The most stressful part of any holiday for me is deciding where to go. It needs to be warm, but not too warm in case the kids get sunburnt. It needs to have some culture for my wife and I, but also fun things for the kids to do. It needs to have some good places to eat (mostly for me), and for my wife, somewhere with good ice cream.

And while trying to find a place that works for both of us can be difficult, it’s an experience that is faced by most travelers – and so I can’t help thinking about it in the broader context of the travel sector and holiday experience.

Working with Hostelworld, which offers backpackers access to tens of thousands of lodgings around the globe, Google has been assessing the challenges that come with modern travel.

Consumers have a huge range of destinations and services at their fingertips, and that can make reaching the right audience a challenging prospect.

The digital revolution has been huge for the travel industry – it has democratized choice, but made decisions more difficult. So what does that mean for travel brands’ digital marketing efforts?

In our recent research with McKinsey, we aimed to learn more about the impact of the digital revolution on travel. We carried out an analysis of anonymized, aggregated cross-device activity data, using more than 300,000 travel-related search terms. We found that there is a paradox at work: the average accommodation purchase journey lasts an incredible 36 days and involves 45 touch points across several devices and types of site.

Meanwhile, our own research tells us that 55% of travelers today believe that they have to check too many sources of travel information to make decisions.

Businesses like Netflix and Spotify have addressed this, curating content so that consumers don’t have to. This same logic applies to travel – 60% of travelers think that travel brands should personalize the information presented to them based on their past behaviors.

Logically, the next innovation we need is a type of “PackBot” which will pack my suitcase based on data on what I previously used (or didn’t use) the last time I went on holiday.  

But when customers aren’t going to the brand as a one-stop shop, things aren’t so simple – instead they’re searching and researching a huge range of options. In 2018, 31% of accommodation searches started on search engines, up from 23% in 2017.

Heavy lifting

So the brands getting ahead of the problem are the ones best able to offer customers searching for answers the best solution and at the best time – while using machine learning to do the heavy lifting to make sure they’re speaking to the right people.

Hostelworld is a fantastic example of this in action: the company has been successfully using Google’s dynamic search ads to keep cost-per-acquisition down while marketing an ever-increasing range of destinations and properties.

These ads consist of headlines dynamically generated by Google’s machine-learning algorithms, and deliver visitors to the best landing page for their query – capitalizing on traffic from search requests that can’t be easily anticipated.

The scale of the challenge they face is enormous: 82% of consumers haven’t chosen their accommodation provider when they first start putting their holiday plans in place. But that’s also a huge opportunity. Hostelworld understood that the key to making search work is about understanding who the customer is, what works for them, what content resonates and what information they need to make a decision – which is why it started using dynamic search ads.

Since it began, it’s achieved conversion rates that are six times higher and with a cost per click 30% lower than generic keyword campaigns. As it moves forwards, the brand plans to continue to grow and to keep watching the latest developments in digital marketing, so that it can continuously improve and adapt to the needs of its customers.

Those needs range from understanding the scale of choice and being assistive where possible, and it also means providing the right kind of online experience. Sixty percent of travelers would consider an impulse trip based on a good deal they find on a flight or hotel, and travel-related searches for “tonight” and “today” have grown more than 150% on mobile – showing that the answers need to be fast, and they need to be omni-channel.

However, when customers want to book on mobile, travel brands make it harder for them: as part of our research with McKinsey, we found that cross-device journeys took longer than single-device ones, requiring five additional days, 55% more sessions and 45% more digital touch points.

Travel marketers need to embrace the omni-channel shopper. At its most basic that means creating fast, intuitive and seamless experiences across desktop, mobile pages, and apps. 

Hostelworld has also been able to tweak its more standard ads to cater to its audience’s specific needs. This is essential – travel is a complex, high-anxiety purchase. Unlike a pair of shoes, it’s hard for customers to return their trip to the Bahamas after the fact. So while the temptation for travel brands is to improve their conversion rates, it’s best to focus on helping curious customers explore ideas and be inspired with useful, informative approaches to marketing.

My advice to travel brands facing the same challenge as Hostelworld is to consider the sheer volume of options consumers have to sort through, and to act as both a curator and an assistant. Essentially, you want to make the experience as far removed from the trials of packing as possible.

Intelligent, data-driven recommendations allow you to be as assistive as possible – and maximizes the chance that your brand will be the first thing in the bag.

And so, the questions marketers should be asking are: what is the most relevant way to respond to a given query? How can my brand use machine learning to provide the best answer and the best landing page? Am I catering to an omni-channel customer? These are essential for travel marketers on the path to making holiday purchasing easier and simpler for today’s discerning customer.

The Bottom Line: 

Google and HostelWorld have combined sophisticated algorithm technology with the accommodation search, providing customers with a more streamlined experience in making their lodging decisions. When the company began its digital marketing program, which leverages dynamic Google ads in a customized promotion based on each customer’s past habits, 82% of the clientele had not yet used the Hostelworld service. However, it has now multiplied its user base by 6, proving the quality and effective strategy of its personalized marketing technique. In additional, the travel organization has developed an easy-interface mobile application, offering customers on-the-go bookings that are not any slower nor more inconvenient than surfing options on the computer. This tactic is key, in a market that has grown 150% in its mobile use. It is little wonder that Hostelworld is quickly dominating the online booking scene, as both careful advertisement curation and mobile access propel it to the forefront. 

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Author: Shannon Cantor