Tips for using holiday downtime

By Carrie Finley-Bajak

Carrie Finley-BajakDuring the downtime before the new year, travel agents can improve their technology skills. Mastering technology can include figuring out how to use your smartphone or tablet or, better yet, invest some time exploring how to use social media to take advantage of current trends like context marketing.

Context marketing has been around awhile, but for some travel agents it could mean new business opportunities. The goal of context marketing is to create marketing strategies that are both personal and relevant to the consumer.

We know consumers are spending time online researching trip ideas and reading reviews about airlines, destinations, vacation packages, hotels and cruise ship vacations. In fact, in a tracking study commissioned by Google to better understand the role of travel in the lives of U.S. consumers, it was reported that 68% of the respondents began researching online before they decided where or how to travel, vs. 65% in 2012. Travel agents need to be where consumers are online early in the planning phase to offer guidance and expertise (see the “2013 Traveler” study at www.google.com/think/).

While consumers are researching online, agents can take advantage of the information they leave behind.

To get started, agents can perform searches on their clients’ and prospects’ social media accounts to gain an understanding about their audience and how they consume content for use in highly personalized marketing campaigns.

Because most travel agents lack the resources needed to retain the services of third-party consultants to help them design context marketing strategies, I have compiled a list of best practices to get you on track for success. Below, you will find suggestioins for how you can integrate context into content that drives results.

Try linking your Facebook account to TripAdvisor.• Be your own data analysis expert. Spend time analyzing and gathering demographic data about your audience. Figure out their likes, dislikes and topics that interest them. Once you have sufficient data, create targeted email campaigns or social media updates that are personal and relevant.

Savvy travel agents are learning how to use the vast amounts of user-supplied data left on social media sites like Facebook. Spend time reviewing information in your friends’ newsfeeds and discover what interests your clients and prospects who follow you on Facebook. Study their likes, dislikes and interactions with travel suppliers for context clues. This information is helpful for creating custom marketing materials to match the right travel product to the individual, which adds value and creates business opportunities.

• Take advantage of Facebook’s custom list feature, which enables users to organize Facebook friends into categories. This feature will come in handy when looking for context clues to use in future marketing campaigns.

• Another source for finding context cues is on TripAdvisor. Try linking your Facebook account to TripAdvisor. Once you have done so, log in to TripAdvisor with your Facebook credentials.

Do some destination research and pay attention to the sidebar on the right (see screenshot above), which displays recommendations from your Facebook friends. This information can come in quite handy for trend spotting and for seeing which Facebook friends are sharing on social platforms.

Knowing how to leverage context about your audience, prospects, leads and clients in your digital marketing campaigns enables travel professionals to present content in a frame of reference that is more likely to result in a response to take action.

• Research what is trending on your favorite supplier’s Facebook pages and then create Pinterest boards that reflect those trends to tell the story. Then share links to your Pinterest boards with your audience, and share your expertise about the topic. Your goal is to offer guidance that helps people learn the unique selling points regarding the products you sell.

• Be flexible and willing to adapt marketing efforts. Knowing what interests your audience online is just one piece of the context-marketing puzzle.

• Another area travel agents can focus on is metrics. Having a system in place to track conversions is necessary to determine if your marketing efforts are successful.

• Be sure to track conversions and measure your return on investment per campaign.

• Keep track of website traffic and correlate with content marketing campaigns.

Finally, use and measure traffic coming from social channels. Pinterest is great for referral traffic and with specific Product and Places pins now available, it is easier than ever to take advantage of the third largest social network.

Changes at consumer travel magazines

By Tom Stieghorst

*InsightWhere do travelers get an idea of which cruise line to choose, or even the idea to cruise at all? One traditional source has been consumer magazines, and especially Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler.

The glossies make cruising an aspirational vacation, but both of them are in flux. Travel + Leisure is being sold by longtime owner American Express to the venerable magazine publisher Time, Inc., while Conde Nast Traveler has jettisoned its veteran editor and appointed a new one; last week, according to reports, nearly half of its editorial staff was dismissed.*TomStieghorst

What does their future hold?

In the cruise universe, the two high-end publications are perhaps best known for producing “best of” lists that give bragging rights to the industry.

Silversea Cruises, for example, has a page on its website that notes it has been named best small ship cruise line nine times by Conde Nast Traveler and seven times by Travel + Leisure. Conde Nast Traveler polls its readers about their preference in small, medium and large ship categories, and river cruises are ranked as well.

Both also publish a list of top travel agents.

Beyond recognition and editorial focus, the magazines are marketing vehicles for cruise lines trying to reach their customers. They’re particularly valuable for smaller lines that can afford a page in one of the two magazines but don’t have the budgets to afford national television ads, a la Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International.

Costa Cruises, a niche player at this point in the U.S. market, advertises almost exclusively to consumers in Travel + Leisure.

The divestiture of the American Express Publishing Corp. appears to have little to do with travel and everything to do with finance. In announcing the sale to Time, American Express said new banking regulations “limit our ability to engage in nonfinancial activities.”

The acquisition follows a 20-year relationship between Time Inc. and American Express Publishing during which Time Inc. has provided management services support to the company.

Although Time is being spun-off from parent company Time Warner and faces its own issues, it isn’t expected to significantly change the editorial mission of the American Express magazines after the deal closes in the 2014 fourth quarter.

The direction of Conde Nast Traveler appears less certain, after the dismissal of Klara Glowczewska, who had been editor in chief since 2005.

The new editor, Pilar Guzman, comes from Martha Stewart Living, and is said to be steering Traveler towards softer, shorter lifestyle stories. Major changes aren’t expected to hit print until early next year.

Consumer Trends 2013: Use of tablets, smartphones surges

Consumer Trends 2013: Use of tablets, smartphones surges

By Laura Del Rosso

2013 Consumer TrendsCall it the dawn of a new travel age. Handy and powerful tablets and smartphones are becoming de rigueur for travelers, leading to dramatically different ways of researching, planning and actually taking a trip, as new travel apps and optimized websites spring to life on the small screens almost every day.

“Every travel agent should be embracing it,” said Norm Rose, travel industry analyst with PhoCusWright. “The always-connected traveler needs the always-connected travel agent. You have to figure out how to be relevant in this new age of mobile.”

Travel Weekly’s 2013 Consumer Trends Survey underscores the surge in popularity of mobile devices: In 2012, 25% of respondents reported using a smartphone or tablet for purchasing travel online at any point in the previous 12 months. That number grew to 30% in this year’s survey, representing a 20% increase. (Read more from the Consumer Trends report here.)

Just as importantly, the survey revealed that the percentage of the population using mobile devices for buying travel has grown beyond typical early adopters. While mobile users last year were predominantly in the 21-to-34 age group, over the past 12 months, older travelers have caught on.

Among ages 35 to 54, use of mobile devices to make a travel purchase climbed from 23% to 33%. An even bigger growth was reported among the 55-and-over crowd, where use of tablets or smartphones for travel purchases jumped from 14% last year to 24% this year.

Airplane and tabletWhat’s more, Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst for Hudson Crossing, predicts that those percentages will skyrocket in all demographic groups in the coming year.

A recently released Hudson Crossing study concluded that if prices remain “reasonable” and the devices become even more appealing, with speedier and more accessible data downloading, 59% of travelers will own a tablet by the end of 2014 and 89% by the end of 2018. It’s only a matter of time before mobile devices become the norm, Harteveldt said.

“As tablets support more functions and have more capability it will allow travelers to leave laptops at home,” he said.

New apps by hotel companies and other travel firms are offering an array of products and services designed for travelers on the go, and they’re often easier to use for booking than websites.

“They [travel suppliers] are streamlining the research and booking process for mobile compared to a desktop,” Harteveldt said. “United, for example, has streamlined flight check-in to two steps on their app, whereas there are more steps on its website.”

Suppliers are also enabling customers to store booking information on mobile devices so that they don’t need WiFi or a data connection to access information.

Apps for mobile devices are currently geared to travelers while on trips, rather than for pretrip planning, Rose said.

“Smartphones, especially, are all about local search,” Rose said. “It’s about finding what’s around you now, finding an alternative when a train is delayed or a last-minute hotel room.”

And that, he said, is where traditional agents come in.

“It’s an opportunity for travel agents to be involved,” Rose said. “Just because travelers can go online and look for every hotel doesn’t mean that they’ll want to do it. Every agent should be embracing [mobile app] tools such as TripCase or Tripit and have ownership of their clients’ itineraries.”

Rose and Harteveldt agreed that the biggest change for agents is that they need to be connected at all times. Clients who carry smartphones or tablets on their travels will expect their agents to be available.

“Agents have to be there and be relevant in the conversation,” Rose said. “The holy grail is expertise. If you can tell someone who’s just found something on a travel app that it’s not what [you] would recommend, that there’s something better, well, that’s gold.”

Andi Mysza, president of Mtravel.com, a subsidiary of Montrose Travel, said that agents need to pay close attention to their clients’ use of mobile devices.

“Anything that people can do at their fingertips affects us,” Mysza said. “And it means we can join in that trend ourselves. Our agents who are proactively using new technology are very active in the mobile area.”

Montrose Travel, No. 47 in Travel Weekly’s 2013 Power List, already offers apps for corporate travel and is planning to have its website optimized for mobile devices.

Mysza is confident, however, that the apps will be used for impulse travel and last-minute purchases and not for the kinds of complex travel arrangements and exotic trips for which agents prove their value.

“That’s our selling point,” Mysza said. “Even though people can go out and easily research and do all these things, the pendulum is swinging back to agents, because consumers are getting confused and still need someone to untangle that glut of information.”

Tiffany Glass, Vacation.com’s vice president of e-commerce, technology and member services, said travelers don’t want to be “overwhelmed with data.”

“This competition requires the travel professional to be duly informed and use the consumer-facing websites and apps as well as agent-only information sources and differentiators that consumers cannot obtain,” she said in an email interview.

Vacation.com stepped into the mobile field, offering GoSiteSee, a destination-guide app for travelers that stores info and thus doesn’t use roaming charges.

It comes down to agents doing their jobs well, according to Jose Ferreira, Travel Leaders Franchise Group’s vice president of travel technology and marketing.

“Our mobile solution for leisure consumers features custom itineraries delivered from the agent right to the consumer’s smartphone or tablet,” he said in an email interview. “The consumer is able to build upon that itinerary by viewing nearby points of interest, restaurants, etc. In both cases, the agency’s contact information is a click away, allowing for immediate contact for any issue.”

Ferreira added: “The core value proposition of a travel agent — expertise, service and accountability — does not change for the mobile 24/7 consumer. It’s probably more important since they are looking for ways to sort through enormous amounts of information.”