The value of a web site for a travel professional is real. Many continue to operate without a web site and even if they have one, without due consideration for basic design and marketing principles. However, consumers expect business operators to have a web site and the real question is more often the role the website will play in the overall marketing plan of the travel agency. An ASTA report titled Technology & Website Usage revealed some travel professionals using a Facebook page in lieu of a website indicating a degree of confusion about the role of both a Facebook page and a website in a marketing strategy. It's worthwhile to again consider the role of a website in marketing your travel practice.
Your website is a marketing vehicle, not a sales engine. I often hear travel professionals say they "never make a sale" from their website. This is not surprising. A website representing a travel professional is fundamentally different in scope and function from the website of an OTA. The competitive advantage of a retail travel professional is in the relationship with clients, the valued added to every transaction on a personal level. OTAs are price oriented and depend on volume, essentially transaction-driven. So let's focus on the highest and best role for a website in your travel practice.
Every good marketing effort begins with a fundamental strategic assessment, and web site marketing is no different. Having a web site without a strategic purpose in mind is worse than not having a web site. Your web site represents your business – it is marketing on your behalf 24 hours a day. It is important, therefore, that it speaks your marketing message accurately and clearly. It will many times be the first place consumers will turn to learn more about you and your travel agency. If your web site does not accurately portray your company’s core marketing message, you will confuse and lose many potential clients. To properly represent your business on the web requires preparation and a strategy that is well thought.
Just a quick point – even if you are one travel professional in a large mega agency, there are many good reasons to have your own web presence. You, as an individual travel consultant, are a brand. Even within the scope of your employment with a larger agency, you have your own identity. The possibilities of marketing your individual services within the larger context of your agency are many and with the proper support from your management can have great merit.
Start with your core message – the story of your agency or travel practice. Who are you? What is your fundamental reason for being a travel consultant, and how will you project that through your web site? Is your marketing message personal service? Luxury? Insight? Price? It is all too easy to send a mixed message unless you adhere closely to your core marketing message. A list of cheap travel specials, dozens of supplier logos or a heavy emphasis on a booking engine does not project a message of personalized service. The axis between message and presentation has to be clear and consistent.
Next, consider your site’s viewers. Who are your target clients? What will bring them to your site? What will make them stay? What will make them return? Will your site be for existing clients to use or for new prospects? Both? Will you include “specials” or drive your viewers to a personal contact? Do you have solid content providing insight into your areas of expertise? Be sure to translate your “features” into client benefits. Been in business for 20 years? What does that mean to your client? Let them in on the benefits of doing business with you.
A quick trip around travel agency websites will reveal a wide variety of quality. With all of the do-it-yourself tools available, many agents launch out on a web site project totally on their own. Many actually pull it off. However, the ease with which a web site can be built should not lead you to the immediate decision to build your own. Again, consider your core message. If an image of professionalism is important to your core marketing message, then your website must reflect that value as well. Therefore, give strong consideration to employing a professional web designer with strong content to assist you in the planning and building of your site.
With regard to content, remember your site is about you and your agency, not about suppliers. Don't turn your site, which should be a marketing funnel, into a "marketing trampoline." Sites loaded up with too much supplier content tend to push consumers into a transactional shopping frenzy instead of encouraging a conversation with the travel professional.
Spend a lot of time reviewing other sites during your research phase. Look for elements of design and content that you feel will appeal to your demographic. A good site is a combination of both form (layout and design) and function (content and information). Bookmark favorite sites, do screen captures and show your designer what you like and explain the rationale. The more specifically you can explain your strategic objectives, the more clear the final product will be.
Finally, think long and hard before you attempt to duplicate the approach used by the mega-online agencies like Travelocity and Expedia with booking engines, “deals” and discounts. You can’t compete with OTAs on their turf – price. Remember, the OTAs sell travel, but your product is YOU and your agency. Consider heading in the completely opposite direction: personal service, expertise, consultation. On that ground the OTAs can’t compete with you.
A web site is your most dynamic marketing tool outside of your own personality. It has to be modern, bright and a good example of your company's ethic. If it is a "cookie cutter" site, you are telling the world nothing good about your agency. For better or for worse, it will represent your company every minute of every day. Don’t settle for a quick and easy solution. Have a well-thought plan and execute it with the best tools available to you.
Begin with your core message and build from there. The final product should walk and talk identically to the way you present your agency in person.