A travel agency or travel professional’s website is every bit as important today as it was 10 years ago – even with the prevalence of social media in consumers’ lives.
Social media is great for communicating with a travel seller’s customer base – “but it’s not everything,” said Marilyn Macallair, vice president of business development at Passport Online, which provides online tools for agencies. “It’s imperative that an agency have a website.”
Macallair and other experts cited social media’s limitations, including the inability to give customers an option for searching only your agency’s cruise or luxury vacation offerings.
But earlier this year, an ASTA study found that travel sellers were relying less and less on their websites to drive online leads and bookings, opting instead for social media. (See “Poor Online Results Drive Agents to Web 2.0 Strategy,” Jan. 9, 2012.)
Among the reasons cited by agents was poor results for agency websites. So Travel Market Report asked web strategy experts for their advice on website effectiveness.
New role for websites
In today’s Web 2.0 world, the role of agency websites in marketing and sales has changed. No longer just a static billboard, a travel agency website needs to convey a clear message of “why us.” It also needs to give prospects a way to do their own travel research.
Today’s effective website is a dynamic platform that explains why a customer should do business with an agency, said Greg Kott, president and CEO of Passport Online.
“A website is a tremendous vehicle to communicate what is unique about the agent and what is valuable about working with that particular agent,” he said. Agencies with multiple agents should illustrate the expertise of each agent, he added.
Product info important
Supplier content should also be an integral part of agency websites, so you give prospects something to look at in terms of product, Kott said.
“Give them some vacation options because ultimately that’s why they’re on a website – to shop for a vacation. And if they’re not shopping on your website, they’re going to shop somewhere else.”
The more content, the better, he added, because you can never know what clients and prospects want to find out about.
“A lot of our successful agents use that content and shopping experience to drive leads they can convert. They get a lot of trip requests or email requests for more information.”
Booking engines, yes or no?
One key finding in the ASTA study was a significant decline in the number of travel agencies that had online booking tools on their websites.
“The jury on online booking engines is still out,” said Macallair, adding that “clearly the value of the travel agent is in their expertise and their one-on-one communications with customers,”
“There was a time when everybody jumped onboard and said we gotta have it; we gotta compete with the online travel agencies. Now it’s kind of filtered out.”
Depends on strategy
An agency’s business strategy should dictate whether it puts a booking engine on its website, Macallair said. “Some see it as an asset for certain parts of their business.”
That’s probably true for agencies that do a lot of search marketing to drive traffic to their websites, Kott suggested. For those agencies, an online booking engine pays off.
“Oftentimes clients will be there all hours of the day, and the agency wants the ability to capture the transaction even if they’re not there. They want to give the consumer the ability to book online if they want to.”
Why social media isn’t enough
If you’re still not convinced that you need a website, consider the arguments of social media expert and travel industry consultant Sophie Bujold.
“It’s an absolute must to have your own website,” she told Travel Market Report.
One reason: “With a website, you have much more control.
“If something were to happen to Facebook tomorrow and all you had was your Facebook page, you lose all points of online communication instantly, and you have no way of reaching out to your fans to continue the relationship.”
Websites have other advantages, she said. For instance, on their own websites agents can “collect visitor information to continue the relationship in a more lasting way.”