#FlexIn: Why Flexible Inspiration is the Future of Travel

The global coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed travel.  Just exactly how is debatable.  Fortunately, as the world starts to open up again we now have preliminary data to see what’s changed, and what will.

Flexibility now reigns supreme, and travelers want to know their options.  Not just any options – what’s right for them, right now.  

Relevance remains important, but many travel marketers are still stuck in a merchandising Medieval Age – pushing available offers, arranged neatly on the digital shelf.  Top sellers get prominent placement, with a few nods to personalization: places you’ve clicked on, been to or are within driving distance.  

That should be enough to capture a share of this unprecedented wave of demand, right?  

Not exactly.  There’s a revolution in travel happening right now, a tectonic change deeply rooted in a very personal, cultural and psychological shift.  The world was pulled like a rug from beneath our feet, leaving us unsettled, unsure.

Uncertainty breeds indecision.  Indecision halts action.  In e-commerce terms, it kills conversion – and drives a ton of call center interaction, as many travel sellers are reporting.

How do we remove uncertainty and get travelers to book in an ever-changing environment?  By implementing a strategy of what I call “FlexIn” – a combination of flexibility and inspiration defined as “the spontaneous generation of desirable, relevant and changeable options.”  

photo by Alexander Schimmeck

Destination Roulette

Flexibility has been one of the best changes to come to travel recently.  The ability to change or cancel a reservation without penalty is the top factor in purchase decisions, according to a recent Expedia presentation at the eTourism Summit 2021.  A recent Phocuswright research report says 7 in 10 travelers prioritize flexible booking more than ever.  It’s one change many of us hope will remain permanent.  For marketers, it’s no longer optional.

Beyond the refundable fares and eased cancellation policies, post-pandemic flexibility now applies to the very core of travel: destinations.  Specifically, destination selection.

As border restrictions, vaccine availability and adoption change, so do the list of available destinations.  Expedia also reported that on average, travelers are searching for 2 or 3 destinations in a single session.

The typical linear customer journey of selecting a destination, searching for the best price and then booking was already antiquated pre-COVID.  The funnel is morphing into a sphere – an irreversible trend accelerated by the pandemic – where travelers will consider (and even book) a number of destinations before settling on one.

The Inspiration Script, Flipped

We humans have an innate desire to explore.  Travel brands have tapped into this desire by employing attractive imagery for over 150 years.  Ethereal print ads from early U.S. railroad companies lured travelers with images of the western frontier.  At the start of the jet age, nostalgic posters of exotic destinations beckoned travelers, in the same way as Instagrammable spots drive today’s wanderlust.

Early travel ad – courtesy of University of Virginia American Studies
Rings true after all these years…

Yet somehow, the notion of inspiring travelers in the digital space has more recently been considered a frivolous pursuit.

Many industry journalists have cited the demise of travel inspiration and planning startups and projects over the years as proof.  A Skift study found that 4 out of 5 trip planning or inspiration startups failed over the 4 year period prior to 2016.

Those failures were more about execution and timing, I would argue.  Naturally, I’m also happy to say we’ve persevered against the odds: TripTuner has been converting inspiration into bookings for 10 years. Let me channel Matt Damon for a minute…

Still, there’s a lingering resistance among online travel veterans to embrace inspiration. It’s often considered to be too far from the booking.  Marketing efforts should focus further down the funnel. 

Another perception is that there’s “not enough traffic to make it worthwhile,” as the CEO of a major metasearch company once told me.  This is an inherent chicken/egg problem, where big companies may be reluctant to promote inspiration in a meaningful way because they believe there’s not enough demand for it.

Not according to Google.  They estimate that 1 in 3 travelers do not have a destination in mind when first thinking about a trip.  Ironically, the ever-increasing cost of lower-funnel keywords has also pushed brands to engage travelers earlier in the purchase process.  Inspiration is the way.

Brands Flexing Inspiration  

Savvy sellers are responding to the flexible destination demands of travelers.  CheapTickets was among the first OTAs to implement their Vacation Value Finder (powered by TripTuner, natch).  

Brands like United Airlines are getting in on the action, too with more flexible search and exploration tools (though a map crowded with labels doesn’t exactly inspire).

Regardless of who’s doing what – the best way to identify unmet demand is to test for it yourself.  In our experience with partners, every inspiration A/B test has proven its merit.  Apparently, the world’s largest travel company by market capitalization agrees.

FlexIn Your Way Forward

At the recent Skift Global Forum, airbnb CEO Brian Chesky revealed that 40% of people come to airbnb with no destination or date in mind, saying “going forward, we’re going to be in the business of inspiration.”  As a result, they’ve put a big “I’m Flexible” button as the main focal point of their home page.

Why is a separate inspiration function or Call To Action required?  It could be added to the typical flight or hotel search (enter destination, dates and travelers).  But all too often current search functions lack the spontaneity and curiosity that triggers the imagination.  The results themselves need to be inspirational (e.g with alluring images) as well as relevant.

Properly deployed, FlexIn piques a traveler’s curiosity and creates a sense of ownership, of being the author of one’s journey.  This is MY trip.  While many ideas come from within, they’re often prompted by an external stimulus (like a conversation, social media post, or email).  Without a way of channeling that inspiration, your brand simply won’t get its fair share of the rolling wave of post-pandemic pent-up demand.

The ability to spontaneously generate desirable, relevant and changeable options – which you now know as FlexIn – can future-proof your business in an ever-changing world of increasing choice and complexity.

To learn how you can convert flexible inspiration, get in touch and…stayTTuned.

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