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Art of Travel – Competing with online booking sites

It’s May and we’re almost half a year through 2016. Time flies fast and now, we’re looking at our half-year results versus targets.

In my last diary, I wrote about how it’s been a challenge for us when we’ve accounted for business such as large groups, only to see it disappear just before it materializes due to political or economic reasons, like the incidents in Brussels or Paris last year. It’s a fact of life we have to face and in reality, it could mean meeting our financial objectives or missing the mark completely on account of situations beyond our control.

On the other hand, in today’s world there are also other completely different challenges. As a travel agent, we’re also faced with how to deal with business as technology advances even further. This could be true, for example, in the hotel bookings business. So it’s either we embrace technology and invest in it joining the bandwagon (that’s if you have the time and resources to do so), or go against it and try to win battles here and there by carving out your own niche markets through specialization and offering value instead.

In Art Of Travel’s case, we’ve decided to invest, to some extent, on technology with a view to simply improving what we already have; like enhancing our website’s look and functionality. We do not kid ourselves into thinking though that we would ever be another booking.com or Expedia and go head-to-head with them. Besides, that space is too crowded and competitive. Instead, we’re focusing our energy more on carving out our own niche and making sure that we are able to communicate the value that we offer versus those online booking sites.

So up until last year, we were trying to be everything to everyone. When we had clients asking us for help in destinations we didn’t know, we just went ahead and did it for the sake of profit. But since we knew little about that destination, it took us so much time and energy researching what was needed. We know our reputation was also on the line, so it’s important that our chosen partners would deliver what we promised our customers, so we painstakingly made sure that everything was up to par.

On the other hand, since we would be dealing with this supplier or hotel only on that one particular occasion, we of course ran the risk of being a second priority. That meant the hotel, for example, might be giving our clients rooms facing the least desirable views as opposed to a long time preferred partner of theirs whose clients might get an upgrade with no extra charge.

In the end, we were faced with the concern of dampening our reputation, while at the same time spreading ourselves too thin because of the time we spent dealing with such cases.

So we decided at the start of this year to specialize and focus on destinations we know very well and already have a solid base of partner hotels and service suppliers. And since we already have existing relationships with carefully selected hotels and suppliers having preferred status with them, we enjoy better prices compared to the online booking sites, which we can then pass on to our customers.

Another change we’ve done is to avoid hotel-only bookings; we’re focusing on hotel accommodation combined with additional services like hotel transfers and a city tour. By providing these additional services on top, we are perceived as giving better value not just because of price, which actually turns out to be better, but also because of the convenience of having all of these services ready-made for the customer.

What we’ve seen is that by focusing and specializing, we managed to appeal to a certain market segment that preferred a packaged program as opposed to the type of consumer who spends time surfing all the different booking sites just to find the best deal.

What’s interesting for us, too, is that we have also been getting more and more referrals both from our agent partners who’ve worked with us, as well as directly from consumers who find us online. Either way, we are able to protect our agents with prices that give them room for profit; and for direct to consumer bookings, customers actually get better deals than most traditional online options.

Finally, this shift in focus and specialization has also allowed us to standardize operating procedures and how we respond and fulfill requests in an efficient and timely manner, which is another benefit seen across our business.

So at the end of the day, it no longer concerns us when we encounter a customer whose demand is based on price comparison alone, especially if they reference booking.com or Expedia. We know they’re not our customers. Instead, the ones whose needs are a little bit more sophisticated or demanding are the ones we now attract. They know that we have a face, we are real people they can talk to, and ironically, our prices are actually better as they get more for what they pay for.

It’s amazing what this simple shift in strategy has done for us and most importantly for our partners and customers.

Vincent Soriano is the Founder & Managing Director of Art Of Travel. Based in Prague, Czech Republic, Art Of Travel specializes in Marketing & Sales Representation as well as delivering travel experiences throughout Central & Eastern Europe. And with its strong affinity to Asia, partners and customers also rely on their expert knowledge of Philippines, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast & North Asia. To know more, visit www.ArtOfTravel.eu. Vincent can be reached at vincent@artoftravel.eu

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