The travel industry has been having a tough time lately, facing pressures both from the economy and green interests. Tighter budgets have taught consumers important lessons in how to get better value; and anyone selling online should take note of these changes, because these behaviours are likely to persist when the long-awaited upturn finally appears.
A study conducted earlier this year by Google and Compete, the US consumer panel, showed significant shifts in research and purchase behaviour, as consumers become more demanding.
Respondents agreed that the internet has made travel easier, and that its importance is likely to continue to grow. The study also found that, while consumers who use the internet to research travel are visiting fewer sites on average, those who make a purchase are looking at more sites.
This isn't just a marginal effect. The number of buyers looking at more than 10 sites is up 20%. To some extent, these actions reflect the same themes that are emerging in search itself. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated in how they use search engines, as the number of single-word searches has declined consistently over the past few years, and searches using longer phrases have become more common.
There are more tools available to today's online travel buyer as well, from add-ons in Firefox to iPhone apps that find the nearest hotel.
The growth in the number of sites visited by buyers may be evidence that consumers are prepared to work harder to secure the travel deals they want. However, it doesn't prove that they're more tolerant of the poor design or fitness for purpose of many travel sites.
Irritating usability issues, such as the Kuoni site 'forgetting' how old your children are every time you go back to the home page, or Virgin Holidays displaying hotels that don't take children, in response to a search that specified their age, are not the only problem. These are exasperating features of ecommerce, but they are not confined to the travel industry.
The problems with online travel run much deeper, as too few sites are really making any effort to reflect how consumers make decisions in this market.
Research run by Travelbookers Omnibus earlier this year highlighted four principal gripes. More than half of respondents resented hidden costs. Nearly half had difficulty finding specific information, while 45% complained they couldn't ask questions. A third found the buying process too complicated.
This is pretty damning stuff. For a family of four spending £5000 on their annual holiday, it is a huge investment; not just in financial terms, but personally, too. This is their main annual holiday, and if they get it wrong, they've blown that year's vacation. The fact that they can't get a picture of the room type they're buying, prices in the restaurant or consumer reviews is a barrier to conversion - and it's the reason why they're visiting so many websites.
The travel industry has come a long way, slowly. The internet has transformed consumers' access to information, but you wouldn't know it from the way most travel websites perform. Consumers are signalling that they're not satisfied with the experience they are getting online. This presents both a threat and an opportunity to players in the market as consumers enlarge the competitive landscape.
The bar has been raised. Those businesses that step up to the plate will benefit, now and as the market recovers, because consumers will not scale back their expectations as growth returns.
Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level
30 seconds on Travel Bookers Omnibus research
- The research, commissioned by CRM software company RightNow Technologies and carried out by Loudhouse, surveyed 1000 UK adults. It was published in February.
- The issues most likely to deter respondents from booking a holiday online were: not easily being able to find information about hidden costs (53%); not finding specific information about holidays (47%); not being able to ask questions about a holiday (45%); and finding the buying process too complicated (35%).
- Almost one in four (23%) had had a negative experience when booking a holiday.
- The customer experience can have a dramatic impact on a holiday company's reputation: 72% of survey respondents had told others about a past negative online booking experience, while only 54% had told others about a good experience.
- These are key factors for brands, because 69% of respondents said they most value recommendations from family and friends when booking travel.