The travel sector has seen dramatic changes to the customer journey in recent years.

Gone are the days of a simple process with minimal touchpoints: flicking through brochures; speaking to a travel agent; deciding where to book.

The rise of digital in the travel industry has seen a decline in the reliance on local travel agents and instead 83% are now booking their holidays online either themselves or via online travel agents.

Consumers have a wealth of holiday information at their fingertips 24/7 and are often willing to devote considerable time and effort to investigating price and quality before making a decision. The result is complex: an overlapping web of touchpoints with huge variation across different people and their holiday preferences.

This presents a problem for travel brands, as it has created an environment of constant engagement with vast variation. No two customer journeys are the same. While some people meticulously plan trips, others spontaneously book them, some want active adventures while others want beach relaxation. The many touchpoints for various holidays will be different but each can be broken into distinct stages or moments:

The rise of digital has presented changes which are now impacting one, or all, of these stages in the customer journey. We have identified seven current trends challenging the travel sector. Brands need to acknowledge these and adjust accordingly. In doing so, they can prevent breakage and ensure more joined up customer journeys, in turn retaining more customers.

1. Increase in travel

Not only has travel become more affordable and accessible but people now place more value on experiences than things. Psychologists have shown that money spent on doing provides more enduring happiness than money spent on having.

From this has emerged a ‘Why not?’ attitude, particularly prevalent in younger generations. They feel saving for a house is a futile exercise so are instead ‘living for the moment’ and splurging on holidays and travel. As a result, travel is on the rise with people holidaying an average 3.5 times per year, even higher for millennials at 4.2.

Hence, customers are potentially booking several trips at one time and it is likely they are seeking different things from each holiday – an adventure packed trip with the family, a city-break with friends, and a relaxing, romantic week in the sun with their partner.

Therefore, it is likely that at one point in time an individual is at multiple stages of their customer journey for different holidays. Brands must be aware of which stages people are at for each, so they can be personal and relevant and ensure people come back to them for every trip they book.

2. Choice paralysis

People are now bombarded constantly with holiday inspiration. Whether subconsciously exposed to it on social media, or actively looking online, they are overwhelmed by the choice at their fingertips. Filtering this down to decide on a destination can be difficult and stressful.

Interestingly, over 90% of consumers know what they want to do on holiday – they either know they want sun, a beach and time to relax, or they know they want culture and adventure – but they don’t know where to do it. Experience, not price, drives early travel plans.

Along the customer journey, brands can assist consumers by serving relevant content to help with their indecisiveness. People really value this: 80% of travellers said that such informative content from travel brands can influence their decision-making process. By recognising where people are on their customer journey brands can pin point the moments they can have the biggest impact by serving relevant, compelling content to help make the experience easier and enjoyable.

3. An empowered consumer

Digital has given consumers more control. It has provided them with access to unlimited travel information and they are willing to search until they are certain. The average traveller now spends time browsing an average of 38 websites before making a purchase.

What we see is that customers are far more committed to meeting their personal need than they are to particular brands. They have very little brand loyalty, with 88% saying they would simply switch to another site or app if their digital experience lags and doesn’t satisfy their need.

People now expect the digital service they receive in retail industries. They are flippant and don’t want to settle for an online experience that isn’t easy and convenient. Therefore, to stand out in a busy marketplace travel brands must create a digital experience which captures people and stands out from the competition. One they stick to once they’ve found it.

4. Mobile optimisation

People are constantly switching between devices throughout the travel customer journey. We see mobile becoming an increasingly important tool for holiday research. However, people still appear uneasy booking on their phones, often flipping to desktop at the last minute to book because they think it is more user-friendly and feel more confident and secure doing so.

While 40% research flights and accommodation on their mobile, this drops to 21% when it comes to booking. Brands need to ensure this omni-channel experience is seamless. While boosting mobile optimisation may help to retain customers on mobile all the way along the customer journey and prevent drop out.

5. Booking styles

Travel planning is not done in one discrete chunk. Often flights are booked first before prices shoot. Once this is confirmed people like spending time investigating accommodation and other additions like car hire, activities and tours. One cannot assume that the customer journey of each is in sync.

While 80% of people feel it is helpful to be able to book all travel elements on one website it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to do it all at the same time. 59% start researching their next trip between one to three months before departure, however, 38% of tour and activities bookings happen on or around the same day as doing them.

Online systems need to be flexible to accommodate different behaviours and different stages of the customer journey for each element. Expedia’s Add-On Advantage is utilising this insight to allow people to benefit from booking everything through them, in whatever time frame suits best.

6. Social media inspiration

We have seen a huge rise in social sharing of travel experiences. Sharing experiences has become important as a means of identity-creation – people feel better sharing experiences than material possessions. A phenomenal 97% of millennials now share photos and videos of their travels online and this plays a hugely influential role. This has created a constant and influential web of authentic peer-to-peer content which has added a new element to the customer journey.

People are now subconsciously inspired long before they actually plan a holiday – younger generations grow up feeling connected to the wider world through images online, making them more aware of the possibilities of travel and eager to investigate these places themselves. 89% of millennials say they plan their travel activities based on content posted by their peers.

Qualitative research emphasises how much sway people’s friends have on them – “I’ve gone to Mexico because quite a few friends have been and they post fun photos there”. Brands should be utilising this ‘real life’ feedback to create a loyal base of customers that keep returning, but also brand advocates who in turn influence future travellers. The result being a customer journey which goes full circle as each consumer’s journey feeds into their next, but also straight onto someone else’s.

A typical Instagram travel influencer

7. Personalisation

There is a desire for travel brands to understand their customers, recognise what they have done before, learn from this and then provide personalised recommendations for the future. Segmentation is no longer enough – people want personalisation.

However, a striking expectation-reality gap exists: while 67% of people want travel companies to personalise their communications, only 44% believe that the communications they receive from travel companies are good.

People enjoy looking at travel images online, even when they aren’t actually looking to book a holiday. Creating almost virtual ‘bucket lists’ online has become a bit of a pastime. If brands can recognise where people are on their current customer journey and take previous ones into account, along with search interests, social and what similar others have done, then they can serve people with relevant and personalised communications as and when they need them.

The brands able to offer these personalised ‘bucket lists’ are the ones that are going to motivate consumers and stay front of mind when it comes to actually booking. EasyJet created this brilliant campaign for their 20th anniversary which leveraged customer data to create personalised emails which had powerful results…

(via campaignlive.com)

Brands that see these seven trends as opportunities can ensure they matter, are valuable to consumers and stand-out within a mass of competition. While brands that don’t respond, risk frustrating their audiences by exposing them to disjointed customer journeys and therefore potentially losing them.

Travel brands such as Virgin Holidays and Generator Hostels will be represented at the Festival of Marketing 2018 in London, October 10-11. Check out the agenda.