When you went on vacation 20-30 years ago, you’d either go somewhere you’d been before and stayed at the same hotels or you’d rely on the connections and offers of friends or travel agencies. Today things are very, very different. An increasingly sophisticated digital audience can easily match the reach travel agencies once boasted. After all, information is a mere Google search away and the better the digital skills, the more independent vacationers become.

Granted, relying on travel agencies does mean better prices and less involvement in organizing a trip. Still, while offline travel planning hasn’t become as obsolete as CDs yet, statistics show that 65% of of leisure travellers begin researching online before they have decided where or how to travel . Travel agencies, therefore, will have to adapt their business model to appeal to the digital travel planner if their businesses are to survive.

 Adapt your business model to include an online component

There is no conceivable way in which a travel agency active on the leisure market will ever survive without a digital component to their business. You don’t have to take my word for it, according to A Survey On Consumer Travel Trends by Travelport 66% of leisure and 59% of business travellers use search engines to research travel online and, according to a 2014 TripAdvisor study, 92% of UK travellers say that reviews are essential when booking a holiday. With such high numbers of travellers active online, not accounting for the online environment in a travel agency’s business strategy is nothing short of shooting yourself in the foot.

In order to successfully integrate an online strategy into your business model, you will have to dedicate just as many, if not more, resources to developing the infrastructure, website and landing pages, marketing strategies, hiring the right workforce and acquiring the right content in order for it to work. Contrary to what some narrow-minded know-it-all might have led you to believe, an online strategy is not adjacent to your business, it should be at the very core of it for it to have the remotest chances to succeed.

Build a sustainable, customer-focused website

Your agency’s website functions as its calling-card, the online equivalent of a business office and should adequately reflect your core business. To tie all of these up with a pretty bow and have them make sense in a sustainable business strategy, you need a coherent identity, that is instantly recognizable both online and offline, a unified communication strategy, that clearly and constantly conveys your brand values and personality, a sustainable content strategy, that attracts, informs, appeals to and converts users into paying customers. Miss one of these components and your online presence will be sub-par and quickly overtaken by more digitally-invested competitors.

Being honest about the resources you have and are able to acquire and sustain is crucial, as your entire website will be built around what you’re saying you can bring to the table. If you’re being overly-optimistic about the manpower you can dedicate for the website you’re developing, the number of monthly deals you can put out, their format or the content you have available, you will end up with a website that is built for a product you don’t have and are not likely to develop in the foreseeable future.

Instead of making the launch of a website a goal in itself, focus on developing the right website for your travel agency. Remember, your agency’s website is not yours, it is solely intended for consumer consumption. When in doubt, refer to an eCommerce specialist who can advise you on what your business model needs to become competitive online, the steps you’ll have to take and the marketing budgets you’ll have to invest.

Invest in value over volume

One of the most significant driving factors behind researching online prior to any purchase is having options. We want to know what we can chose, why we should chose one over the other, what’s the difference in pricing and how those who’ve already purchased a product feel about it. Consumerism dictates that you have to present your customers with choices or else they’ll go somewhere else. In theory, it’s a sound strategy, in practice however, the higher the volume of choices the lower the chances that someone will turn into a paying customer.

User behavior patterns that lead to purchases vary depending on industry and even within the same market, with certain segments of the public looking for vacation packages in certain destinations or with a specific theme. It’s up to you to strike the perfect balance between your business model and strategy in order to recognize how and what your target audience is looking for; not what you wish they were looking for.

Your business strategy will have to account for user behavior, purchase patterns within the industry and figure out how many options you should present at one time without detracting from the shopping experience and devaluing your offers.

Stay focused

Often clients will try to cram in as much as they can into an eCommerce store or a marketing strategy in order to get as much bang for their buck as they possibly can. The problem with piling on things just for the sake of it is that there’s a very real danger of completely voiding the product’s value. In the case of a travel agency, if you want to cater to both leisure and business travelers, you’ll likely need two eCommerce storefronts, built for the needs of each market segment. Mix and match them and you’ll end up with a confusing soup of features, imagery and content that will appeal to neither.

Another rather frequent practice is abandoning the advertising strategy in order to inject last minute offers that do not follow the set standard of communication techniques nor the brand’s identity. What you’ve effectively done here, is negate all your marketing efforts up to this point and faded into the background as a brand that will happily trade communication with your audience for communicating to your audience, thus decreasing engagement and interest in very short order.

Content Curation vs Creation

A lot of brands have quickly become aware of the fact that content creation is the goose that lays the online marketing golden eggs, but very few grasp the challenges behind consistently delivering high-quality original content. In a nutshell, it can’t be done. According to KissMetrics, there are 55 million status updates every day on Facebook alone. Good luck with topping that! Each original piece of content you create will cost time and resources; the more complex and valuable the piece, the more you’ll have to invest. Still, when it comes to your business, the value of original, branded content supersedes that of curated one.

Your marketing strategy will, therefore, have to strike a balance between created and curated content, in a manner that appeals to your online consumers. One thing I do have to emphasize, is that the content you create has to be original and provide value for your potential customer, not yourself. Otherwise, you’re just spending money to give yourself a nice, long pat on the back.

Invest in high-quality imagery

From stock to free and everything in between, there’s no shortage of really awesome photographs online, so you’ve got no more excuses to use those washed out Polaroid scans from 1969. You can purchase affordable, high-resolutions images of all the destinations you want to advertise or use a smarter, more appealing option.

Loews Hotels and Resorts took an authentic approach to their hotel shots for their #TravelForReal campaign, dumping the all-too-familiar stock imagery for real photos taken by hotel guests and posted on social media. Is it time and resource consuming? Yes. Is it worth it? Definitely! It’s a unique strategy, centered around offering a real experience by showcasing real experiences.

The Bottom Line

The real question is not whether or not you should invest in digital, it’s how much and how wisely you can invest right now; before the cobwebs start to grown on your exclusively brick and mortar store. If your business is to have a future, you will have to take a very Agile approach not just in terms of product development, but online marketing and business strategies that account for shifting consumer trends, fast-paced technological advancements and an ever more digitally-savvy audience.

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