SEO (or Content Strategy) for Independent Travel Agents & Tour Operators

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It’s been a while since I visited this subject back in 2012 with my blog “SEO vs PPC, the debate rages” and things have moved on a long way. Researching whether or not to engage in Paid Search ( PPC), knowing whether it is useful for your business  and what the ROI would be all depends on what you are trying to achieve and where in the sales funnel you wish to attract customers ( and ‘anywhere’ as an answer to this will only cost you lots of money! so it’s important to set out what you wish to achieve.

Update on SEO

The update on ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ in 2014/15 is that it is non negotiable. To have a successful business with longevity and sustainability that attracts customers from online, travel agents MUST have a content strategy.

AirBnB is arguably one of the most successful travel start ups of recent years. Transforming the ‘Bed and Breakfast’ short term rental market. This is how they approached Content Strategy:

1. Deliver tools for extended engagement: Airbnb Does Neighborhood Guides 

2. Inform and educate: Airbnb TV

3. Drive leads with testimonials: The Airbnb Lifestyle

5. Drive customer loyalty and trust: Airbnb Connections

4. Drive leads through social engagement and calls-to-action: The Strategic Use of Social Media for Promotion

The full article can be found here at The Huffington Post

STARTER SEO STRATEGY CHECKLIST OF TRAVEL AGENTS

The good news if you are reading this is that the vast majority of travel agents in the UK have NO content marketing strategy and so by starting 2015 with a strategy you will be ahead of your competition and by starting now you will always be ahead of your competition as Google will be ranking your content sooner than your competitors.

There are lots of areas of SEO to get used to – on page vs off page, meta tags, optimisation etc. In any one of my talks this is the point that a lay audience will start to glaze over so I only want to get one point across here. If you have no content then  there is no point in worrying about off page SEO, optimisation and metatags. Sure, if you have written a heap of content and no one is finding it, it’s time to talk about the other elements of SEO, but let’s get started first.

A | Brainstorm a ‘Content’ Strategy (on page SEO)

For travel businesses that arrange bespoke tours ( or act as a tour operator) then create content around your chosen activity/holiday type. As an arranger of these trips you are setting yourself up as an expert and a writing plan to showcase to your audience your expertise ( as AirBnB does in its City Guides) is a great way to develop an SEO strategy

For more general agents then a relevant content strategy may be to write about your educationals, your relationships with tour operators ( which operators you use an why?). Don’t be afraid of linking to tour operator websites so long as you have made it clear to the reader the advantages of booking directly with you ( same price, better value and service etc.) and if you have a content website from us then of course you can link directly to that Operators product in your own website.

The key behind the Content Strategy is to develop your ‘voice’ and ‘expertise’. Give your readers a reason for coming to your site so they can learn something. SEO and blogging is all about building your showcasing your expertise.

Writing for a Specialist audience is what content marketing is all about – read what the experts have to say on MOZ.com and read The Ultimate Guide to Content Planning here

B | Develop your Keywords Plan

Developing your keywords is essential to any good content marketing plan. Use Ducttape’s various resources to help you brainstorm keywords

C | Start Writing

Use in house resource but if you have not got anyone with a writing bent, find freelances on websites such as peopleperhour.com. You will often find travel writers whom are not expensive.

NOTE | Your Knowledge

For small to medium businesses with tight budgets – that is most travel businesses unless they have the might of VC money like AirBnB do 🙂 I would always advocate having someone you trust in your organisation to understand the very basics of SEO. While SEO is theoretically free, outsourcing someone to do this for you outside of your business is very expensive and normally outside the budgets of travel businesses. The great news is that there are tons of self learning programmes that cost very little to start to learn all about SEO. There are free resources online that may be relevant such as an explanation of someone else’s work – http://www.simplyclicks.com/Travel-Agent-SEO.pdf or for a more planned approach I recommend online courses such as those from ‘Distilled‘ – some of the modules are free and all are free tomorrow, 3rd December 2014

Why the days of offering limited choice are over for travel agents… and what you should do about it

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In days gone by, the only place you could buy travel was in your high street. Researching travel was not really possible and so you relied on your travel agent to provide you with your options. We weren’t as widely travelled as we are now and so the business was somewhat easier to manage.

A similar scenario happened with Insurance Companies selling in the High Street. A lot of the shops disappeared but what happened to the remaining Independent insurance agents? Or Financial Advisors – how are they surviving? In the main by showcasing their expertise and selling ‘whole of market’

Estate Agents, have survived in mass numbers still ( partly due to the property boom), but also because of the way that selling of houses has developed ( all successful agents rely heavily on RightMove as well as showing ALL their product online on their own sites.

The transformation of the travel industry is taking longer to work out than those other industries. While people may be baffled by insurance and financial advice, in the most, insurance is a relatively cheap product and the difference in price and cover elements will not break the bank. The major comparison sites that have grown up in place of the small shops offer the consumer some research tools so that a consumer can get a broad opinion now of cost and cover. Travel is not cheap and often complicated ( and prices further complicated between the law on showing what is included in the price – which makes selling packages and ‘flight + hotel’ on websites very tricky.

The Evolution of the Independent Travel Agent

In the main, outside of commodity products such as hotels and flights, consumers still like to book their travel having had a conversation. Be that with an OTA or a traditional agent ( 90% of all booking site sales are transacted after/on a call) , the consumer is looking for advice as to where to spend their hard earned cash. So the consumer is researching online and before they even decide to make an enquiry with a travel agent they will check out the travel agent website and the product they sell. It is at this point that your marketing spend turns into cash or a waste of time.

You don’t know what the consumer is looking for, so your number one priority must be to decide what sort of business you want to attract in the future – find your niche. But having decided on your niche, you need to make sure that your website fully showcases the niche and that the product you have showing is as wide a choice as possible. The user is only ever one click and search away from finding more product somewhere else so your site has to reflect your business raison d’être.

You may have preferred relationships with Operators and of course that is a good thing. Relationships with Operators means that your clients get well looked after and your commission is sufficient. Switch selling clients when they are in your sales funnel ( or shop) is a great way to develop a business with trusted partners. But showing online that you limit choice is never going to get the numbers of clients returning to you.

The Key sales tools

The key selling tool ( which has not changed all that much over the years) is to hook customers with being the expert with access to ‘whole of market’ and then once you have that customer, tailor their holiday to your preferred travel partners. Far from disadvantaging the consumer, the enables you to provide the best holiday the consumer can get. But if a customer is looking for a certain kind of trip and your regular ‘suppliers’ don’t offer it, or don’t have availability do you send the consumer on their way or do you try and sell them a package from another provider (or tailor make your own). The latter of course is true and so that should be the marketing action you take on your website.

Independent Travel Agents can no longer flourish without relevant content that will nurture clients to make an enquiry. They may survive for a few more years with existing older clients that are happy to keep booking the way they always have, but it won’t last forever. As for agents that take their online channel seriously ( and we mean those that see their website being at the centre of their marketing and sales funnels) will not only survive but thrive as consumer choice widens and consumers become more baffled and search for experts in their fields to help them make a choice.

 

Bonjournal – a new way of recording FAM trip notes to publish

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We previously covered a great way to produce inhouse guide books using the new free software Buggl. Buggle can produce great guides but takes a bit of time to do and so although the finished result is worth keeping and using for your clients, how do you go about bringing a FAM trip to life and publishing the events as they have happened?

Bonjournal.al is a really useful free tool that allows your staff to record their FAM trip via their IOS device ( or desktop) and then publish it. If you are writing it up on the move then it will also capture your current location and handily add this to a map.

Check out this example on India – Abbie’s personal thoughts on her trip. What better way to show your expertise than by recording your FAM trips as you go and then publishing them on social media channels and make them available for future customers to browse when they are trying to decide whether to go on that adventure holiday and could really do with some insider knowledge to read up on.

Another great use for this tool is for you to publish your own trips and use the diary function as the itinerary. Its a great way of bringing an itinerary to life in order to sell to future customers.

via 5 New Travel Startups Uncovering Clever Business Models.

Design Travel Guides for FAM Trips – increase your expert status

A new Travel Guide platform- Buggl has launched that enables users to create unique short and personal travel guides online and either give them away or sell them for a few quid.

This is a genius platform for Travel Agents and other Specialist Tour Operators to be able to publish online, and not only use it as an inbound lead generator but also as unique, personally written travel guides for your clients.

Of course blog about  your FAM trips, but writing a travel guide also ensures that you continue to stand out from the crowd as the expert. If you have not got a writer in house then you can easily hire them for about £50 to write up the notes that your staff make when on their FAM trip.

Net Effect Take:

We are genuinely excited to see this kind of ‘free’ functionality online that enables Independent Travel Agents to stand out from the crowd and publish their expertise. If the software platform gets traction, the guides will act as a great inbound lead generator for Travel Agents

How Travel Brands Squeeze Value Out of Crowdsourced Social Campaigns

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All the big boys are now starting to look to use social media effectively to engage with their customers. They are trying to star a conversation, which has historically been  very difficult to do.

The danger for smaller travel companies and travel agents is that the big companies succeed by investing time in learning how to best to talk to their customers. In days gone by only smaller, nimble, more personal businesses could succeed in having a proper conversation with customers.

What impact on sales will it have when a potential client can have a very personal one to one discussion with a large business such as British Airways either by web chat, twitter or facebook messaging. Will the customer still want to make the effort to call their local agent?

The big boys are investing big time in social media, the smaller guys need to be one step ahead and work out how they can remain the most personal point of contact for their clients.

via How Travel Brands Squeeze Value Out of Crowdsourced Social Campaigns.

The Biorhythm of Customer Holiday Planning and Buying

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We have all heard of the Google stats that state that people visit between 6 and 20 websites during their holiday research. For expensive holidays ( over £2,500) research suggests that consumers spend 10 hours + researching their trip.

Recent Research published in June 2014 shows that the older generation is now spending more time online researching than ever before ( article on web search use vs travel agents) and that 48% of respondents in the research found online easier to manage than through a travel agent.

In fact, many of the online players are in fact travel agents – just online ones ( OTA’s) and as such have made the move to being relevant to consumers during their holiday search. What these OTA’s do very effectively is capture email addresses. In fact, capturing an email address is the most important thing that their sites do outside of selling the actual holiday. Why is this?

It comes down to the Biorhythm of Buying a holiday. 

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Researching and buying a holiday takes place over a number of weeks, often the more expensive, the longer they take. This is not an Amazon style instant purchase.

Take a look at the Biorhythm on the left. The dotted line represents the line above which the consumer is in a ‘ready to purchase’ mode during their holiday planning cycle.

There are some key take aways here.

1. In the early stages of planning they are not open to selling at all so no matter how hard you try your efforts will mostly fall on deaf ears

2. Towards the end of the cycle, the consumer is most open to ‘selling’ and as such, this is the area that you need to concentrate on.

 

So the OTA’s do a great job at being visible throughout this process, grabbing an email address and sending relevant emails to the consumer during the planning phase. In comparison, the traditional agent without a relevant online presence and no email marketing programme to be able to engage the consumer during the research phase is never going to be found.

But wait, most people know that email marketing is important. The problem comes when the email marketing programme is not run as a lead generation system. Not having a system in place means that emails are sporadic at best, but key, don’t arrive in inboxes at the right time.

holiday trip biorythm

 

Let’s take an example of an agent that sends out an email to their database every 3 months as shown on the biorhythm on the right.

During this 3 month cycle the chances are that the email/facebook post/tweet/direct marketing newsletter will arrive in the consciousness of the consumer during the time they are least likely to purchase.

It’s great that the email has been sent, but as the consumer continues their research all the other more proactive holiday companies continue their visibility to the consumer so by the time they get to the point where they want to purchase, your email is a long time ago and they have forgotten that you are relevant in their decision making process.

 

The Proven Path to Winning that holiday spend

holiday trip biorythm2

 

The only way to ensure that you are visible throughout the cycle and therefore gain a chance of pitching for the holiday is to be consistent in your marketing communication.

The biorhythm on the left shows that consistent communication throughout the life cycle of a consumer planning and research makes sure that you stay relevant to the consumer. Your email will land in the inbox with your ‘Call to Action’ at the right time, when the consumer is most open to purchasing a holiday.

This biorhythm set us off on a quest to develop The Travel Selling System – an automated sure fire way to make sure that you compete effectively for that holiday spend.

 

Traditional agents have nothing to fear from tech, Advantage conference told

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Traditional agents have nothing to fear from tech, the 2014 Advantage conference was told via Traditional agents have nothing to fear from tech, Advantage conference told.

Wow – what a headline! Never before has technology disrupted an industry like technology has disrupted the travel industry. Has it stopped this innovation and progress? Just take a look at the Skift Blog on what is going on in travel start ups and you’d think it worth packing your bags and becoming a traveller instead rather than trying to sell it.

But hold on for a moment, is it that bad? Telephone calls centres disrupted the Insurance selling industry and sure – there are some big players with the likes of Comparethemarket.com and others, but has it wiped out ALL insurance sellers? No. Are there fewer – Yes.

So the headline at Advantages Conference should rather have been – ‘Great Agents have nothing to fear from tech’. The travel industry is all about a human connection and choosing and booking a holiday is sometimes just too complicated to be automated online. Sure – if its a commodity like a flight seat or villa rental it’s easy to see how a website can book these effectively. Add in a couple of questions ( and who doesn’t have a question when it comes to spending £3,000 +) and hey – who do I ask?

So what is the future for great agents? Well it certainly involves technology as that is how consumers will find you and that is also how you will engage with consumers. If you don’t invest time in understanding what technology to use and spend money investing in the right technology then you will get left behind. Your past business model does not work anymore, you will lose bookings to online players, unless you can prove to your clients why you are in the game and what value you bring to their travel purchase proposition.

How to Find a Cheap Hotel Room: Sites to Use and Sites to Avoid

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This post was inspired by a blog post from the travel blogger site below:

Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site

via How to Find a Cheap Hotel Room: Sites to Use and Sites to Avoid.

Nomadic Matt is all about finding the best travel deals. The bane of travel agent’s lives – people booking direct! But as you can read in the blog post – there are many sites out there that do a good job at convincing the public that they are the cheapest.

Interestingly, Matt’s conclusion was to avoid MetaSearch sites and always to check with Tingo* ( a Trip Advisor company that guarantees refunds if the hotel room you book ends up cheaper elsewhere. We have installed a metasearch engine on many travel agent sites successfully (this enables the agent to sell online or offline using their TAAP Expedia Account and still earn commission).

I carried out a search between Tingo and our Metasearch site and found:

1. Tingo quoted prices excluding Tax ( not allowed in the UK) and so the price at checkout was always closer or the same as the Metasearch site

2. Tingo availability stopped when they could not compete on price that easily ( I found availability for a hotel using Metasearch more times than the availability showing on Tingo)

What can a Travel Agent Learn from all this?

1. The consumer is being ‘duped’ quite a lot of the time that the best price is online

2. It is becoming easier and easier to find a hotel and check prices online

3. That a user should check multiple site before choosing who to book with

4. That Expedia were the cheapest on many occasions

5. That agents should incorporate a metasearch hotel engine on their site to enable them to be seen as ‘least expensive’ by their users/clients. This will encourage the clients to keep coming back to the agent site and to use it on mobile effectively while also being able to be able to sell the hotel offline (via Expedia TAAP account and still pick up commission)

 

 

Seth Godin : Three kinds of advertising

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Seth Godin writes that there are 3 kinds of advertising: Direct Response, Trust and Demand Enhancement in his latest blog: Three kinds of advertising

Of the three adverts, direct response ( where Google makes all its money) is the only measurable one, but for almost all agents it is very easy to make no margin from this ( unless you can convert and manage the scales of transaction that ‘Onthe Beach’ does). If you are a whizz with Google Adwords ( i.e. a trained Google Adwords professional) and you don’t charge your own company for your time then this may be a profitable route. If you have to buy in this resource the chances are you won’t break even on the spend. Because of the historical trading arrangements of travel agents, agents tend to expect all marketing expenditure to be of the ‘direct response’ variety, measurable by campaign. For larger agents with bookable websites, reliance on Google is a must, albeit an expensive ever rising cost. For smaller agents, direct advertising response is just not an option. Does this means that all marketing activity should be avoided then? Absolutely not – there are 2 other forms of ads that smaller agents can use. They form part of the inbound marketing methods that agents should include to nurture their potential clients.

Trust Ads ( the sort you see in news feeds on Facebook – i.e. LateCards postings of latest offers). I’d add into this, email promotions to your customer lists ( i.e. emailing offers  to potential clients). Trust ads remind people you exist. Demand ads do the similar things ( for the full list and examples on Seth’s site see Seth Godin Three kinds of advertising. If you cannot afford direct response advertising ( because the ROI does not work for you), then you must continue with your Trust and Demand adverts. manage these geographically so as to ring fence a budget and be cost effective.

The one message is that you must do something and do it well. Do it half heartedly and you will spend money but have the same impact as doing nothing. Doing nothing, your business will not grow and worse, go into decline. Use the tools you have and set the budget for your business. Using LateCards advertising tools are some of the least cost ways of advertising your business and produce the largest ROI. But don’t mistake these for Direct Adverts, they are difficult to measure because they form part of the users journey in deciding on holiday purchasing. But not to use them, is like locking your shop front door.

Keeping one step ahead

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Way back in 2011 we set about solving a problem for Independent Travel Agents and Operators. How to showcase offers across all inbound marketing channels in the most effective way. Operators were making offers available for agents, but agents had no way of getting these offers to their customers due to lack of resource/time/expertise.

Being first into any market has its benefits and downsides. In truth there are many more downsides than there are benefits at first. When the software is new and there are no comparatives invariably potential customers ask the question ” do I need to have this?, it didn’t exist before, no one uses the software and can I get along without it ( cos it costs money!).

When we launched LateCards we had the added difficulty of trying to recruit Operators into the network and Travel Agents. Without Operators posting offers Agents were not interested and without a wide network of agents, Operators were not interested. A double whammy!

But we persevered because we genuinely believed that we had developed some great software that really enabled the Independent Travel Sector that were our customers. Luckily for us it worked and people very quickly saw the benefit of using LateCards and over the course of 2 years built up the network using the software to over 350 branches and 90 operators. Alomg the way we have continued to invest in the software to make it best in class with additions such as LateCards TV, Marketing Email integrations, Consortia management etc. Our vision was to enable Agents and Operators to transparently work together to sell more holidays. Of course there is a price to this, but by charging both agents and operators we kept this to a minimum.

It was only a matter of time before a competitor came along. This time in the guise of a Consortia. Of course it is the responsibility of a Consortia to enable their membership to market their products more effectively, that is why we embraced Consortia functionality and work with a number of groups and Consortia now in delivering offers to their members via LateCards.

Our software remains the largest facilitator of offers between operators and agents. Because we believe in transparency then Operators can see who promotes their offers and agents have the ability to show some operators rather than others, to develop unique landing pages with specific Operator offers on them and generally to be able to work more closely with Operators and their Consortia (if applicable) in generating business.

We remain one step ahead of any competitor software and our solutions are certainly far less than managing any of this individually. We are committed to the Independent Agent network, we support 3 Consortia in the UK in their Offer distribution and welcome any Operator to use our software, thus ensuring that agents have maximum choice and flexibility in deciding the marketing path that they wish to take.

For more information on LateCards comparison – check out our comparison tables here: https://www.net-effect.co.uk/comparelatecards/