This is a viewpoint from Robert Meza, head of travel at the ENTERTAINER.
A game-changing conversation has been taking place in the boardrooms of major OTAs lately. They are finally catching onto the tremendous potential of providing experiences to travelers once they get to a destination.
The in-destination market has long been ignored in favor of the flights and hotel booking business. From a money making perspective, this doesn’t make much sense – the reason most people travel is for unique experiences on the ground. Until recently most travel companies ignored this vast opportunity, or simply used tours and activities as a means to upsell.
But now the reality is that mobile technology has advanced enough to become the driving force of the in-destination market. The pipes are now in place to deliver seamless instant digital experiences from suppliers to smartphone devices.
Let’s take for example Expedia, which moved its T&A Local Expert division onto its app in 2015, betting big with a $6.4 million investment for US promotion. Booking.com launched its app-based Booking Experiences initiative in 2016 allowing travelers to instantly book and pay for attractions. According to comments made at this year’s Phocuswright Europe conference, they have been testing in a few key markets and the results are so far quite positive.
Even Airbnb has caught on and launched its Trips platform last November, hawking “live like a local” experiences hosted by experts oozing cool factor. You might have even seen its new marketing collaboration with Millennial-minded VICE, sending lucky winners to trendy destinations such as Cape Town, Paris and Tokyo, for once-in-a-lifetime hyper-local adventures.
Figure it out
According to Phocuswright, which has extensively researched the in-destination market, travel activities, tours, attractions and events alone were worth about $135 billion worldwide in 2016 – dining and shopping not included.
Elsewhere, new research from eMarketer shows that desktop travel bookings are sharply declining in the US with mobile sales set to total $75.85 billion this year, up 16.7 percent from 2016. Global travel, tourism and hospitality is clearly maneuvering in this direction, so best to hop on board or get left behind.
There are several innovative startups already attempting to stake a claim in this evolving space, such as Musement in Europe, and Klook in Asia, and of course established non-traditional OTAs such as Tripadvisor, which acquired Viator, a tours and activities engine considered the first in this field.
To be sure, Airbnb’s Trips platform and others present healthy competition, but the market is wide open and large enough that it could still be anybody’s game.
Plenty of room
After all, most travel players did not start pursuing mobile as their primary play until recently. A “mobile-second strategy” ensures that mobile always comes, well, second. Expedia admitted to a “mobile-second strategy” until its 2015 shift.
The in-destination sector will grow to suit what customers are craving – on-demand, on-the-go access – whether larger OTAs or innovative startups shine enough of a spotlight in there or not.
Large and fragmented supply, together with basic technology and this lack of direct attention from the big fish, are a budding opportunity for companies who aren’t afraid of risk-taking and real ingenuity. Mobile companies that take the time to carefully connect the dots within the sector, forming widespread networks and lasting relationships, will be in a prime position to reap some pretty powerful benefits.
Mobile is pushing innovation in the in-destination market like never before. Bigger brands are beginning to seek out new ways to entice and delight customers during their travels. For example, a telco that sells tourist SIM cards could use a mobile in-destination platform for added value, whereas airlines could benefit from such a platform as a means to connect with customers via loyalty programs.
Consumers want to use their devices to explore, experience and share their travel. In the age of instant gratification, there is no reason why companies should not meet these requirements. At the end of the day, it’s the things that people do on holiday that inspire travel in the first place. Those are the travel moments they value – arguably, much more often than a stress-free flight or even a nice hotel room.
Building an in-destination mobile experience requires a lot of working parts to sync and align – dining offers, day planners, guides, and instant booking of tours and activities, or what have you.
And customizing for specific partners, whether telcos, airlines or even financial institutions who want to connect with customer loyalty, adds another layer of sophistication and opportunity.
But in the long game of trendsetters and trend followers, it’s important to know which side you are on. In that way the work can be very well worth it.