Sorry brand marketers, the travel industry has moved on.
It is no longer sufficient to spend millions of pounds advertising your airline or hotel chain on TV or radio… or even online.
Not only are consumers moving away from traditional media, they are moving away from brands.
NB: This is an analysis by Robert Durkin CEO of FusePump.
First of all, a bit of context.
According to the Economist, Expedia has become the world’s biggest travel agent (it owns Trivago, Hotels.com and Hotwire), with gross bookings of $39.4 billion last year.
Another online firm and its arch rival, Priceline, is the third largest, thanks to the success of Booking.com and Kayak, which it owns.
Priceline made reservations worth $39.2 billion in 2013. Indeed, Euromonitor has reported that online travel agents (OTAs) enjoyed combined bookings of $278 billion last year.
Oh, and TripAdvisor now offers hotel booking through its smartphone apps.
What’s the challenge?
These "meta brands" (as I like to call them) represent a significant challenge to traditional brands, and you can see why.
Booking.com, for example, provides a veritable masterclass in digital marketing.
Craftily wielding all seven "weapons of influence" on their website (and delivering one of the funniest TV ads of the year), they give consumers what they are looking for.
The chance to browse. The ability to compare. The filters they need. And, importantly, several reasons to convert.
Meanwhile, clever connected devices (30 million people look for travel information on a mobile each month) and changes in search behaviour herald the end of linear and predictable customer journeys (excuse the pun).
Consumers carry out branded and generic searches at various points in their travel research, but their path to purchase will almost always involve meta brands, meta search partners (such as Kayak and Skyscanner), and review sites.
They are increasingly hungry for relevant data. And, as information becomes easier to locate, share and consume, travel customers are truly making the most of it.
As well as performing research, customers are transacting away from brand websites. The data surrounding these customers, therefore, often rests in the hands of the meta brands.
Want to know more about your customers, or understand the purchase funnel better? Try asking Trivago or Booking.com.
If you send your inventory to third party sites, you’ll probably pay for every click… with limited visibility of what’s actually converting.
You’ll get a "black box" – the total revenue you collected from a partner website – with none of the granular detail.
You are losing visibility of the sales process (and paying for it).
So what can travel brands do?
1. Work with the meta brands
Don’t worry. Despite their looming presence, it is possible to wrestle some power back from the meta brands – although cooperation is key.
With a tagging solution in place, for example, you can measure which products are performing best, and filter your inventory as required.
If a particular route, or a room, doesn’t tend to convert, any PPC budget could be getting frittered away. Only send what you wish to promote.
2. Create great advertising content for syndication
Of course, the product information you do send to the metas must be optimal.
When competing away from your own brand’s website, it is only your product data and attributes that will help you stand out.
For a start, ensure that the descriptions of your hotel room or holiday package are correct. Nothing hampers the user experience like inconsistent and inaccurate information.
From there, think about optimising the title and description.
Where there is scope to do so, enhance product titles and descriptions to make them more alluring, making sure they relate to what customers are searching for.
Remember the power of brilliant imagery. Think of your product data as advertising content – because that is what it is.
3. Learn a lesson from the meta brands
As I’ve mentioned, many meta brands are nailing it when it comes to brilliant digital marketing, and investing heavily in this area.
However, the sheer number of websites that travel consumers visit before making a decision (Google puts this number at 9.4) means that people will still land on your brand website at some point.
Take a leaf out the "meta brand book" and make it as easy as possible for people to come to a decision.
Make your user experience phenomenal – and don’t neglect online content.
Travel brands are well placed to use their product data in a creative way, offering useful tools that put the consumer back at the heart of the business.
As brand loyalty declines, anything you can do to retain customers – from loyalty cards and air mile schemes, to more creative digital ideas – is a huge bonus.
Millennials in particular are most likely to rate loyalty schemes as important, and are happiest to share their data in exchange for rewards and loyalty points.
4. Get into people’s pockets
Why not make people download an app, perhaps where they can access their boarding card and other information? Once a customer has this on their mobile phone – you are in their pocket!
With the rise of m-commerce, it’s crucial that you not only offer a well-considered mobile and tablet experience, but also consider how else your brand can be present on people’s most-used devices.
Stats from Somo suggest that only 32% of UK travel companies have a mobile site and app.
As meta brands take more and more control of online travel transactions, think of ways to win back the customer insight and data that will help your brand grow stronger.
Brands still matter
As CIMTIG has noted:
"Increasingly companies are turning their back on the battlefields of price and star ratings in favour of a more branded approach."
As I told the organisation recently, these companies ought to be wary of the price-savvy, always-on consumer who isn’t as interested in your branded messaging as they are in convenience.
But brands do still matter.
You guys own the customer experience, no matter where they transact, so do everything in your power to make that experience a positive one.
But don’t forget the magic of good product data, of working with the meta brands to achieve success, and of thinking like a meta brand to win back all the sales – and the consumer insight – that your website can get.
NB: This is an analysis by Robert Durkin CEO of FusePump.
NB2:Travel branding strategy image vis Shutterstock.