How online travel agencies can optimize conversion ACROSS the CUSTOMER journey

With 64% of travelers preferring to book directly with suppliers, J. P. Ephithite, director of propositions for online travel agencies at Travelport, looks at what OTAs can do to increase conversions.

One of the biggest challenges travel brands face is shopping cart abandonment.

This is particularly true for online travel agencies.

According to the latest Travelport research, 64% of travelers who have researched a trip with an OTA, but did not go on to book, say they prefer to book with suppliers (e.g. airlines, hotels, car rental companies). So where are OTAs going wrong?

Travelers have hundreds of options when it comes to searching and booking — online travel agencies, airlines, hotel websites, car rental companies, metasearch, search engines, even social media channels.

This growing competition in the online travel space puts OTAs under pressure to show travelers the added value they bring beyond price.

For OTAs to optimize conversions, they must shift their focus from ‘getting the booking’ to looking at the entire traveler journey: inspiration, shopping, booking, pre-trip, in-trip, and post-trip.

At every step, OTAs have an opportunity to add value, engage with customers, and increase revenue opportunities beyond flight bookings.

Here, we’ll look at each stage of the journey to show how your OTA can optimize conversions and open up new revenue streams at every touchpoint.

Step 1: Inspiration

Travel inspiration can come from anywhere: seeing a friend’s Instagram post, reading an article on the top destinations to visit in Spring, or stumbling across a video ad on YouTube.

Whatever inspires your traveler to start their first trip search, at this point of the journey, they are open-minded and eager to find an idea for their next adventure. Your OTA has an important opportunity to grab their attention and guide them in a particular direction. You can do this with content like videos, imagery, and articles showcasing the key destinations or packages your agency has on offer.

At this point, the traveler isn’t ready to book. In fact, they could be weeks or months away from booking. You should therefore focus on acquiring website traffic and capturing visitor details. This will allow you to begin building traveler persona profiles, delivering relevant content and offers, and nurturing your site visitor—so that when the time comes to book, your brand is at the front of their mind.

There are some key areas to focus on at the inspiration stage:

  • Optimize your website for mobile: This is obvious, but absolutely critical at the inspiration phase. According to Google, 60% of searches for destination information comes from mobile, so it has never been more important to optimize for mobile first.
  • Site speed: In addition to mobile optimization, it’s essential to make sure your website loads quickly. Capturing traveler attention can be a challenge and users will bounce off your website if they don’t get the information they’re looking for as quickly as possible. If your site takes around 10 seconds to load, you increase the chance of visitors bouncing from your site by 120%. Not only this, but Google now prioritizes websites that load quickly in its rankings. So to put yourself ahead of your competitors, one quick win is to sort that site speed. Google’s Test My Site tool is a great starting place.
  • SEO and PPC: Speaking of search engines, SEO is a top priority for every OTA (or should be). While many travel brands focus on bringing bookers to their website with key phrases like "Book hotel in Madrid" or "Rent a car in Paris," there is plenty of opportunity to grab attention among those who are looking for inspiration. While keywords like "Car rental in [Location]" is appropriate when you’re targeting travelers at the shopping/booking stage of the journey, they are less important when it comes to the inspiration phase. Travelers are looking for experiences and ideas, rather than the practicalities. Targeting keywords like "Best family-friendly destinations in France" will allow you to capture your target traveler personas at the very beginning of their journey. You can guide them towards some great destination content, capture their preferences, and start building insights that will help you convert them to bookers — that is, when they’re ready to book.

Step 2: Shopping

Once the traveler has decided on their destination, they will move on to the shopping phase of the journey. This involves looking around for the best deals and organizing the core logistics like flights and hotel.

This part of the journey is critical. It’s the time when travelers are most likely to bounce off your website because they are comparing across so many different providers. There’s little you can do about that. However, there is a lot you can do to make sure that once they’ve done their research, the website they come back to when they’re ready to book is yours.

  • Hit the ‘search sweet spot’: Just as your web pages need to load quickly, your site also must return search queries (for flights, hotel, and so on) as quickly as possible, or you risk losing visitors to competitor OTAs and supplier websites. 52% of travelers with smartphones said they'd switch sites or apps because it takes too long to load. As a guide, your OTA should aim to process search responses in under two seconds. You can achieve this with technologies like mobile-optimized APIs and intelligent caching.
  • Give more choice: Airlines’ branded fares have become a core part of their creative pricing strategies. By offering various ‘fare families’ (e.g. economy, economy plus), they can target various traveler needs. Some fares include checked bags and seat selection; some are basic, no-frills economy class seats alone. Your OTA needs to display all fare options to travelers, especially at the shopping stage. Travelers are weighing up their options and want to compare across multiple airlines and fare types; don’t give make them leave your website to do that.

Step 3: Booking

Until now, your traveler wasn’t ready to click ‘book’. Only now, once they have looked at all of their options and weighed up the pros and cons, will they move on to completing the booking.

While price is a key deciding factor for most travelers, it’s not enough to only give travelers a good price. There are thousands of agencies all over the world doing that.

Now, you need to show the value of booking with your OTA. This includes everything from the range of offers you have available, how easy it is to add ancillaries, how user-friendly the booking process is, and what customer support you can offer along the way.

  • Multi-device booking: Google research shows that 94% of leisure travelers switch between devices when they plan or book a trip and 46% of travelers with smartphones say they make their decision on mobile, but then book on another device. Allowing users to start a booking on one device and continue it on another is a good way to provide value throughout the booking stage. It also provides a more seamless user experience, which can lead to higher conversion rates.
  • Price prediction: When the time comes to actually book, travelers want to know they’re getting the best deal. Travelport research shows that 71% want online travel agencies to offer predictions on when air fares are likely to go up or down. By looking at historical price points and predicting where pricing is going based on current market data, you can begin to advise customers on when they should be booking to get the best deals.
  • Ancillary upsell: Increasing shopping cart value is a core goal for every online travel agency. The good news is that travelers want to buy ‘beyond-air’ content. 71% say that it’s important to be able to add extras to their bookings with an OTA. Again, it is vital to offer your travelers as much choice as possible; Travelport’s research found that 42% of travelers who research trips with OTAs but don’t go on to book feel OTAs don’t provide the same variety of travel options or extras like bags or seat selection, as airline sites.

When it comes to conversion rate optimization at the booking stage, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Travelport’s guide to optimizing conversions across the traveler journey gives more detail on tactics like remarketing, agent support, booking flow design, and multi-ticket itineraries.

Step 4: Pre-trip

The trip is booked and you have converted the looker into a booker. Yet, as an OTA your work is far from over and you are only half way through the customer journey.

There are still opportunities to engage with the traveler and position your brand as a trusted partner as your traveler prepares for their trip.

  • Build relationship with customers: The pre-trip phase of the traveler journey is the perfect time to continue building a relationship with your customers. Your OTA can make preparing for their trip easier by sending communications like reminders to check in or visa requirements.
  • Pre-trip ancillary upsell: You can use this pre-trip stage to start filling in any gaps in your traveler’s itinerary. There is an average of 50 days’ lead-in time between booking a flight and traveling. This gives plenty of time to sell ancillaries like flight add-ons and car hire.

Step 5: In-trip

The trip has arrived; the stress of searching, comparing, and booking is but a distant memory for your traveler. They are now exploring their destination and looking for recommendations on what to do and where to go.

This is where your OTA can bring even more value for your customer, with personalized travel tips.

  • Guides and recommendations: According to Google research, 85% of leisure travelers decide on activities when they arrive at their destination. With the right data, you can target travelers with personalized offers while they are on their trip. This allows you to tap into travelers’ holiday spending budgets, which are now worth an average of $5,000+.
  • In-trip assistance: Travelers also expect travel brands to assist with queries while they're away. Travelport research shows that 42% of travelers expect to be able to chat with an OTA via their app or website and 37% expect to be able to chat via text message. To truly position your OTA as a reliable travel partner, you should ensure you’re using these channels to engage with your travelers.

Step 6: Post-trip

Most agencies still focus on selling a single trip to a traveler, with no plan for what happens next. But, to build longer-lasting relationships, you need to have a lifetime plan for every customer you engage with.

The key is to engage with customers post-trip to understand their feedback about their experiences. By doing so, you can encourage loyalty and ensure that the next time they go to book a trip, your OTA will be one of their first stops.

The value of a convenient experience can’t be underestimated. Travelport research shows that 73% of travelers say that having the ability to book an entire trip in one place would encourage them to re-book with an OTA. 70% also say that a good mobile experience would encourage loyalty when it comes to re-booking with an OTA.

Your guide to optimizing conversions

It is no longer enough to focus on simply converting site visitors to bookers; booking is just one part of the overall picture.

You must also inspire website visitors with great content, offer them relevant search results, upsell useful ancillaries and provide the best pre, in, and post-trip customer service, to truly optimize conversion at your OTA.

The agencies who will see the most success will not be those who offer the best price: they are the ones who offer the overall best experience, especially at the shopping stage.

Travelport’s free guide to optimizing conversions across the customer journey includes more tactics for turning lookers to bookers, as well as key insights from its research with over 2,000 OTA end travelers.

Get the free guide