Avoid addiction to Margin killing Google Search.

As travel search-demand restarts, the bid costs for all major Google search terms are already rocketing, as travel companies compete to build back their bid histories and dominate the top of search results.

 Now I must confess to some history of Google bashing having launched a customer referral scheme 12 years ago called “Google Bypass”. Not surprising an expected lawsuit quickly followed and we had to revert to the less controversial “Share and Earn” band.

 However, my key issue with Google remains.

 Although Google is clearly “Not Evil”, its perfect information and bidding algorithms, have facilitated the travel industry in competing away virtually all its booking margins, with Google estimated to be taking 90% of all commissions earned.

 Finding alternative routes to customers and maximising database, use has never been more important. Here are my 5 tips for reducing reliance on Google.

 1.  Friend get Friends schemes.

Often the best advocates for a holiday, are customers who have already booked it since they have been through the research process and have selected your company’s product based on quality and price.

However, how many companies then use these potential advocates to bring other couples or families on the same trip or incentivise them upon return to recommend the trip to other people? Few in my experience.

 It is important to get the basic’s rights

·      Linked bookings. Lead customers do not want to take responsibility for paying for other people’s holidays and therefore don’t want to add passengers to a booking as most systems allow, but want to create a new booking linked to the original.

·      Incentives. People do not like making money from friends. The incentive, therefore, needs to be either shared or paid to the friend. For example, one of CannyApp partners is offering “£75 Holiday money” loaded on the card, as a booking incentive to the secondary bookers, so that they can take the friends who recommended the holiday out for a meal on holiday.

·      Make claiming simple. Complex schemes don’t work so make it easy to claim an incentive.

 “Friend gets Friend” schemes normally result in a direct secondary booking avoiding commission, but sensible operators will also consider rewarding the originating travel agent.

 2. Long tail Satellite TV advertising.  

The exponential growth in the number of satellite TV channels has led to many channels not having the minimum number of viewers to even charge for showing an advert. Campaigns across these “Long Tail” channels therefore can often deliver 40-50% of free adverts, reducing the average cost per view and lead generated.

 But why would you want to advertise on channels with few viewers? Well, it’s the same principle as “long tail” google advertising. Even though volumes are low, if channels are cheap and are seen by the key housewife market they can work.

 For example, children’s or old films channels often deliver the best cost per lead, as the adverts can be more interesting than the programs for housewives who have them on as background noise or to keep kids happy. The move to home working has also increased response levels from Music channels, often played as background noise, with interesting travel adverts grabbing attention.

 Historically, high TV production costs prevented smaller companies from exploiting direct response TV, but productions costs have dropped dramatically, with adverts using stock video footage costing as little as £2,500, allowing introductory campaigns from £10k, although a campaign covering several months will cost £30k plus.

 Even small travel businesses often spend £60k per month on Google advertising and satellite TV delivers a large Halo “as seen on TV” boost to brand confidence-boosting google CTR’s.

 3. Nested Email Services producing personalised emails.

Too many travel companies pump out weekly “Deal” emails, which quickly get dismissed as irrelevant by customers.

Sophisticated email systems focus on just getting a customer to visit the company’s website so that the customer’s search behaviour can then be used to produce increasingly focused personalised emails.

 If a customer searches for a Tenerife holiday departing in May from Gatwick, then the next email will offer only Tenerife or similar destinations, until their next click to the site gives more information about the board basis or hotel they are looking for.  Nested “if they” email databases are not rocket science.

 A company’s database of previous bookers is one of its most valuable assets, but many travel companies abuse it with boring and non-relevant content. Personalised emails are 10 times more effective.

 4. Use the “Travel Data Lake” to add value.

Only 1 in 100 customers visit a site book, giving you full contact details, and entering your customer database.

 However, 68% of customers complete a search indicating their broadly holiday requirements. Research shows that in 78% of cases, the customer sticks within +/- 3 days of the holiday date originally searched and 92% don’t change departure airport.

 Why not cookie these customers to allow, the advertising of travel ancillaries such as Foreign Exchange, insurance, or airport parking during the key 28 days before they depart using retargeting adverts via Google or Facebook.

 The customer may not buy a holiday from your company this year, but if you sell them a holiday ancillary, you’re adding them to your marketing database for next year holidays and cutting Google costs.

 Cookie use is becoming hard via Apple devices, but can still be exploited via Android platforms so make the most of this opportunity while it lasts.

 5. Ask your customers about their last 5 years of travel?

Travel companies tend to be internally focused and don’t spend enough time trying to understand what other travel products their customers buy during a year or in a longer holiday cycle. Simply ask them, as many customers are happy to tell you!

 This information can be invaluable in understanding future destination booking patterns as customers often return on a cyclical basis to old favourites.

 It is also useful for creating “look-alike” Agent profiles when selling via Highstreet agents or homeworkers.

Create “most likely to sale” profiles, based not just on the sales of your company’s products, but on the sales of competitors you know the customer also books e.g., Kuoni Longhaul sales may indicate a potential Cruise booker.

 Whether you consider my tip 5 tips useful or not, any sensible travel company must avoid being a “Google” junkie and diversify their customer acquisitions strategies. Otherwise, the only winner from the travel rebound will be Google.

The Covid-19 Evolution. Who will be the winners?

The Covid-19 has hit the travel sector, harder than virtually any other UK business, with UK lockdowns being followed by the shutting of international borders, which combined with the imposition of testing and extra paperwork, devastating short term consumer confidence.

However, this week Government announcement removing Covid-19 testing appears to mark the “Beginning of the End” for Covid travel restrictions, with the UK leading the way in learning to live with Covid.

The future of travel looks bright but may require a re-think of how things are done.

For example, Summer 2022 is set to be driven by last-minute bookings 4-5 weeks before departure, as customers who have been hit by a barrage of disruption over the last 2 years remain cautious about booking early.

Low-cost carriers yield models will quickly adapt, even without historical comparators, because putting prices up based on the rate of sale, has never been rocket science. However, driving frequency of rotations on routes will be much more of a gamble, often resulting in flight consolidations and further customer disruption.

Leaving aircraft sat on the tarmac, is likely to continue to be a requirement this summer, as airlines chase yield over volume. Beach destinations with their longer average flight times and earlier booking profiles, will look more attractive compared to city routes, leading to holiday capacity returning faster.

Don’t be surprised to see a big expansion of Easyjet Holidays on the back of increased trade distributions, bought with attractive commission levels. Letting Jet2 Holidays dominate trade distribution has been a historic strategic error, that current Easyjet CEO Johan Lundgren with his tour operating background, will not allow to continue.

Tui’s market share is likely to suffer as their airline does not have the same economies of scale as Jet2 or Easyjet, giving it a higher cost base in the commodity holiday market they are being forced to enter now that Covid-19 has severely disrupted their “differentiated” product.  Tui’s strong brand and reputation for customer service may counter this price disadvantage in the short term, but their debt mountain is one of the biggest in the sector, meaning that long term decline seems inevitable.

High street agents need to evolve rapidly, as Covid-19 has pushed more shoppers online, reducing footfall and making profitable operations very hard, as demonstrated by the Hays Travel £39 loss last year and estimated on-going £2m a month losses. Unprofitable shops need to be shut rapidly, all leases renegotiated, and local counsels pushed to accept that current “business rates” are unsustainable.

How quickly all this will occur, remains open to doubt, but I believe that within the next 2 years, high street shops, acting as hubs for local homeworkers will be the model of choice in the “personal service” travel sector. These hubs will incorporate video conferencing, such as Zoom, as a normal selling process due to its consumer convenience, allowing customers to be walked through online content whilst in the comfort of their own homes and for agents to see consumer reactions, markedly improving conversions.

Personalised travel services don’t have to be delivered face to face anymore and, in a post, Covid-19 world why would staff ever again want to sit waiting in a shop for customers to walk through the door when they can drive their own appointment diary and enjoy the benefits of working from home.

However, if as expected the cost of high street shops is reduced dramatically, because of the lack of demand, having a high street location still makes a lot of sense.

Combining a local homeworking network with a Highstreet shop could offer the best of both worlds. The shop could drive brand awareness and therefore consumer trust, whilst providing a professional administration centre and a point of customer introduction via walk-in traffic. It simply needs to be staffed on a rotational basis and have longer opening hours via homeworkers and video support.

Online Travel Agents (OTA’s) also need to adapt their models,  making “Amending” bookings just as easy a process as booking in the first place. Although OTA’s don’t control their flight supply, the increased flexibility offered by airlines can be passed on electronically and customer portals for self-amendment have never been more important.

OTA’s also need to step into resort with customers, providing relevant added-value services whilst on holiday. These will primarily be delivered via apps but could also be supported by branded Foreign Exchange cards, offering preferential exchange rates and cashback deals on local products.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly reshaped the travel environment and it’s the businesses who recognise this and adjust the quickest who will be the winners.

Will your business be one of them?