How to compete with Expedia

first_imgHow to compete with ExpediaEarlier this year powerhouse Expedia bought out Travelocity, then Orbitz Worldwide to overtake Priceline Group as the world’s largest Online Travel Agent (OTA). With customers increasingly enjoying the instant gratification of booking travel online, Expedia, and its peers Booking.com, Wotif and LastMinute, present a growing threat to Australian bricks-and-mortar travel agents. Figuring out how to compete, and how to do it quickly, is vital for the rest of the industry.Tom Evans, Director of Blue Pencil Advertising, an agency that works with several travel brands including Flight Centre Group, feels that although it is common knowledge that consumer behaviour has changed, a lot of travel agents aren’t necessarily adapting their own behaviour to suit.“Travel consultants have got to stop trying to be the smartest person in the room and start assisting people to make their own decisions,” says Evans. “At the point of purchase, today’s travel consumer has researched where they want to go, what dates and flights, and they have filtered the relevant hotels by star ratings, price and facilities. At that moment they are far better informed about that trip than a travel consultant would be.”Realising that often people don’t always need an expert, is the key to retaining their business, in Evans’ view. He feels that travel agents who are happy to ‘help choose’, rather than ‘help discover’, are more likely to be seen as useful.Bronwyn White, Director of mytravelresearch.com, agrees that clients are far better informed now – and doing their own research online – but also says she has seen a surprising trend: “What we’re seeing is there is actually a resurgence of the travel agent,” she says. She explains that while the seasoned, baby boomer travellers are confident booking their trips online, the younger generation are coming back to the travel agents. “Tech-savvy millennials could easily use online travel aggregators and OTAs like Expedia, but they’re less experienced and less sophisticated… they are often looking for guidance, which a travel agent can provide.”Paul Hole of Insider Journeys argues that travel companies today actually need to see themselves as a different type of expert – and become far better connected to the right sources of information – to make sure they still have something to offer today’s informed customers.“Travel agents are expected to be specialists in everything these days, and while that is hard, it is also a really good thing, because if it was easy your clients wouldn’t need you,” Paul says. “It isn’t possible to know the best truffle hunter or winemaker in every destination, but you can be the person who knows someone who does, by having good relationships with your wholesalers.”Booking bugbearsWhile almost all travellers are doing – and throughly enjoying – their research online, Bridget Mcdonald, Director of Cherry Picked Travel points out that the booking element is not nearly so much fun. “The OTAs all offer airfares, car hire, hotels, sightseeing and sometimes tours, but they can’t plan an integrated holiday,” she says. “All these things are on separate sections of the website. You still have to do all the work yourself, booking every different component of your trip.”There’s also the very real danger of making mistakes with complex online bookings. Missed connections, booking the wrong date or landing at the wrong airport are disasters that befall even the most experienced travellers, regularly.“Travel consultants are skilled at putting trips together, says Evans. “They remove the panic from transfers, check-ins and visa regulations by thinking of all the little details. And that is where they can compete with Expedia, because Expedia doesn’t do that.”A costly businessThe common perception that booking online is cheaper is one major barrier that travel companies need to overcome. Travellers are worried about being “ripped off” by a travel agent adding commission, so they take the risk of doing it themselves. But they don’t realise that travel agents are using the same pricing systems as the OTAs.“There is pretty much no travel agent that can’t match an online price. Every price you find online we can access through a wholesaler,” says McDonald. “People think they’re getting a great deal online, but sometimes we can get the hotel they want at a significantly cheaper price. I’ve had cases where my price has been 20% less.”The potential to save outweighs the small risk the traveller will pay more, and in the case of round-the-world or more complex trips,  that potential is huge. “If you’ve got a multi-destination itinerary, nine times out of 10 we can make savings for people on the airfare and all the other components, because we’ve got a smarter way of doing it,” says McDonald.Staying competitiveWhile the OTAs are a very real threat in Australia, especially if we are guided by the US market where they are gaining an ever larger market share, they perhaps don’t necessarily spell disaster for the bricks-and-mortar travel firms, as we once thought.“A Roy Morgan poll from 2014 shows that most Australians still prefer to book with a travel agent – so 47% of trips are booked with an agent compared to 16% with OTAs,” reveals White. “So I really think there’s a place for both.”The key ways for travel companies and agents to make sure they stay competitive, and stem the tide of Expedia’s market share, is to up their game in terms of brand positioning, marketing and retaining customer loyalty.The ability to acknowledge that customers have strong and informed ideas about their trips, but also give them security in terms of getting bookings right, is a major plus point in the travel agent’s favour.“Flight Centre have recently remodelled their business around the fact that people do their own research, but want to book with an agent,” says White. “That behaviour really comes down to a sense of security, because you’re getting the experts to do the nuts and bolts of booking.”Also, where the OTAs offer every choice under the sun, travel agents make the process of choosing far simpler. “We listen to them as people and we tailor to them,” says McDonald. “They don’t have to sift through hundreds of options, and that’s the biggest paralyser online – options.”Specialise to surviveSpecialisation is another key weapon in the armoury of competing with Expedia.“You need to define who you want to get to and be really, really good at that. We just launched Cherry Picked Honeymoons and it’s just been crazy,” says McDonald. “We have specialists in honeymoons, ready made honeymoon packages on the site, and every single detail is taken care of. Customers can’t compare these packages to anything else online.”White agrees, saying: “We’re seeing very customer oriented travel agents, and travel agents that specialise in destinations or experiences or segments. There are great opportunities out there, there’s no doubt about it.”Hole says experiential travel, where the traveller truly connects into the culture, people and history of a place, is the future of the industry. And the experiential travel marketplace is certainly an area that travel agents have an opportunity to become indispensable.“More than ever travellers are seeking life changing experiences. Travel is no longer about trekking to a Buddhist monastery, but about how a monk you meet there might provide a new way to understand your world,” says Paul. “To find that you need someone who knows the destination intimately, who can show you how to create those local interactions.”Shout about itMarketing the benefits of using a travel service is also vital. Travel companies need to stand out to be noticed, and content marketing is an area where the savvy players are really making an impact.“We have a lot of content which we feed through social media. We don’t just try and sell packages, we put up articles such as ‘Ten things you never knew about Cambodia’ or Best bars in New York’,” says McDonald.“Travel agents can actually beat Expedia in search engines through content marketing,” says White. “A lot of smart travel agents, especially overseas, are getting into it, because travel is full of amazing stories so it really lends itself to content marketing.”Clear brand positioning combined with great SEO have become an absolute must for those in this industry. When customers first click online and Google their ideas for trips, a travel agent needs their entry to be right up top, among the Expedias and Wotifs.“Since the switchover to semantic search from Google, we’re seeing all the search algorithms change. We’re seeing brand positioning, content and clarity in what you stand for become more and more important. And as travel agents are clearer in their brand positioning, not only will the customers pick that up, but also the search engines,” says White.Overall it is the ability to adapt well to today’s changing consumer and the landscape of technology and information that will win through in the battle with the OTAs. Booking online is quick, convenient and cheap – but using the professionals is safe, collaborative and can be even cheaper.“The consultants that are able to empower the customer to make their own choices as well as gently guiding them along the path to a great travel experience, are those that will be genuine competition,” says Evans.Source = Claudine Capel – Journalist and PR Manager for Blue Pencillast_img