Personal touch worth the price

It is a fallacy to assume most of us use the internet to book a holiday or choose a destination and provider. The majority of British travellers still value speaking to a person – even if it costs more

Climate Camp at Heathrow has come in for much criticism for singling out the air travel industry as a major carbon culprit, with many eco-activists suggesting consumers avoid flying and holidaying abroad. Not surprisingly, most of us eschew the idea of foregoing our holidays and indeed according to ABTA the travel industry is worth £85bn a year in the UK alone.

Yet when it comes to how people choose to book their holidays and to what extent they would recommend individual agencies, carriers and destinations, there is still much debate. Indeed, with the rise of the internet it would be easy to assume that the computer would be the first port of call for most of us, and that cost and convenience would be key factors driving people’s purchasing habits.

In fact, a report earlier this year suggested that just 7% of us now use the high street to book our trips away. However, new research from customer insight specialist The Listening Company disputes this. Together with Alain Samson from The London School of Economics, it surveyed 8,000 British adults aged 18 to 65 in April to determine their buying habits and preferences when booking holidays, choosing destinations and providers.

The results show that only 40% of UK customers book their holiday online with another 40% booking in person through travel agencies. The remaining bookings are done over the telephone, demonstrating that 60% of people prefer to book their travels with some level of human interaction.

As well as seeking to understand people’s holiday booking preferences, The Listening Company sought to ascertain the factors that affect people’s likelihood to make a recommendation to others. Respondents were asked which travel agencies, carriers and holiday destinations they would actively recommend, using the Net Promoter Score (NPS) system – a customer satisfaction survey in which customers are asked only one so-called “ultimate” question: How likely are you to recommend company or product X to a friend or colleague?

People are more likely to make recommendations to friends and colleagues if their holiday was booked over the telephone (8.1 out of 10), with travel agencies coming second (8) and recommendations for bookings made over the internet a distant third (7.7). But what affects people’s willingness to recommend a particular travel agent, is it the booking media itself, the strength of the brand or the actual service they offer?

Although the relative importance of efficiency and convenience plays a greater role for internet-based experiences, reliability is something most emphasised by telephone customers. Service overall ranged in importance depending on the degree of human contact: 80% for agency (face to face), 74% for telephone (voice to voice) and 66% for online bookings.

According to the research, the highest NPS among UK travel agents is enjoyed by Saga (53 out of 100), a specialist for travellers over the age of 50, followed by Dawson & Sanderson (48) and Trailfinders (41). At the bottom of the table are Shearings (NPS of 14), (3) and Eurostar (0).

In terms of the likelihood of UK consumers recommending a particular carrier, the NPS was almost 20 points lower when compared to travel agents. Flight carrier Emirates and ferry operator P&O (NPS of 32) offer the most highly recommended experience to travellers while Air France (-22), BMI (-14) and Ryanair (-5) appear to disappoint travellers the most. Superior service is the reason most cited for recommendation, above convenience, arrivals/departures and facilities.

The most stated reason for booking with a particular agent by UK travellers is cost (30.4%), followed by convenience (16.7%) and loyalty/ familiarity (16.3%). These differences are also reflected in travel agent NPS scores. Agencies dominated by convenience bookings, such as, have a lower NPS overall (average 13) than cost (26) or high loyalty/familiarity types of agencies (35).

On a demographic level, young and male consumers are least likely to recommend an agent, carrier or destination, while female and older customers are more likely to recommend a travel-related service.

In the final analysis, positive word-of-mouth advocacy is an essential factor in driving company growth – even a small percentage reduction in negative word of mouth would lead to millions of pounds of additional revenue for brands. It is interesting to see and understand how this premise translates to the travel industry but moreover try to understand how people are booking their holidays.

It is clear the majority of people still value speaking to a person when making a booking, even at an additional cost. With this in mind, rather than getting a discount for buying on the Net, perhaps customers should get a discount for buying over the phone? 

Neville Upton, chief executive officer of The Listening Company, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight



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