We all know that the way we book and enjoy travel has changed. We’re no longer a global community wandering the planet with guidebooks in our hands, printing out photos for albums and booking through high street travel agents. But aside from the obvious switch to online booking, more rapid developments have been taking place in the last 12-18 months. And the pace of change is accelerating every day. From using consumer social media feeds to promote destinations, to setting up chatbots to make booking easier, the savviest travel brands are taking great leaps forward – and brands that don’t adapt will be left behind.

We all post holiday snaps on our Facebook and Instagram feeds. We all grumble about delayed flights on Twitter. But we are approaching a time when social apps may be the only thing we need to book our entire holiday. How is this possible? Chatbots.

From ordering Tacos to overturning unfair parking fines (yes really), people are turning to bots to solve a multitude of problems. And brands across the globe are getting in on the action, seizing the potential of chatbots to not only get closer to their customers, but to actually change their path to purchase altogether.

The reason chatbots are proving to be so powerful is that historically, social media has been used to drive engagement, brand love and excitement. It hasn’t – until now – been part of the actual commerce side. But in a few years, or even months, you may find yourself booking your entire holiday through social media. For example, Skyscanner’s Facebook Messenger bot, launched in May this year, takes the heavy lifting out of searching for flights.

Users simply tell it where they want to go and when, and the bot then pulls out the options. It’s a bit like asking your mate to run the searches for you. Sadly, at the moment, it is not possible to actually book the flights through the app, but Skyscanner has hinted that a lot more may be yet to come.

Speaking at We Are Social’s Travel Social Summit this summer, Douglas Cook, senior marketing manager at Skyscanner speculated that in the future, bots could analyse your social feeds to shape your preferences. If, for example, you’ve made it clear you hate early mornings, the app would offer you afternoon flights.

Expedia has also been getting in on the action. Their chatbot, which also sits in Facebook Messenger, allows users to search for hotels, compare the options, and then book directly through an Expedia microsite within the app itself. This bot has actually transformed the path of purchase, keeping the entire process within social media. Crucially, by removing the barrier of switching sites, Expedia makes it one step easier to book – and reduces the chance of potential customers losing interest.

Radisson Blu is another great example. The hotel chain has created Edward, an AI service, for 12 Edwardian Hotels in the Radisson Blu family. Edward can report back to guests on hotel amenities, give directions and tips, and even pass on complaints. Radisson Blu claims that the bot is designed to deliver exceptional experiences for guests who prefer digital brand interaction. Thankfully, for those of us who still quite like speaking to a person, Edward will fetch a real live human where needed.

Leverage current traveller behaviours to enhance your digital marketing 

Let’s face it – there are a hell of a lot of photos of beaches out there. But what pictures are people actually looking at? Their own, their mates’, and maybe some celebrity shots. With so much visual conversation happening around travel already, the savviest brands will tap into existing user behaviour, not fight against it.

When Singapore Tourism wanted to improve their digital marketing for the city state, they asked We Are Social for our advice. We identified eight core stages of the travel cycle: dreaming, triggering, researching, planning, booking, day planning, enjoying and remembering.

By harnessing these key stages of planning and enjoying a holiday, our research indicated that brands could drive far deeper engagement – and convert to purchase. For example, instead of using the usual tired tourism images, travel destinations could help tourists take better photos. This could be done with helpful signs indicating the best positions to stand for selfies or sunsets, and allowing the tourists do the rest.

This simple action would help ensure that future tourists in their ‘dreaming’ phase would stumble across better quality images of the brand’s destination on social media, and also reinforce sharing for tourists in the ‘enjoying and remembering’ phase. All this, and no advertising spend.

Holiday brand Contiki has also tapped into this trend. The company uses beautiful content captured on its holidays and uses them to showcase different aspects of the trips on offer. UK beach holiday stalwart OntheBeach, meanwhile, has encouraged holiday makers to tag the company in their own sunny images as part of a nationwide competition. This more traditional photo competition approach, adapted for social media, is still extremely relevant for OntheBeach’s core audience. By keeping track of real consumer behaviour, all of these brands have managed to stay ahead of the curve.

Artificial Intelligence will make smarter chatbots and increase their use

So what’s next? Chatbots are becoming firmly established, but their next natural step will be to get smarter. Artificial Intelligence is coming, and it could be revolutionising travel within a matter of years. The technology has already been developed. It just hasn’t been applied by travel brands – yet. IBM Watson learns the language of new domains, from medical terminology to cooking. It then analyses the data given to it and provides insights and recommendations to answer specific questions posed to it by humans.

Just imagine if this new technology could be applied to travel and tourism. By combining Artificial Intelligence with intelligent personalisation, travel brands could predict what holiday you’re dreaming of before you have any idea. The chatbot of the future will already know your preferred airport, dates and who you’re travelling with from your emails, social feeds and calendars – if you grant them access. Just don’t expect it to magically fix your sunburn.

Tom Ollerton

Tom’s career has taken him from mobile marketing through digital marketing and finally found him in his natural home at the global social media agency We Are Social. Tom is the innovation lead on the YouTube, First Direct, HSBC, Ballantine’s and Domino’s accounts. Tom is also a co-founder of The Innovation Ramble a 30-part audio/video series that investigates the world of innovation one subject at a time.

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