Will OTAs ever own shop networks?

High Google acquisition costs have forced all major OTAs to invest heavily in Above The Line advertising mediums such as TV, in order to generate brand awareness. This has resulted in more customers visiting sites directly, or searching using brand terms, which could help bring down the cost of brand traffic from Google searches.

Few OTAs now make money from advertising on generic travel terms because of the highly competitive nature of PPC. High click costs and sub 1% conversion levels are making more OTAs encourage the phoning to book or online chat session methods. Not only are they saving on cost, but the human contact dramatically increases conversion levels. Hence, we are seeing the merging of online booking and call centre fulfilment, with relatively seamless interchange between the two media.

We are also seeing high street retailers like Hays Travel successfully supporting their shops network with websites, which pass phone call leads back to their shops for completion on bookings. It is therefore a surprise to me, that major OTAs like Travel Republic and On the Beach have not acquired a network of retail shops.

These shops would dramatically improve their brand visibility and provide physical shop locations, to add to their online brand presence. Logically, by offering a shop, click or call booking models would also make their TV campaigns more cost-effective and increase customer convenience.

However, the UK DNATA group which already owns the required assets (high street shop Global Travel, the OTA Travel Republic and the Sunmaster call centre business) has not yet made any moves to introduce common branding. I suspect a major reason is that their retail network is a franchised model, rather than an owned shop network. The key problem here is how do you motivate all the parties to work together and share bookings?

Online marketing progressed when sophisticated attribution models were introduced. These allocate the commission from a booking across its online “route”, rather than a last click model, and recognise early stage marketing activities. In the future we may need to adopt similar attribution models to allocate benefit to shop networks, not just for the customer leads that start via a shop, then concluded online, but also for the brand benefit they provide.

The implementation of the European Travel Directive in 2017, assuming the UK does not vote for BREXIT on the 23rd of June, may also provide a motivator for a combined online and shop network. There are clear financial benefits in basing a dynamic packaging tour operation outside of European boundaries (avoiding the threat of an estimated £20 per passenger TOMS VAT charge for one). This may tempt many retailers to stop dynamically packaging holidays within their shops and use a central offshore tour operation. Logically, these tour operations should also have an online presence, supported by an offshore call centre, to complete customer choice.

I still believe the most sustainable distribution models, are homeworker networks like Travel Counsellors, who have built a localised community brand recognition through exceptionally high customer service levels. High repeat customer levels, combined with minimal marketing costs, make this a highly profitable and sustainable model.

To me the ultimate distribution network is a shop network staffed by homeworkers, working in the shop on a rotational basis and using it as an office to support their own localised customer networks. Boost this with a centralised call centre, online bookable web site and offshore centralised tour operation in order to create a future-proofed, highly profitable travel model fit for the 21st Century.

However, unless somebody is willing to write some very large cheques, this ultimate distribution platform is likely to remain a work of fiction in blogs like these.

Beware…mishandling Social Media can hit you in the pocket

In my opinion Customer Review Scores are likely to have the biggest impact of the much-flaunted Social Media revolution.

Tripadvisor has long been the site of choice for a customer looking for hotel review scores and to fair it does a decent job. However, the commercialisation of this data is deliberately non-customer friendly, with customers forced to trawl through the 10’s of web sites, popped up by Tripadvisor in order to charge each supplier a referral fee. In the medium term this commercialisation may leave open the door for Google who are trying to penetrate the review sector.

Ironically hotel review scores undermine a key skill set of the traditional tour operators. Historically, they have always been able to claim a higher quality of product, because their in-resort Reps and contractors can continuously monitor the quality of the product and have first hand knowledge of the hotels they sell. However, using consumer review scores web companies can now completely control the quality of what they sell, in order to offer a premium product, without ever leaving their computer terminal.

Google’s move into the review space is also changing the landscape in terms of the importance of brand reviews and how they can influence marketing costs. Companies can now include their customer review star rating in their PPC adverts, which Google’s own research shows markedly increases the amount of clicks those adverts attract, improving CTR score’s and reducing advertising costs.

Amazingly traditional tour operators like Thomson and Thomas Cook seem to have completely ignored this move to online reviews, having no scores next to their names and appear to be continuing with paper based customer review sheets completed on return flights. I think they will regret the lack of transparency in the publication of their customer’s reviews, since I still believe in general they offer a high quality product.

Yet when you look on review sites such as Review Centre, Thomas Cook for example score a very poor 1.9 out of 5 from 442 reviews. To put this into context my own Holiday Nights  brand scores of 4.8 out of 5. Are we that much better? I doubt it, but unlike traditional tour operators we are working hard on Social Media and ensure that every returning customer is emailed to ask them to post a review via Feefo that will be picked up and published by Google.

Years ago, whilst at Airtours we did extensive customer research to look into why 90% of customers completing review sheets on the flight home, said they would recommend Airtours and book again, but only 40% ever did repeat book. The research showed that the “Holiday Halo”, where customers have a good holiday and feel favourably about a tour operator lasts for about 6 weeks and then fades fast as customers get sucked back into daily life and forget about their holiday.

It was to maximise the chance of re-books on holiday return, that we started launching the next summers holiday brochures at the beginning of the current season. I believe that if you do not engage actively with your happy customers in this period, it’s likely the only ones bothered to make the effort to leave a review will be the ones who did not have a good time!

I think Google’s move into brand reviews has given Social Media further bite, making customers views not only more visible, but commercial attractive as they can reduce advertising costs. Therefore, ignore this at your peril big guys, since Google and customer opinion is bigger than you.