"Travel sites are not just competing with other travel sites. They are in attention competition with every Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat account and need to have an imagery plan in place" - A popular website covering the travel industry published an article which presented such a view. When interpreting how the travel business works, there are two sides to this coin!
Social networks don't challenge the travel distribution chain, they strengthen it and provide the capability to refine the content with great levels of customization. It hardly matters where a potential customer gets that first spark of a longing to travel. It could be from a friend's Facebook page, a professional traveler's Instagram account or even a promotional article in a magazine.
Customers don't come to travel websites or OTAs with a goal of viewing images, they come there to purchase the experience they anticipate from those images. Interestingly, a recent innovation titled PhoTra from IBS Software, enables exactly that!
Every source of imagery or other content related to travel destinations is a valuable ally for a travel company; even call it free marketing material, but certainly not competition! Seeing an image of Times Square on New Year's Eve will evoke in a large number of people an emotion of desire, similar to seeing images of the tropical sun on golden sands while you sit out a bitter cold winter half a globe away. What website/platform you see those images really doesn't make a difference in the chain of events.
Travel companies should focus on providing that connection between having a desire to travel and being able to realize that through a suitable travel itinerary or tour package which can fulfil that desire. Let's call it a 'desire to destination' connection.
That brings us to an interesting possibility of how deeply we can integrate travel websites with social networks. Setting up an app to enable bookings from Facebook, as well as Chatbots to help with bookings on Messenger have already proven their worth; but these are essentially in the realm of distribution. The most important aspect of such a social-powered distribution is that agents can tap in at a very early part of the customer journey (or a wider part of the funnel) and that too with a wider prospect base. In other words, it is easier to start selling to a prospect by getting him/her to log on to a social network like Facebook, rather than getting him/her to visit your website (at which point he/she is closer to being a qualified prospect) before starting the process. The effectiveness of either would depend on the quality of content that is ultimately on offer.
Imagine you just finished viewing a friend's Facebook album with pictures of his/her recent cruise to Australia. Once the software finds your location to be favorable, it can then prod for that initial spark of interest.
Once it gets that go ahead, the software can get to work on putting together an appropriate package for you based on the preference you just conveyed. Without a fuss, it is able to give you a clear path from wanting to travel, to being able to travel! On the other hand, if you are exploring a particular destination on the travel website, then the software can lead you to the albums of friends who checked into the same in the past. Ideally, that would encourage you to make the booking and enjoy the same experience as your friend did.
Another very interesting angle to be explored is event-based marketing based on social networking behavior. If you are noticeably active on sports related forums and pages, then the OTA could set you up with a booking related to a key event in the sport you follow. Football/soccer fans may dream of traveling to Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, while cricket fans may wish to visit England for the Cricket World Cup in 2019. Integration with social networks will help OTAs not only identify these desires but also enhance them by presenting related content. OTAs can then perform their traditional roles of helping the customers compare various options and choose what suits their requirements, with a higher likelihood of success in completing the deal.
Over time, this social network integration will help travel providers predict your priorities while booking travel. For example, the countries you typically avoid, the highest budget you usually allocate, specific trends connecting places you avoid (such as avoiding big cities and preferring beach destinations), people you travel with (spouse, colleague, etc.) and above all, the key drivers behind your travel decisions. This could be as simple as tracking how you respond to the above mentioned suggestions for travel based on the albums you view or the pages you frequent.
As always, the question of privacy and user experience will arise. After all, much of the data which can fuel such an initiative is locked up within the confines of social networks. The channels therefore would be two-way; information about customer behavior on such social-enabled OTAs would provide fuel for social networks to distill their ad content by relevance. So while the 'desire to deal' connection may be relevant even to those who aren't frequent travelers, an opt-out approach will be a relief to those who are, for some reason, totally averse to travel and therefore don't need suggestions.