Despite individual vendors’ best efforts, many consumers are just not as brand-loyal as they used to be when it comes to which airline they fly or which hotel they stay in—a trend Priceline.com capitalized on when it introduced the "Name Your Price" concept in the late 1990s. Using this revolutionary system, customers simply chose their own rates for airline tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals—a rate they would likely receive courtesy of the Priceline.com database. The catch? They had to commit to whatever airline, hotel, or car service Priceline.com spit back at them, no complaints, no cancellations. Brand preference was sacrificed in the name of savings.
Today’s OTA models continue to offer the best values and the ultimate in consumer convenience. But while there are exclusive deals offered by each online agency, the OTA’s are scouring the same databases. Why go to Expedia over, say, Orbitz? What features can each OTA offer that will drive consumers to its portal? And will people trust the Traveling Gnome more than William Shatner?
Dream a Little Dream...
In their quest for your jetsetting dollar, online booking agencies are hard at work at building their own brand equity instead of simply acting as a database-driven middleman who steer site visitors to third-party vendors.
Travelocity recently garnered the Innovator of the Year Award from the Travel Industry Association for its "ExperienceFinder" concept (still in beta). The online “dreaming and planning tool” allows the user to hand-pick their vacation based on location and theme, supplementing the decision-making process with insider tips, photos and videos, maps, and community discussions.
Priceline’s new personal "My Deals" travel widget operates on a similar principle, popping up on the Priceline.com main site with customized travel deals based on each customer’s trip plans and personal travel preferences. The benefit: The widget keeps working for you and searching for the best deals, even after you’ve logged off.
And Orbitz has come up with a couple of new tools to help customers plan their dream vacation. “We’re constantly trying to invent new ways for customers to get the trip they want, at a great price,” says Tom Russell, group vice president for brand marketing. “Our core goal is innovation.”
This innovation includes MyIdealBeach.com, the company’s new search tool that helps customers locate their perfect sand-and-surf site. “You can find the right beach for you based on three simple questions,” explains Russell. "The questions are geared toward who’s in your travel party, what activities float your boat, and hotel amenities you’re interested in."
And to combat the occasional complaint OTAs face of not having a living, breathing agent to offer their advice and tips, Orbitz has also rolled out its live destination specialists, experts in key travel markets such as Cancun and Hawaii. If you have any questions about certain markets as you’re planning your trip on the Orbitz site, it’s simple to hook up with one of these live specialists. “We’re bridging that gap [between live travel agents and online services],” says Russell.
Getting Cozy With Consumers
Online travel services are also now pumping dollars into customer research and then using that data for targeted marketing in the form of novel site features, unique content, and handy tips the consumer can use to make intelligent travel decisions.
Priceline, for example, features useful alerts on its site designed to help the money-pinched traveler, from “How to Save Money on Summer Road Trips” to “The Best Days to Fly for Thanksgiving and Christmas Holiday Travelers.” Expedia puts out “Expedia Travel Trendwatch,” as well as its annual “Vacation Deprivation Survey,” which takes a look at the growing trend of American workers not using up their vacation days. The company’s reason for the survey? “Expedia.com believes that everyone deserves and needs a vacation,” and they’re there to make sure you get what you deserve.
Orbitz recently became the first online travel agency to recognize hotels that have received the EPA’s Energy Star seal of approval. In an attempt to appeal to consumer-electronics fanatics, Travelocity has introduced a new Web application that allows iPod touch and iPhone users to easily manage their Travelocity itineraries. Similarly, Priceline’s Mobi mobile service allows users with Web-enabled wireless devices to check flights and view restaurant ratings.
“We market in every channel we can offline,” explains Orbitz’s Russell. A new series of cheeky Orbitz TV ads centers around the Orbitz Traveler Wellness Center, with consistency across the ad platform in the form of the wellness center director.
Celebrity spokespeople add credibility to an online travel service as well. Wink Martindale was the host of the “Take on Orbitz” game show in an Orbitz ad campaign, while both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy have famously graced Priceline.com’s own marketing initiatives.
Travelocity created its own celebrity: the Traveling Gnome. The migrant lawn decoration, the centerpiece of Travelocity’s viral marketing campaign, was kidnapped and photographed all around the world, much to the chagrin of his hapless owner.