Sun, sea, sand and surfing

Chilly January has traditionally been a time to make plans for summer holidays, and travel brands are learning that the internet now has a vital role to play in researching and booking those breaks.

It’s that time of year again. Christmas is just a memory and thoughts turn to trips away, while tour operators join high street retailers in slashing prices to lure customers.

The travel market has experienced massive changes in recent months as tour operators try to streamline operations, maximise revenues and catch up with online operators such as Lastminute.com, which have successfully stolen market share from traditional stalwarts like Thomas Cook.

As the frenzy to attract holidaymakers gathers pace, a report from Continental Research, based on interviews with more than 600 consumers, takes a look at what online consumers want from their holidays.

As mentioned, the internet has transformed the travel sector and with the online market comprising 26.8 million users (56% of the UK adult population), a sizeable proportion of whom are from more affluent ABC1 households, the migration online continues. Travel is one of the main services accessed and bought online, with airline tickets and hotel bookings being especially popular. Airline tickets were the most popular item bought online in the past 12 months, according to Continental.

In the UK, 17 million people expect to book some part of their main 2007 holiday online. Travellers often randomly search the Net for information about their holiday, emphasising the importance of search advertising in any marketing campaign. There is evidence that tour operators and travel agents could do more to raise their online presence and develop a higher profile among online users.

When the online population is compared to the offline population (predominantly the over-65s and those in the DE demographic) the main difference that emerges is that Net users are far more likely to take a main holiday away from home in 2007 (77%) than those offline (58%). For those 77% of internet users planning a main holiday in 2007 (just over 20 million adults), the most popular type of holiday is a beach vacation.

Besides “sun and beach”, it is interesting to note the popularity of visiting family and friends and also the importance of the second-home market, which around 1.4 million UK internet users are considering as their main 2007 holiday. Of those respondents who identify “sun and beach” as the principal element of their holiday, a considerable number also want sightseeing (44%), and/or restaurants (41%), bars (27%) and/or something for the children (22%).

These other key factors will play an important role in selling a destination to travellers and differentiating one beach holiday from another. For those intending to take “adventure” or “mountain and countryside” holidays, sightseeing is the key ingredient and this completely dominates any other factor, with 64% of consumers citing it.

It should be noted that sightseeing features highly as a main element for many different types of holiday (beach, visiting family, holiday home) indicating that people still want a flavour of the country being visited and experiences unavailable at home.

Therefore, when promoting a destination, including images of the sights and culture will further enhance the attraction of the destination. Likewise, restaurants and the social scene are important aspects of a holiday for many, and emphasising these will further enhance the appeal of a destination.

For their main holiday, nearly a third (29%) of respondents are likely to be in the UK with the West Country being the most popular destination. Spain is the second-most popular destination (22%), followed by the US (13%). For those going abroad the allure of sunshine and beach is the main draw and 10% say they intend to travel alone.

Historically, the UK’s weather has deterred many from considering the UK as a beach destination, with 44% of those going abroad taking a beach holiday compared to only 16% of those holidaying in the UK. The UK is much more popular as a destination for holiday homes, countryside holidays and “children oriented” activities.

Short breaks have risen in popularity and 73% of online users (nearly 20 million people) took one or more short breaks of between two and five nights away from home in paid-for accommodation in the past 12 months. The short break sector is estimated to grow even further in 2007.

In 2007 city breaks and visiting friends and family are the most-looked forward to short break that online users plan to take. The UK is a strong market for short breaks with just over half of internet users saying they are most looking forward to a short break here. London and Scotland are especially popular as destinations for a short break. These too are often booked online.

Air is by far the most popular method of transport (61%) and low prices offered by no-frills operators will help keep this market buoyant. However, heightened security procedures and an increased awareness of the environmental impact of flying may encourage travellers to consider other alternatives.

Tour operator and travel agent sites are more likely to be visited by people planning a main holiday than a short break. However, the numbers visiting travel agent sites is lower than for the dedicated online travel sites. This could be because many tour operators offer other channels of contact or because they have been slow to create a strong online presence and their sites are not immediately first choice for travellers.

The message is clear: tour operators’ online presence plays a role like never before. If travel agents are to secure market share they must ensure their digital strategies are effective at directing traffic to their sites and keeping visitors there.

The research also shows that the UK’s popularity as a destination is far from dwindling, and domestic operators and attractions should work harder to attract consumers.

• Colin Shaddick, director at Continental Research, contributed to this week’s Trends Insigh

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