Many online travel companies have websites that stink.
Travel websites that are outdated and don’t use the latest technology to keep up with consumer expectations or e-commerce trends, or proper SEO, can make the difference between a business’ success and failure, especially in today’s weak economy, where businesses are vying for a shrinking number of travelers’ dollars.
Although business travel is down, and the industry as a whole is reporting declines, 70% of consumers completed their travel booking online in 2008, and more consumers are searching for and booking their travel online. eMarketer is predicting that online travel bookings in 2009 will grow by 10.5% to reach $116.1 billion, primarily as a result of a dramatic shift from the offline to online channel.
Knowing this, online travel managers need to understand that their online business starts and ends with their website. Their site has to become the first and last point of contact with the travel consumer. In today’s travel environment, it’s vital to have a website that is as dynamic, well-organised, functional and unique as each resort or location. Online travel managers, including those from campgrounds to vacation rental companies to 7-star hotels, can no longer rely on static, inefficient sites to generate business.
Websites that are inefficient and not geared to maximising revenues, cross-sell opportunities or increasing online visibility are literally killing their business. Some websites are so bad, they actually chase customers away! Here’s an example: pop-ups. Don’t you love them? Didn’t think so. Then why is it that so many booking engines appear as a pop-up completely separate from the rest of the site? Other examples include sites that don’t have enticing images of destinations or quick availability search in the top area of the home page – right where consumers’ eyeballs are hovering. Travel websites have just a few seconds to make an impression - use them well.
Websites need to be user-friendly, search engine-friendly, well thought out and relevant in order to boost conversion rates, improve search engine rankings, and most importantly, website revenues. They need to really speak to vacationers and address their travel and lifestyle needs. Site features like property search and mapping, and seamless online booking tools become keys to online success and increased revenues. Without them, most customers will give up the search and go somewhere else. It is also vital to have a site that is easily found online. What is the point, otherwise?
So what can you do to optimise your website for increased bookings and revenue, even as the recession and travel slowdown continues? I’ve outlined some key website improvement tips so that you can bring your website into 2009:
No traffic to your site, no bookings. That’s pretty simple. As a rule of thumb, if you don’t have at least 1000 unique visitors to your site every month (something that even smaller companies with less than 50 units should be able to achieve), you should first concentrate on building a better web presence.
First Impressions Matter
You’ve probably heard that you have just a few seconds to capture a consumer’s interest online. What isn’t always mentioned, however, is that capture is largely emotional. An ugly or busy site will not do the trick. Consumers are sophisticated and your site should be too. Use the best images and design possible, and entice visitors to book. Today, stock photo websites have affordable, professional photos of most destinations around the world so vacation rental sites should take advantage of these resources when designing their site.
For the Love of Searching
What is one of the most popular web activities? If you answered “searching”, you just earned yourself 10 points. Searching is what consumers do most often - searching for travel deals, great vacations and a chance to get away from it all - so ensure that your site makes it easy for visitors to your site to find out more.
Once they find properties they like, give them the full story. Photos, photos and more photos. Video if you have it. All amenities, mapping and previous renter reviews. There is no such thing as TMI (Too Much Information) when it comes to booking online travel.
How to Annoy Your Customers - Popups & Frames
One of the internet’s most annoying inventions is the popup. We all know this because we’re users, so why is it that so many sites use booking screens that have popups appearing in new windows? Or a frame or a redirection to a different site that looks completely different? All these things confuse, annoy, frustrate and scare online customers and have a significant detrimental effect on your site’s conversion ratio (i.e. the percentage of visitors that become bookers). Look at Expedia, Orbitz or Hotels.com – if your page flow from home page, to search, to details, to checkout is significantly different, don’t expect much online success.
To Book or Not
Did you know that every time you ask a customer to input their credit card details on your website, you’re creating a mental dilemma in their head? On one hand, they want to book and experience your destination and properties. On the other hand, they aren’t sure if they can trust you with their credit card and money. Your booking engine’s job is to alleviate those fears as much as possible. As we mentioned earlier, using popups is hardly the way to go. In addition, being transparent - showing rates, policies, security certificates and seals give users reasons to trust you.
Also, be smart about the order of information capture. Think of this as going on a first date. When you start, ask the user less sensitive information like their name, email and phone number and capture that as a lead. If the user then “abandons” the booking, you have a “hot lead” that your agents can follow up with and close the reservation.
Online metrics sounds technical, but it’s actually simple business sense. Keeping track of the percentages of people who book on your site and where they come from should be a no-brainer, however with a lot of systems, it is surprisingly difficult. If you can answer and interpret the following questions you are ahead of almost everyone else: How many people come to my site? How did they find it? What percentage left after just one page (bounce rate)? How much time and how many pages did they visit? What percentage turned into leads and actual bookings? And which of the marketing channels provided the most cost-effective bookings? Armed with that information you can now make small changes that can yield big results.
Online success can be yours
Online success can be yours if you heed the suggestions included here but keep in mind that your job is never done. You need to continue to analyze your metrics (or pay someone else to do it for you) to see where people are dropping off and find new ways to streamline your office workflow.
But all that hard work will pay off in the end. With an effective website, your site will experience more bookings, often captured at a lower cost and an improved consumer brand image.
So, isn’t it time that you turned your website into a booking machine?