy. Marketing directors tend to lead mobile first strategies focused on allowing their existing sites to be used via mobile devices via responsive design, but few have the power to force other departments to review how they work in a mobile-first world.

The seminar will look at how companies like Teletext Holidays are trying to re-engineer their search and booking process. Teletext is reviewing ways to encourage mobile customers to call or web chat, with their call centre staff, using techniques such as mobile push recommendations. It is amazing how many different elements of the business are impacted by what looks like a simple change in process.

I personally think many travel companies are failing to engage in the process of understanding how customers’ interactions with them will be impacted by device size, and the environment in which people are searching. Here are a few examples:

  •         Environment: Customers on a train surfing via their mobile, are unlikely to want to phone to book, so providing online chat is important.
  •         Recommendations: The combination of slower connectivity via mobile devices and smaller screen sizes, make it harder for customers to review results, giving a preference for more recommendations.
  •         Facebook. The Facebook app on people’s phones dominates internet usage, so how does your Facebook advertising reflect this.

BrightOn Travel intends to create discussion around these topics, with speakers from leading travel brands sharing their experiences and flagging key areas for review. We will have a lively daytime event and an even more dynamic discussion afterwards in the sponsored bar at the boutique MyHotel.

Ensure your place at the event via the Eventbrite page.

Does the Tunisia crisis show the need for an OTA Trade body?

Like the rest of the travel industry my initial reaction to the Tunisia atrocity was one of shock, followed by reaching for the phone, to make sure the various companies I consult with had kicked their emergency response plans into top gear.

The TUI management team, along with their staff, must be congratulated for a superbly organised and rapid response in such difficult circumstance. Its impossible to know at this stage, but in my opinion TUI enhanced their brand perception with the UK public, because they made exactly the right key calls, by repatriating all guests who wanted to leave Tunisia immediately and allowing free amendment or cancellation to the end of the season. They also fielded their most senior team for UK PR purposes and deployed emergency teams in resort, to assist their guest in any way they could. It really was a well planned and executed response that the industry should be proud of.

Several commentators have pointed out in the press the differences between traditional tour operators and Online Travel Agents (OTAs in terms of how they are able to deal with incidents like Tunisia and to be fair most make highly valid points.

The major tour operators do indeed have a much greater degree of control over how they are able to protect their brand propositions, in crisis situations like the recent Tunisia attacks. Their greater levels of in-resort staff, infrastructure and the control over their airlines, are indeed key assets.

However, this does not mean that OTAs and dynamic packaging firms cannot learn from the major operators and follow their excellent example in terms of disaster planning. Most reasonable sized companies already had in place emergency teams compromising key personal, who would have instantly been contacted on Friday when the UK first became aware of the Tunisia atrocity and kicked into action.

In this particular case the customers directly impacted where Thomson’s, meaning the primary responsibility of OTAs was dealing with other customers in Tunisia as a whole and customers who where due to travel.

Therefore, the requirement was to instantly understand which airlines and bed bank suppliers an OTAs customers where booked with, in order to communicate their respective policies to customers, before the customers had time to react and contact the OTA. This is vital in terms of controlling inbound call volumes and allowing personalised proactive communication to customers, to compensate for OTAs key weakness in these situation. This is their inability to control policy, in order to be as customer centric as possible and the complexity of communicating differing policies that tend to change on a rolling departure date basis.

The lack of control over airlines amendment and cancellation policy is a key weakness in terms of protecting an OTA brand, but to be fair the OTA can hardly expect to take all the benefits that

Dynamic packaging gives them without some downsides. It is unlikely that airlines will take any notice of OTAs when setting policies, but pre-agreeing policies with bed banks or pressurising them for more sensible terms is completely achievable and something that could be improved I believe.

The impending “Greek Euro Exit” meant that most OTAs would have recently reviewed their emergency procedures prior to Tunisia, but I personally think that the sector would benefit from a central trade body of OTAs, where “best practice” could be shared and pressure exerted by joint buying power. Ideally this body would also include the major bed banks, to allow a more coordinated approach by the DP sector.

Should this body be a sub-set of ABTA or does the DP sector need to dust off the “Association of Travel Agents” framework, put in place for the failed fight to shape the European Package Regulations? I’m not sure, but Tunisia did highlight that more coordination is required.

One of the key benefit OTAs and dynamic packagers have over traditional tour operators is the flexibility that their “asset light” model gives them. For example I would not like to be TUI’s yield planner trying to work out were to move 20 plus flights from Tunisia to the end of the season. As well as the impact on demand posed by the seemingly inevitable Greek Euro exit, initial post Tunisia sales indicate customers are also showing concern about booking holidays to Egypt, Morocco and to a lesser extent Turkey, because of their perceived closeness to ISIS strong holds. Hopefully this may prove to be just a short-term blip for these great destinations.

Being able to play a wait an see game at such crucial juncture, may be the key asset enjoyed by dynamic packaging OTAs, that outweighs the clear advantages the major integrated groups have in terms of protecting their brands in times of crisis. Personally, trying to get the best of both worlds needs to an something the whole OTA community would benefit from working together on.

Me too says Thomas Cook…but is that wrong?

On Wednesday, after a torrid build up, Thomas Cook‘s management team got to announce its new Corporate Strategy….or was it TUI’s strategy they announced?…..Difficult to tell, considering how similar they now are! However, is it wrong to copy the “Right” strategy?

Personally, I think not, with Thomas Cook now clearly heading in the right direction in my opinion. Given the rapid advance of lower priced dynamic packaging, it is essential for traditional tour operators to differentiate their product by adding value to its proposition by investing in hotels, staffing levels and in-resort infrastructure to improve the quality of the holidays they offer. Therefore, the stated aim to increase their differentiated stock from 31% to 50% must be the right direction. However, in a cash strapped organisation this may prove difficult to achieve, since differentiation often equates to the long term commitment of cash and a considerable increase in risk stock and company gearing.

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