The booking process: engagement

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ITIJ 219 | April 2019
Peter Honnor, Head of Strategy at experience design agency 383, shares his insights into how travel booking engines can improve their bottom line by engaging customers at the earliest stages of their planning journey
 
The travel booking journey is now very well defined, with the familiar stages of dreaming, planning, booking and experiencing all known and serviced by many travel operators.
It’s no surprise that with this journey, it’s the booking phase that has received the most attention and effort as, ultimately, it’s where the revenue lies. For proof of this, we only need to look to Google, which recently announced that its users will be able to book hotel rooms directly from search results pages and find and book hotels from its Maps service.  
It’s clear that once Google gets involved in such a critical and financially-focused part of the booking journey, it’s time to have a look at the overall experience before the booking process begins.
When all booking engines deliver the same products and experience, it is only those who deliver a seamless journey from dreaming, onto planning and then finally into booking who will truly thrive
So where can online booking platforms make a positive difference to real user behaviour across their travel booking journey?  
Looking to established sites such as booking.com and Expedia, they have spent countless hours refining their booking process through endless A/B and multivariate testing. This has no doubt led to booking engines that are super smart and convert to the best of their digital ability. However, it has also led to a depressing familiarity across their experiences.  
Users are now totally accustomed to the endlessly familiar drop-down menus, date pickers and filtering options across any travel site they choose to book with. Quite simply, they may have become ruthlessly efficient at converting users, but in this process they have also become bland, boring and repetitive.
 
And this is where the opportunity to deliver new digital experiences within the travel sector lies.
When all booking engines deliver the same products and experience, it is only those who deliver a seamless journey from dreaming, on to planning and then finally into booking who will truly thrive.  
So how can this be achieved? 
 
Stage 1: dreaming
The behaviour of potential travellers has recently and rapidly evolved in terms of where they look to dream about and discover new travel destinations. Users want – and need – to be able to see themselves in far-flung destinations, mentally feeling the sea lapping at their feet on the number 51 to work. Within the dreaming phase of a user’s booking journey, content is truly king.
For confirmation of this, we only need look to the explosion of social media and its influence on the travel industry. Instagram is now one of the main sources of inspiration for users looking to find new places to travel, and the reason is simple – it’s pure, unadulterated visual stimulus.   
If you are serious about delivering a winning upper funnel travel booking experience, then rich, rewarding and engaging content must be at the top of your requirements list.
 
Stage 2: planning
As we move to the planning stage, it’s important to recognise that users need detailed tools and functionality to actively plan their trip. They need to be able to quickly create, change and share itineraries with their friends and family, and simple, easy-to-use functionality is key to success in this phase.
Once a destination is found, users need as much information as possible about their chosen location. Facts, figures, maps and planners are key to ensuring users have everything they need and return to your experience to plan their trip in detail.
Instagram is now one of the main sources of inspiration for users looking to find new places to travel
Stage 3: booking
Finally, it’s time to move your users into the booking funnel, having captured everything they have considered, planned and are now wanting to book. Now is the time to take the best practices and functionality from the major booking sites and implement them into your experience. Helping users to purchase and convert is no longer a mystical science, and there are tried, tested and proven experiences that can drive conversion within your experience.
  
For the record, it’s totally fine to ‘take inspiration’ from your competitors to help push your experience forwards – I can promise you that they have reviewed your experience plenty of times, so there’s always time to repay the favour.
 
So, if you want users to book with you, make sure they dream and plan with you. To ward off the land grab Google is starting to make in the booking phase, make sure you’re thinking of the customer journey way, way, way before the user decides to select that particular hotel in that particular location.
Ensure that the quality of content within your experience means that it’s one of the first 50 sites they visit for inspiration, and the functionality you provide allows them to plan with ease and in the right level of detail they need. Ensure that the steps along your journey are seamless and smooth and ensure users don’t realise they are moving between journey stages within your experience. 
 
Be bold, be brave, be experimental with your content and experiences. Make your users smile. Inspire them, and they will return to your experience not only to book, but with their friends, for their next trip.
But above all, please, don’t be boring. 
Nobody needs another booking.com. 

Peter Honnor is Head of Strategy at 383 in the UK, where he works with clients to create, make and launch new digital products and services. Over the last five years Peter has worked with a number of clients within the travel sector, giving him a strong understanding of how the digital face of travel is evolving with emerging trends and customer needs.