5 Lessons Travel Websites Can Learn From Online Retailers

By ​Nathan Richter

September 28, 2012

With a lot of travel websites, I’m taken back to a time when bricks-and-mortar retailers first began selling products online. They offered essentially the same website experience to every visitor regardless of their different needs and shopping styles.

Anyone responsible for conversions at a travel supplier or intermediary can learn a lot from successful online retailers and how far they’ve come in a short amount of time.

Or if you want to stay within the travel sector, then start by studying what Southwest Airlines is doing. The airline is committed to the customer experience, and has fully embraced optimizing the online booking process.

No matter where you turn for inspiration, you will find that these five core factors drive online success. Improve in these areas, and watch your conversions and sales climb.

1. Service

Everyone who buys from you engages with your brand throughout every stage of the buying cycle: research, consideration, booking, and post-purchase. Make sure you promote what makes you different from your competitors during each stage. Whether it’s a pricing guarantee, the ability to contact a service representative 24/7, or something else, a complete commitment to service as it relates to the transaction must come forward throughout the user experience.

2. Loyalty Programs

Travel companies have always been on the leading edge when it comes to loyalty programs, but those loyalty programs aren’t always front and center in the user experience. Proactively communicate to your best customers and serve a better experience to high-level reward members.

For example, as an Amazon Prime member, when I go to Amazon.com the website knows that I’m a member and automatically applies benefits such as free shipping without requiring me to take any action. Compare this experience to many airline websites. Your customers can obviously use their miles, but how much does the entire experience change around who they are?

3. Unique Value Proposition

Your unique value proposition is not price. Getting a conversion will come down to the service guarantees mentioned earlier and other differentiators that need to be highlighted throughout the user experience. As I also mentioned earlier, loyalty programs are a great way to set yourself apart from competitors.

There’s a real opportunity to look at retailers that use auto-calculated thresholds for free shipping and do something similar with loyalty programs. Test different treatments and placements, and create more value around what makes you truly stand out from the competition.

4. Personalization

There’s so much data that can be used to enhance the digital experience. In travel, there’s a tremendous amount of input going on within the session that can trigger alternate user experiences, thus ending the “one-size-fits-all” website syndrome.

Take, for example, a visitor who indicates that they’re researching a vacation for a family with two children. The website experience for this traveler should be much different than one for another visitor who has told you in-session that they’re traveling with only another adult.

To better personalize the online experience, look at your existing platforms and make sure you understand fully what they allow you to do—or what they don’t allow you to do. You should be communicating and serving individual sessions based on everything you know about your customer, both historically and in-session. Your customers are giving you details about their intent, so their experience should change based on these different attributes throughout the buying cycle.

5. User Experience

The last area of focus, and probably the most important one, is the overall user experience. While Southwest Airlines stands out in many aspects on this front, all online travel businesses can improve the user experience on their websites.

As I stated earlier, perhaps the complexity of legacy systems is getting in the way. But there’s an opportunity to look to retail to understand how to streamline the purchasing process. Online retailers use tools that help clean up the overall experience while still being able to effectively merchandise, upsell, and cross-sell. In travel, everything is a micro funnel to a booking or other type of conversion. Look for areas to streamline and declutter that experience to keep visitors on track to convert—it is a big opportunity.

Just about anyone can find their way around any retail site; the process is standardized in many ways. Index pages that highlight a breadth of products; features and functionality on product details pages; and, most critically, the cart and conversion funnel process.

Many travel websites have alternate flows or calls to action to get people through the booking selection process. When you add in upsells—and then, most importantly, customer data capture—the process can become overwhelming and unique from site to site.

Some simple user testing will likely reveal where visitors get confused about how they get from one step to the next. You should commit to cleaning up the overall user experience so the core intent of the user gets taken care of first. Then test ways to present the increasing amount of upsell opportunities and customer data capture you have in a more appropriate manner.

For more on how to optimize the website experience, download the "Top 10 Testing, Targeting and Optimization Best Practices: Travel and Tourism Edition" eBook. Or check out the webinar, "Creating the Ultimate Booking Experience"; Forrester Research’s Ron Rogowski and Travel Trade Gazette’s Daniel Pearce offer ideas for unifying the customer experience across channels.

Nathan Richter advises top enterprise clients including Best Buy, QVC, Sports Authority, and PETCO on website optimization. A veteran of digital marketing and online retailing, Richter has extensive hands-on experience helping enterprise clients implement successful multichannel marketing campaigns. Richter has directed online marketing and site optimization programs for David’s Bridal, QVC, The Franklin Mint, and dELiA's.

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