In my limited experience of the travel industry, the majority of social media spend is not attributable directly to the commercialisation of marketing efforts. Sure, there’s value in marketing for ‘brand’, but with the technology available to us, there’s no real excuse not to track digital spend from top of the funnel marketing efforts, down through the enquiry and booking processes, and ending in post-purchase, customer support interactions. Automating this end-to-end process, yet still allowing human interaction should a user need additional assistance, allows 24/7 streamlining while maintaining that ‘personal’ travel planner touch.
The rapidly evolving technology behind chatbot capability, and the opening up of APIs within the travel industry that these bots can leverage off, is incredibly exciting. With modern APIs, tech-savvy retail agents and tour operators can access and sell accommodation, tours and attractions in a single, AI-assisted conversation, cutting out many of the inefficiencies of traditional agency models.
Marketing, sales, and entertainment should work together to build loyalty and drive sales through one seamless conversation, not three separate efforts.
‘Chatting’ is second nature to us. It’s part of our daily lives. It’s easy, convenient, and everyone knows how to do it. Importantly, it’s optimised for mobile. 98% of our users interact with us on mobile. Cross-chat features between Facebook, Instagram and Messenger will take place, allowing businesses to engage seamlessly with users through chat-agnostic technologies.
Hermitage Travel Africa, in conjunction with CompariSure Technologies, launched its first Messenger chatbot in the first week of August – a travel competition. To enter, users had to complete a travel survey via our chatbot. So far we’ve had just over 12 000 conversations, with 66% of those users opting in to receive travel specials in Facebook Messenger via the bot. In the first week of September we launched our ‘Travel Menu’, which allows users to book flights, accommodation, and tour specials we’re running in Messenger. We’ve had over 15 tours booked for local suppliers, which is a promising start. We’re now looking for interested suppliers to join our marketplace, as well as to help existing suppliers streamline their social spend and bookings processes to take back control of direct business.
Our chatbot launch has proved that it’s a low-cost strategy to build a travel database, build trust, and commercialise marketing efforts.
Demands, data and disjointed distribution
Real-time, immediate availability, and mobile-friendly interactions are undoubtedly in demand. Our end goal is to have API functionality to pull real-time accommodation and tour availability into a chat, allowing users to self-assemble their itineraries throughout their journey, on-demand and without delay. This could very well be paired with the occasional interaction from a human agent, allowing the human-tech hybrid to give the end user fast, efficient, and ‘always on’ assistance. Booking tours and activities in advance, and being able to locate tours and activities in proximity to the user on-the-go, can save valuable time for both travellers and tour operators.
This is exceptionally important, as tours and activities are what drive most travel bookings. People don’t plan to travel so they can fly on a certain airline or stay at a specific hotel, they travel because they want to experience something new in a novel country; they travel to see the whales in Hermanus, the Big 5 in the Kruger, or to paraglide off Lion’s Head. Tours and activities are often the driving force behind destination decisions and should therefore be an essential part of any travel agent or hotel group’s marketing and sales campaign. Being able to tap into a new, powerful, and direct distribution channel to use top of the funnel tours and activities to spearhead accommodation bookings is a valuable addition for answering the ‘experience economy’ demand and driving additional sales.
We think the winners of the next generation of travel are going to be those who can effectively capture users ‘exploring’ social media, ideally at cheaper conversion rates compared with competing with everyone else on SEO. Companies like Google are diving deeper into the travel marketing and sales funnel, so travel companies may need to reinvent their marketing playbook to avoid falling under their iron grip. With third party cookies being phased out, travel marketers are also going to have to rely on first party data – ‘chatting’ is the ideal interface for this, and chatting via Messenger allows you to leverage information gained within the chat to dynamically retarget new and existing users in ways that are truly ‘personalized’, and even predict a user’s propensity to purchase long before they’ve got to a quoting stage, using machine learning algorithms.
By building on top of Facebook, tech-savvy travel companies can leverage a remarkably powerful platform to create new ways to distribute travel-related products, grow databases through engaging and entertaining chats, and automate the traditional booking process via chat, enabling customer support staff or travel planners to focus on more complex matters.
The capability is there, and I think we’ll soon see a lot more automation via chatbots as independent suppliers seek more control over direct bookings, and larger travel companies look to optimise return on marketing spend and maximise efficiency through human touch and tech hybrids.