When I started working in the Travel Industry, online package holiday booking was still in its infancy. Working at Thomson Holidays at that time, I spent more time worrying about pricing for teletext than any website. Whilst the Online Travel Agencies were making an impression, there was still widespread concern about online security amongst traditional holiday customers, and many people were wary about using their credit card on the internet. Thomson’s then Head of New Media, Graham Donoghue, convinced me then that if you make it easy enough for people, after they have taken the plunge the first time most people will become comfortable with online booking and come back again and again. He showed me how he was simplifying the booking process, reducing the number of steps to confirmation and reassuring users every step of the way.
Zoom forward 10 years and we now spend more with Amazon than Tesco. We retweet, like and share, and we are just as likely to access the internet on our phone or tablet as our computer. Oh, and I guess someone turned teletext off. There are now generations of people who instinctively turn to the internet when they want to do anything. Despite all this, you still cannot book online with many specialist travel companies. In my experience, the reasons for this usually include a lack of appetite, skills or finance to get online booking working, belief that customers do not want to book online, a fear of exposing product or margins and therefore eroding competitive edge, or simply not having the fundamental businesses processes or technology in place for the thing to work.
I strongly believe that all travel companies should take bookings online, unless they have a very good reason not to. When I buy anything, if I have the choice between a company that puts all the information in front of me and lets me make the purchase online in my lunch hour, when I am abroad or even in the middle of the night if I want to, and a company that makes me call an annoying sales person at an inconvenient time, the latter is not going to get my business. And I want to know it is available, paid for and confirmed – enquiry forms just don’t cut it. Online booking isn’t for everyone, but companies that do not offer this service will potentially have to work a lot harder to attract business from the group of people that prefer to transact online.
So if your specialist travel business has a website that cannot take bookings, what do you need to do to start selling online?
1) Decide whether you should be selling online or not.
If your company is very small, the cost could be a concern, but remember that an effective transactional online booking site reduces back-office work. If your product is tailor-made, you may have to be creative in the way you present product online – could you sell ‘skeleton’ or ‘best selling’ itineraries, take the deposit online and then do the tailoring as an aftersales service for example?
2) Get your back office processes ‘web ready’.
Your selling system needs to contain all the information needed to calculate prices and availability. Several companies I have worked with have used spreadsheets, Word documents and even paper records to manage hotel, tour, flight and cruise cabin allocations, complex child pricing scenarios etc. Your website will talk to your selling system, so this needs to be 100% robust.
3) Get the right technology products and suppliers in place.
Your website booking flow will need to be able to talk to your selling system through an API or other connection to your database. It will also need to connect with your website CMS, payment provider and other 3rd party systems like postcode lookup, CRM or product providers. Choose a supplier to build your booking flow that has experience of developing with your selling system’s API will make the project easier and potentially cheaper.
4) Design your booking flow carefully.
You need to make sure that you are creating an intuitive, and if possible interesting, journey towards confirmation that does not present barriers that could stop the client from confirming the booking. Think about the minimum amount of information you need to take to confirm a booking, and try to stick to this. Also consider legal responsibilities, especially around data protection, PCI compliance and insurance selling.
5) Consider how you will handle client information.
This can be one of the most challenging areas of online booking. Do you want to try to recognise existing clients when they book? This can be important for marketing purposes, but spotting clients automatically can be difficult unless you force users to create an account on your website.