What next for buying holidays and travel online?

Andrew Smith and Robin Shuker from the Independent Consultants Group explore the technology trends that are changing the way consumers are booking their holidays.

Holidays

The way we are sold to, plan and buy our holidays of course mirrors wider trends in internet and social media developments. But holidays are a very emotive and important purchase, and particular technology considerations stand out.

The recession has emphasised the search for greater value so that a decent holiday remains possible – and this search invariably means wider use of the web. Most consumers now believe that you get a better deal online.
Whilst the broad shift to online activity is the dominant travel sector phenomenon of the last decade, it’s important to separate three stages in the decision process: the way we form an initial list of holiday ideas or destinations, often informed by word of mouth, television, film and press features; the planning and comparison stage, now very largely conducted online; and final purchase.

Although buying online is steadily increasing, surveys confirm that this remains at a lower level than planning – depending on exact market and product. For example, the UK Tourism survey confirms that 57% of all pre-booked 2009 domestic holidays and short breaks by UK residents were booked online.

Recent qualitative work on UK tourism in a range of inbound markets confirmed the universal power of the web in the holiday planning and buying process, across all age groups and countries. Even the older US traveller, more used to a friendly local travel agent, routinely compares prices and Trip Advisor comments.

The web has also impacted the type of holidays we buy. Today, over 60% of overseas holidays from the UK are non-package. This trend has been fed primarily by online access to and better value from the main travel components, combined with a growing consumer confidence to both buy online and travel independently.
Online technology will continue its profound impact on the travel industry in coming years. Amongst the most relevant issues faced are:

1. Social media influence. Different social media and online community platforms are likely to influence holiday (and all other) sales increasingly, because usage will become far more mainstream. Surveys suggest that social networking has already replaced a significant amount of direct holiday and travel website browsing. Currently, social networking use drops significantly with age, but the picture is fast changing. The challenge for travel operators is harnessing content and learning from these media.

2. Content. As the online environment increasingly dominates our lives, content becomes ever more critical. But a re-definition of content is required in the face of the development of social media. On their own sites, holiday operators need to ensure high quality images, relevant video and lively features as a minimum. Social media expectations are likely to see their sites feature far more access to impartial customer reviews, forums and other external images and videos. Operators know they have no option but to harness user-generated content in this way.

3. Technology convergence. It’s highly likely that the devices we all use to browse the web, communicate and interact will become more physically combined over the coming years. Although it’s unclear what the dominant devices will look like, their shape and capabilities will inevitably influence how we look at content and select our holidays.

In the face of the incredible web-technology revolution, it’s perhaps surprising that travel agents survive at all. But physical outlets are likely to remain for some time yet. Agents are important for customer segments less familiar with the web and for those who value guidance and the personal touch. Holiday operators know this, and value them as physical extensions and reminders of their brands.

Andrew Smith chairs the Independent Consultants Group, and Robin Shuker is a member

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