Wherever the destination, whatever its purpose, every trip is rooted in logistics. From budgeting to booking, plus dozens more decisions to follow, traveling is an execution of careful planning and coordination — by the traveler, and by the many service providers behind the scenes making those plans possible.
It’s been roughly 20 years since companies including Expedia, Priceline, Hotwire, and Orbitz revolutionized this industry with digital portals that gave consumers a convenient new way to research and book travel. Now there is so much information — so many possibilities to consider — consumers are looking for new ways to streamline their searches, and not only for airline and hotel price comparisons. They want to see real-life experiences (not stock photography), curated lists on local hot spots (not typical tourist traps), and inspiring recommendations from trusted sources.
They are also willing to pay a premium for someone who will help them pull it all together. Sound familiar? It’s true. The return of the travel agent is happening, but with a modern twist. In fact, the most successful names in travel and tourism right now are finding ways to layer technology, commerce, and content into one streamlined experience, so that, for the traveler, figuring out the logistics can be just as effortless as taking the trip itself.
The Bird’s Words
When TripAdvisor launched in 2000, it wanted to modernize the way people gathered travel recommendations. By culling guidebook information and the sort of editorial reviews and list guides found only in print magazines and newspapers, the idea was to organize these resources into one easy-to-access, easy-to-navigate website. The company also added a button — a call-to-action for visitors to leave their own reviews. It opened the world to a fresh perspective and paved the way to a new era of social content and connectivity, in the travel industry and beyond.
TripAdvisor still dominates in the travel services industry — it’s the largest travel website in the U.S., North America, Europe, and Latin America, according to comScore. In the U.S., it has more than two times the traffic than the No. 2 online travel destination, Uber.
More than 415 million people visit TripAdvisor every month with access to 535 million (and counting) reviews on 7 million (and counting) hotels, restaurants, and attractions. Yet, even with an audience of this magnitude, the company realized that many people still did not know the full potential of its product.
TripAdvisor partnered with Havas Edge, an award-winning performance marketing agency based in Southern California known for its expertise in creating successful direct response TV campaigns for digital brands including GoDaddy and DraftKings. The goal was to inform existing and potential TripAdvisor users that the site had more to offer than what they thought they knew.
“TripAdvisor is incredibly well known worldwide as a place that you can go and see authentic pictures and real reviews on destinations, travel experiences, tourist areas you may be looking at, hotels and resorts, restaurants in those areas. So if you’re planning a trip, and not going to TripAdvisor, you’re probably not getting as complete of a picture as you can. What most people don’t realize is that you can also get access to a list of the cheapest rooms in the level of resort or hotel that you’re looking at. Similar to other hotel auction-type sites, TripAdvisor has that too,” says Steve Netzley, Havas Edge CEO. “The positioning of this campaign is that we’re increasing the awareness that TripAdvisor is a place where you can go not only to find tons of information about the places you might want to stay, but you can also find the lowest rates on those places.”
The commercial “This Bird’s Words” features a talking owl in a plush TripAdvisor embroidered bathrobe standing on a hotel room bed, speaking directly to his audience.
“You’re searching for something,” says the wise owl, “like the perfect deal on the perfect hotel. So wouldn’t it be perfect if there was a single site where you could find the right hotel for you at the best price? There is. Because TripAdvisor now compares prices from over 200 booking sites to save you up to 30 percent on the hotel you want. Trust this bird’s words: TripAdvisor. The latest reviews. The lowest prices.”
The campaign launched worldwide in July. Netzley and his team are managing it in the U.S., Canada, and throughout Europe.
Just prior to the campaign, TripAdvisor introduced a new and improved iOS app designed to bring all of its content and booking tools together for easy planning and access, anytime and anywhere.
“Travelers want to know they’re getting the best value on a hotel and other parts of the trip, and we have now redesigned our app to make sure they do just that,” Stephen Kaufer, chief executive officer and co-founder of TripAdvisor, said in an announcement in May. “The new TripAdvisor app experience allows travelers to effortlessly compare prices and book their hotel, find great things to do on the go, and unleash the full potential of their trip.”
The Jet Set
TripAdvisor isn’t the only one doubling down on its marketing efforts to reach savvy travelers looking for more convenient ways to plan unique experiences. Digital and social marketing, especially with programmatic targeting, makes it easier than ever for companies of all sizes to compete for a share of this booming market.
According to Deloitte’s 2017 Travel and Hospitality Industry Outlook, this is a new era of growth and transformation for the industry: “In the United States, renewed consumer confidence, along with a shift in household spending from goods to services and experiences helped leisure travel gross bookings sustain a growth rate well ahead of gross domestic product. Healthy booking growth is projected to continue across the leisure and business fronts in 2017, but the spoils are not guaranteed to travel’s biggest or most-well-known brands. The past few years taught established industry incumbents to never again underestimate a seemingly innocent travel startup.”
The U.S. leisure travel market reached $341 billion in 2015, the report says, the fourth straight year of 5-percent growth. Close to 6-percent growth is projected for 2017, pushing the market closer to $381 billion by the end of the year.
A new trend shaping the industry is what’s been dubbed “bleisure” travel, a combination of business and leisure, when people extend a work trip to enjoy personal time on a mini-vacation. comScore’s 2017 State of Travel Report found that 73 percent of the U.S. internet population (desktop and mobile) took a trip within the past 12 months. While most of those trips, 59 percent, were for leisure, 36 percent traveled for both leisure and business, and — of that segment — more than half were a combined “bleisure” trip.
“The travel industry is doing well, and performance marketing is a great way for us to drive people to a website where the companies can create great relationships with folks and continue to communicate with them,” says Netzley.
Havas Edge also works with Viking Cruises, voted the No. 1 Ocean Cruise Line and one of the Best River Cruise Lines by Travel + Leisure readers in the 2017 World’s Best Awards.
“As the economy continues to improve, people have more discretionary money to spend,” Netzley adds. “Data suggests that millennials are more interested in experiences than things, so that speaks to demand, and that means there’s lots of demand for cool experiences. For Viking River Cruises, if you can show the advantage of cruising in a major river in Europe, and the things that you can experience that you couldn’t experience going to these places in some other way, you have this differentiated experience.”
For these types of marketing campaigns, it’s all about highlighting the specifics, says Netzley. Instead of saying “take a river cruise,” it is more effective to help people envision their adventure on one. That’s how a brand can separate itself from the competition, and influencer marketing can be a cost-effective way to enhance this effort.
“You can create cruises, not just around the places you go, but the theme of the boat you’re on,” he says. “So, if you’ve got a rock-and-roll themed cruise, you’ve got talent that’s going to be performing, and that talent is talking about how amazing it is to be going on this cruise to all of their followers, that’s a great way to activate people. They’ll be saying, wow my favorite band is going to be on this cruise, and it’s going to all of these amazing places — what a great way to experience those places and with my favorite band. That is a cost-effective way to reach people who are likely to engage versus if I was going to try to run a national advertising campaign.”
Visit Like a Local
In an effort to become the one-stop destination for living like a local in any part of the world, Airbnb launched its Experiences platform last year. They’re available to book in 29 cities worldwide so far, with New York finally added to the mix in September. Now users can book accommodations as well as a full itinerary of things to do, led by local hosts within the community. Small business owners can use the platform to amplify their offerings, too.
In Los Angeles, Patricia Tsai, the owner behind bean-to-bar chocolate company ChocoVivo, offers an Airbnb Experience at her shop where visitors will “drink chocolate like the Mayans” and “sample from a globally-inspired tasting menu of drinking chocolates and appreciate them by dipping traditional Latin and European breads.”
From there, the group makes their own chocolate bars using traditional stone grinding methods, and then they finish the day by sampling their freshly-made chocolate with custom-crafted whiskey cocktails infused with ChocoVivo’s handmade chocolate bitters.
In addition to Experiences, Airbnb allows users to book restaurant reservations, and it announced plans to expand into flights in the near future.
For travelers who want exclusive, high-caliber experiences along with extra help planning them, a new wave of tech savvy travel agents are ready to assist. Anthony Melchiorri, hospitality expert and host of Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible said in an interview on NBC’s Today that travel agents are a top trend for 2017. He said, “Virtuoso, Zicasso ... they’re travel agents that have seen major growth, and they’ve seen major growth because basically within three clicks, no only do you have a travel agent, you have a travel expert. People are really going back to that.”
Zicasso, which launched in 2008, has been likened to a Match.com for travel. It’s a third-party service that connects vacationers with a shortlist of pre-qualified specialists whose experience best fits their needs, and the agents bid for business. Once the match is made, the selected agent will book and plan the entire itinerary while also providing 24/7 support during the trip. For those who are ready to travel, but aren’t sure where to go, the site is full of inspired themes such as the Game of Thrones Season 7 Spain Tour: Fire & Blood, and general themes including honeymoons and family vacations.
The demand for immersive experiences led by experts has also given way to a variety of independent travel planners and hosts, and they have all the digital access to market and build their independent brands.
Salt & Wind, for example, started as a food, travel and lifestyle blog. Founder Aida Mollenkamp teamed up with fellow writers and photographers and launched Salt & Wind Travel to share their favorite destinations with like-minded explorers.
“For both Aida and I, we realized that beyond our editorial efforts, people wanted to experience travel the way we did — with an emphasis on experiences, socializing and, of course, food,” says Jackie Bryant, a food and travel journalist who also serves as the group concierge. “We both realized we could take our expertise to the next level and actually travel with people and show them the inside track we often tell viewers and readers about.”
The trips are almost entirely all-inclusive. They work with a network of partners and offer exclusive opportunities that come from years of experience working and living in the regions they tour. They also offer an on-trip concierge, roaming Wi-Fi for the entire duration of the trip, pre- and post-trip planning services, loaded swag bags with travel-friendly goods, and a group lifestyle photographer to capture all the Instagram-worthy moments so their travelers can actually live in the moment.
As influencers themselves, their social presence and the content published on Salt & Wind is the key driver of marketing efforts. They are also looking into listing some of their trips on Airbnb Experiences.
“Luxury is coming back — but in a more thoughtful way,” says Bryant. “People are willing to spend on experiences over bells and whistles — everyone wants the story, whether they fashion themselves an amateur Anthony Bourdain, just want a good Instagram, or are looking for a more transformative experience. I think modern life is extremely stressful and people are looking for genuine connections and happenings — it goes beyond a break at the beach. I think many travelers nowadays want some kind of conversion moment they can take back home with them.”
She continues, “In the age of the internet, it’s fascinating how not obsolete trip planning services have become. Planning a trip is hard work, and people are certainly able to do it — but they either don’t want to or don’t have the time. That isn’t going away, we realize. The advent of social media also means people have greater access than ever to experts, especially those with TV, publishing, and kitchen credentials like Aida and I have. It can go much further than just a travel agent — suddenly, you’re living the story you read about in a magazine. Who wouldn’t want that?”