Making Lemonade: Can Virtual Travel Drive Bookings?

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” 

Thanks Toa Heftiba for the could-be lemonade photo…

Making the most of a difficult situation – a.k.a. making lemonade – has been a mantra of mine since founding my own company during the last recession and weathering a barrage of critical challenges, the current pandemic being just the latest.

But what if nobody’s buying lemonade?  COVID-19 brought travel to a halt.  So why commit resources now that don’t drive immediate revenue?  

It’s an excellent question.  It makes total sense to cut non-revenue driving initiatives in a crisis.  But only – as I’ve previously said –  if it doesn’t affect the long-term viability of your business.

Pushing offers when travel is risky could come off as tone-deaf.  At the same time, businesses need to stay relevant with customers.  One way is to go through this difficult period together, by showing customer empathy: “We know you can’t or don’t want to travel right now, but here’s a way to satisfy that wanderlust.”

Virtual travel could very well be today’s lemonade.  But does it make sense to invest in such initiatives when they may not lead to immediate bookings?  We explored these questions and more in a recent AI Events webinar on virtual travel (you can view the recording here). 

Surveys of the 300+ registered attendees showed it’s no longer just a niche – 52% of respondents included virtual travel experiences as a part of marketing strategy even before COVID-19.

Poll survey graphics courtesy of AirlineInformation.org

A Polarizing Paradox

Like many issues today, marketing travel presents a polarizing paradox.  We want bookings to return, but can’t do that until people travel again.  We’d like to stimulate demand, but don’t have the resources or desire to do that until things pick up.  Initiatives must deliver revenue.

After recently claiming that virtual travel’s time has come, I heard from more than a few skeptics.  It’s not surprising.  A survey from our webinar showed only 42% of respondents planned to employ virtual travel techniques – and 44% were not sure.

As a former Online Travel Agency (OTA) executive, I get it. I have a natural bias against anything that gets in the way of a booking.  Removing friction and making it easier to buy is a key objective of any e-commerce company.  

When 360-degree virtual tours of hotel rooms first hit the scene over a decade ago, product managers bristled at how it may slow down page load speeds.  Merchandisers complained it would distract and cause would-be buyers to exit the purchase funnel.  Anything making the user experience visually richer was deemed unnecessary fluff.  At the time, I agreed.

But consumer buying patterns have changed.  The customer purchase journey as envisaged as the marketing funnel has morphed into a sphere, where the inspiration to purchase can happen anywhere and the “distance” to completing a booking is relatively consistent and short, regardless of the starting point.  

The surface of the sphere is constantly changing, like the earth’s atmosphere.  Trigger points – what I like to call Moments of Inspiration – can happen if the right conditions are present.  Like many trends, the pandemic has accelerated the morphing of the funnel into a sphere.

Inspire Now, For Bookings Later

Travelers have become more opportunistic in today’s rapidly changing environment of shifting regulations, patchwork responses and varying rates of COVID-19’s spread.  During a period of relative calm, where the origin and destination are both deemed to be ahead of the curve or recovering, a family who’s been in lockdown for months may pack up the car and escape to the great outdoors.  The more intrepid may even fly, motivated by low fares after careful weighing of the pros and cons.

In an environment where nobody’s buying, demand generation takes precedence.  When even that becomes difficult, it’s a battle for survival, to stay present in the minds of consumers who are quite literally looking to survive, too.  It’s an acid test for a brand’s reputation.

Disappearing from the conversation only ensures failure, yet overt pre-pandemic style offers are tone-deaf.  Virtual travel techniques – which I define as conveying the experience without a physical presence – offer a way to tap into the pent-up escapism of quarantined travelers in a guilt-free, low-risk manner, while generating valuable first-party preference data and leads that can convert now and later.  

A Call To Action

The main criticism of virtual travel is that it does not lead to bookings.   Engagement stats have always been there, but they are usually included with the caveat that the consumer is not in the buying mindset, they’re still “just browsing.”  Historically, the main virtual travel tools – 360 video and virtual tours – didn’t even have a “book now” or similar call to action. 

By comparison, even the oldest travel TV ad included the prompt to “call your agent.”  Virtual travel techniques missed the boat early on, but are now catching up.

Simply adding a book now button to a virtual tour isn’t enough, though.  The notoriously fickle booking habits of the online traveler cause him or her to bounce around a number of sites before booking.  Delivery mechanisms need to look at user behavior more holistically and be able to adapt to a travelers’ mood and mindset.  At TripTuner, we were able to overcome that challenge with the Florida Beach Finder project by allowing travelers to fine-tune their preferences.  

Another example is the Bahamas Island Finder.  Originally intended as an inspiration tool to help travelers explore and discover their ideal island, it has a persistent BOOK NOW button for each island that generates direct, measurable leads for nearly half of its users.  Travelers can immerse themselves in a virtual experience, yet still have the option to book at their discretion.

Re-Calibrate Your Metrics

Even with a call to action, it’s important to make sure that booking clicks – and any other actions within your virtual travel tools – are trackable.  As we saw during the webinar, 56% of respondents said they have no data to support how it translates to future revenue.

This is understandable.  Even the most sophisticated e-commerce marketers still rely upon direct, or last-click attribution: tracking bookings that come directly from a specific action or link.  As mentioned earlier, the haphazard nature of online travel bookings can make it difficult to track the customer journey.  One solution is to simply track bookings that have also included your virtual travel experience in a given session (setting a cookie to the duration of your booking window) or by a particular user.

If the current pandemic has proved one thing though, it’s that “all bets are off.”  An incredibly unpredictable business environment means we need to be prepared for any and all eventualities.  This means that traditional KPIs and success metrics may need to be suspended.

Instead of search quantity, a focus on more qualitative user data such as the types of activities, content and destinations can lay the groundwork for more effective campaigns.

In lieu of bookings (which may not recover fully for months), a brand’s connection with customers could be measured by email acquisition, social media followers or earned media.  

VISIT FLORIDA’s Beach Finder recently garnered significant earned media attention from Travel + Leisure and others for allowing home-bound travelers to virtually tour their entire coastline – even though it was initially deployed years ago.  Making virtual travel investments now can yield long-term benefits beyond the current crisis.  

Recipe for Recovery

With the right tracking, virtual travel techniques can reveal rich behavioral and preference data that can further refine your approach and offers, to generate leads and bookings.  Apart from this actual lemonade recipe, here’s your key ingredients:

  1. Help travelers escape, virtually (for now) – check out this article for a few ideas and remember – merely amassing a ton of virtual tours or imagery is not enough.  Travelers can get overwhelmed, so curation and personalization of that content becomes even more important.  
  1. Include a Call To Action – not a flashing price offer, more like “roam, if you want to…for just $X.”  Adventurous, risk-taking souls will self-select and by doing it subtly you won’t put off more cautious travelers.
  1. Right-size Your ROI – bookings are important to all travel companies, but when there are none, it’s time to re-think what success looks like in the near and long term – beyond the generic “back to normal pre-COVID levels.”

As I said at the end of the AI Events recording, “In crisis, there’s opportunity.”  Here’s to a big batch of “lemonade…that cool, refreshing drink” – for everyone.

Stay tuned, stay safe, be well.

Tedd

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