#FlexIn: Why Flexible Inspiration is the Future of Travel

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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.

Catch The Rolling Wave of Demand

Summer months often have us thinking of beach time, but the unprecedented level of pent-up demand wrought by the coronavirus has many of us wanting to getaway, anywhere. Now.

Travel restrictions, entry requirements and vaccination rates continue to change, with demand surging in particular regions. Priceline reports that 92% of Americans will travel in 2021. U.S. airports are indeed filled once again with summer crowds, as TSA Checkpoint throughput is consistently at or above the 2 million travelers mark – about 3x what it was last year, and about 75% of what it was in 2019.

According to CNBC, 56% of Europeans intend to travel this summer. Flight bookings soared in the UK when returning quarantine requirements were eased recently (Okay they’re not part of Europe anymore – but you get the point).

The start-and-stop nature of travel these days has changed typical booking seasons. Many colleagues and partners are reporting that typical seasonality has been eroded by a rolling wave of demand, as more and more travelers are able to move more freely within their own countries and around the world – depending on the region, of course. Asia for example, has seen new restrictions on travel as the more contagious, less-deadly delta coronavirus variant spreads.

We’ve also heard about booking windows morphing into a barbell shape, where most travel is concentrated in both close-in and further out due to the uncertainty around changing travel restrictions, requirements and the safety situation in a given destination. This (and the steadily increasing wave of bookings) can be seen in the wide gap between short and longer term bookings in the US data from Adara’s traveler trends tracker.

tasty wave 📷 by Matt Paul Catalano

In this new, more fluid and dynamic context, travel marketers are wise to adapt to these demand patterns by keeping an eye on the restrictions from both an origin and destination perspective. Just as a wave splits into smaller waves when hitting rocks along the shore, so too will demand continue to flow where restrictions have been eased. Campaigns and messaging needs to be ready for immediate deployment, tailored for how travelers are feeling now.

We’ve helped our partners catch this rolling wave of demand through the merchandising of relevant destinations and experiences that are resonating with travelers now – like vigorous trail hikes or languid nights soaking up the fresh air of a state park. TripTuner was built from start to respond to changing preferences. Our custom versions enable partners to stay in tune with those tastes in real-time – and leverage that data for better personalization.

Wanna make some waves and rise with the tide of growing travel demand? Hit us up! 🏄‍♂️

The Yen for Hidden Gems: A Traveler Trends Triptych [infographics]

Travel’s recovery is at various stages globally, but the trend towards more authentic, off-the-beaten-path destinations, experiences and activities is universal.  Or is it?

Earlier we shared how travelers are gravitating towards more remote (and particularly outdoors) destinations, activities and beaches.  Much of the news around travel trends and some big travel startup funding reports focus on outdoor experiences. We hear about it on webinars, in posts and conversations from industry colleagues – to the point where it’s an accepted truism.

But I’m a bit of a contrarian, so just for kicks we checked to see if the remote outdoors zeitgeist was truly universal. And it is.  Kinda.

Your Social Distance May Vary

We looked at the demand for urban vs. remote destinations across the TripTuner platform, and compared it to pre-COVID levels. Breaking down the desire for more remote destinations by the top four US metropolitan areas, we can clearly see that not everyone shares the same mojo to roll solo.

The teal dots show COVID-era preferences, with white dots indicating 2019 preferences. Chicagoans had the strongest post-COVID desire to go remote (note the delta between the blue vs white dot above), while Houston’s change was less than half of that – likely because they were already more apt to do so (their white dot). New York and LA also saw significant increases of 28% and 32%, respectively.

Solo Play

We also looked at the demand for popular vs. hidden gem activities across the TripTuner platform, and compared it to pre-COVID levels.  There was a clear overall trend towards less popular activities, but it varied across the four major US metros.

Here’s how it played out:
– LA travelers are now 26% more desirous of hidden gem activities 
– New Yorkers were next at 23%
– Houston came in at 18% and Chicago just 12%

Interestingly, Chicagoans are an outlier here. While they clearly prefer more remote destinations, they are less inclined to go off-the-beaten path when it comes to activities. The other markets are more or less aligned with remote destination and activity preference levels.

Which Way To The (Uncrowded) Beach?

Beach preferences jibed with the crowd-avoidance vibe. The change in pre- vs post-COVID preferences varied as with destinations and activities.

Here again however, Chicagoans stood out in having a much higher preference for secluded beaches than hidden gem activities. Perhaps the novelty of Oak Street Beach has worn off for locals?

Your Audience May Vary

What else does this data tell us? That despite a glut of views on what the “new normal” (sorry not sorry to use that worn phrase, it’s relevant) looks like for travel, we still need to dig into the numbers and see if it makes sense for our audience and what they want.

Ideally, you can do this on an individual 1:1 level (we can help with that) by leveraging your own first-party data (more on its importance here). But as much this pandemic has changed us, it’s more critical as ever to do the math – to question your assumptions and check that they are backed by real, relevant data.

Enough with the numbers. Now let me go dream about my next remote getaway destination.

PS – we can help with that, too 🙂

Distance Lover: Traveler Demand for Open Spaces, Quantified [INFOGRAPHIC]

At first glance, this infographic may not be surprising.  The general consensus among travel experts these days is that people are opting for less crowded experiences as a result of the pandemic.  But when you start to look for data to back this up, it’s largely based on surveys or anecdotal evidence and quotes. We wanted to see what actual travelers were doing vs. saying

So we dug into the TripTuner Taste Lab. The Taste Lab is comprised of unique preference data pulled from the precise actions of users on preference slider inputs across the TripTuner platform. It’s the output of a patented process, in which the twin attributes of each slider measure the relative preference between two criteria (you can play around with it here).

In this case, we looked at the relative preference for social distancing among U.S. travelers across three categories: destinations (remote vs. urban), beaches (secluded vs. lively) and activities (hidden gems vs. popular). The base timeframe starts with the designation of a pandemic in February 2020 and runs until the first reports of a successful vaccine in November. For a pre-pandemic comparison, we took the same timeframe from 2019.

Where’s the Remote (Destination)?

As expected, Taste Lab data shows travelers prefer less crowded destinations, beaches and activities across the board. But it wasn’t the same for each type of travel experience. For destinations, in 2020 travelers were on average 22% more inclined to choose a remote destination.

This may not seem significant, however if you look at the position of the average slider preferences it shows a flip from a pre-pandemic bias towards urban locations to more remote. Of course, individual tastes will vary (and we can capture that on an individual level) but the overall sentiment shifted significantly. Remote destinations are on average, the new default.

Beach Towel Territory Battles

You know those pesky travelers who claim their territory with a beach towel sometime before you go to sleep and finish breakfast? Those battles are primed to continue, but along a different front. Instead of staking claim to a spot closest to the action, beachgoers are choosing secluded spots by 33% more than they did pre-pandemic. Despite being outdoors, distance still matters for travelers looking for their next beach vacation.

Authentic Activities at-a-Distance

When looking for activities, the general thinking is that most travelers will flock to the “must-see” experiences in a given location (looking at you, Times Square). But post-pandemic, travelers are 24% more likely to select a “hidden gem” (let’s run it back, Oiji). We’ve seen how many trends have been accelerated by COVID-19, so this too may not be surprising given the general shift toward more authentic, local experiences. Still, like the growing taste for remote destinations and secluded beaches, these changes represent a major shift in traveler activity preferences.

Moody Truths

Given the pandemic’s relative lack of booking and historical preference data, it’s imperative for travel marketers to stay closely attuned to how travelers are feeling right now, in the moment. A major shift may only be a headline away. Implementing a way to gather first-party preference data now is the best way to future-proof against the next major disruption to travel – before it becomes cliché like social distancing. To find out how, give us a holler.

Stay tuned. Be well.

INFOGRAPHIC Traveler Tastes for 2018: To Chill or seek Thrills?

TT Taste Lab - relaxing

As 2017 winds down we’re sharing some fresh traveler preference data to help marketers target the world’s top 10 markets next year. It’s not your typical list of up-and-coming destinations (you can always find those here). Nor is it a list of popular activities or themes. Those have been covered thoroughly. Continue reading