Travel agencies’ use of the Web has changed dramatically since they began putting up websites in the 1990s. No longer are most agencies trying to drive online bookings and lead generation. Today’s agents are focused on using Web 2.0 and social media for networking and marketing.
Apparently travel agents underestimated the investment of time and money needed to make online booking and lead generation a success. That’s one reason they have shifted to a less-costly and more-productive online strategy via Web 2.0.
The changes in Internet strategy also mirror agents’ revised understanding of their value to customers – as consultants, not mere order-takers.
Those are among conclusions that can be drawn from findings of ASTA’s 2011 Technology and Web Usage Report, which was released last week.
Fewer have online booking tools
One significant finding shows a major decline in online booking tools.
Six years ago, when ASTA first asked members about their web use in its Technology and Web Usage Report, 59% of travel agencies with websites had online booking tools on their sites. By 2011, only 36% of ASTA agencies with websites had an online booking tool.
No easy money
In their early Web days, agencies hoped that slapping an online booking tool on their websites would bring easy money, suggested Melissa Teates, CAE, director of research for ASTA.
“Initially, agents thought the Internet and websites would be the new way to generate leads and revenue. They have found it harder than expected.”
Agencies’ online revenue has also gone down over the past six years. Revenue generated from online booking tools peaked at 9% in 2008, then dipped to 7% in 2010 and 2011.
Additionally, the majority of agencies with websites (63%) obtain fewer than five new leads a month from their websites.
Social media: what’s working (and not)
Social media wasn’t any more productive for agents in terms of new leads. In 2011, 88% of agencies that used social media gained fewer than five leads from their social media efforts.
Interestingly, social media efforts are generating revenues for travel agencies.
In 2011, one-third of agencies using Web 2.0 said they were generating 5% to 15% of their total revenue from their social media efforts.
Since few leads are being generated, the data suggest that this success is a result of marketing and communications with existing clients.
Three-quarters use Web 2.0
The number of agencies that incorporate Web 2.0 (primarily social media) into their networking and marketing has jumped significantly.
In 2007, only 45% of ASTA member agencies used Web 2.0 for networking and marketing. By 2011, that percentage had jumped to 74%.
Takes time and money
The shift in agencies’ web strategies away from revenue/lead generation toward marketing and networking stems in part from agencies’ perpetual reluctance to invest money in advertising, Teates suggested, noting that a substantial investment is required to drive sufficient traffic to generate leads and revenue online.
When agencies jumped onto the website bandwagon, they expected their efforts would be “massively good” for revenue and lead generation, Teates said. But few anticipated the amount of time and money it takes to get results from an agency website.
“If you’re going to do lead generation, you really have to put money into advertising to get new people to your site,” Teates said, citing the sheer quantity of websites competing for consumers’ attention.
The other approach, focusing on search engine optimization (SEO), also requires a major investment. “You have to put a lot of time into search engine optimization to get the search engines to put you at the top of results and that takes technical know-how and money,” she noted.
Reluctant to spend
The same is true for revenue generation via the web – it requires an investment of time and money. But travel agencies have never been known to spend a lot on advertising, Teates said.
“One thing we see again and again is that agents are not willing to put the money into advertising. They’re not putting the ads out, and if you’re not pushing traffic you’re not going to get enough volume,” Teates explained.
Fortunately for agents, just as they began to recognize that their websites weren’t going to generate the revenue and leads they hoped for, free Web 2.0 tools began to emerge – tools that were perfectly suited for communicating with their current clients and marketing to them.
The timing of agencies’ move away from online booking tools toward online marketing also coincided with a shift in their understanding about their role and value as travel agents.
In the early 1990s, many travel agents still thought of themselves as order-takers, and they saw online booking engines as just one more way to take orders from consumers.
But as the industry evolved, agents began to see their value more as consultants and advisors. In that role, online booking tools no longer made sense.
“In a way this [trend in web usage] aligns with what agents are good at, customizing travel, knowing their clients,” Teates said.