Solo female traveler in Sydney Australia (photo courtesy SolStock/E+/Getty Images)
As Gartner said back in 2018: “Quite frankly, customers don’t have a preference between a seller and digital channels—they just want simplicity to access the right information for their job at hand.” Fast forward to 2022, and companies are still attempting to use this same recipe: They endeavor to give customers the information they want and need in the simplest way possible.
The difference is that over the last three-year drop in travel, technical geniuses and tour specialists alike have looked for solutions to keep their—once predominantly physical—industries alive. Airbnb began offering virtual tours, hotel kiosks were checking customers in, and property owners created 3D galleries with virtual reality.
Suddenly, the world was a lot more digital at every stage of the customer journey, with customers demanding a frictionless experience at each touchpoint. But what does this look like for the tourism industry? Let’s find out.
The Tourism Industry Timeline: 2019 to 2022
Tourism peaked in 2019 at a significant $9.63 trillion. Face-to-face interactions were a key part of the purchasing journey in the relationship-focused industry for decades. If you wanted a holiday, you could pop into the local travel agents, ponder through their latest pamphlets, scroll through the intermediary’s booking website, and select your best price. There was hardly a risk with booking: Why would the trip be canceled?
When Covid-19 hit, customer behavior changed with more and more guests almost involuntarily switching human communication for smartphone apps and self-service kiosks—making the personal connection much more robotic. Less than one in five planned to make reservations via online travel agencies (OTAs), opting to go directly with brands. Travelers skipped intermediaries for better deals and flexibility with cancellations and refunds. This trend led hotels and airlines to improve their hybrid experience with an increased online presence.
But that’s not all, customers started to research more, too, and searched for user-generated content (UGC). They wanted visual proof from real people that the destination was open for business with safety measures in place.
In 2021, websites were the second-most used channel in marketing behind social media. Today, customers expect to find their adventure companies on Instagram and book through messaging apps. This shift encourages brands to be available almost 24/7 with direct communication access, visually transparent with their offering, and have well-defined cancellation policies.
How the Pandemic Has Influenced Booking Activities
Face-to-face interactions were king pre-pandemic.
So, what’s different? Potential clients are more likely to connect with other guests and companies over social media and messaging apps: Social messaging saw the second-largest rise in use, with WhatsApp experiencing a whopping 370 percent rise in volume.
With third-party cookies phasing out and increased omnichannel experiences, 75 percent of global executives say they will invest more in delivering hybrid experiences over the next 12 months. Rather than using external sources and OTAs to gather customer insights, brands are gaining first-party data by being available to customers directly through their most convenient channels.
Customers are ready to reconnect and get on the purchasing ladder. Still, the more profound research methods and social reassurance deemed vital during the pandemic will remain essential if businesses want to evolve. And with UGC taking off, brands need to get their guests to post about them and share content online quickly.
Traveler with suitcase in airport (Photo via email@example.com / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Brands Must Still Provide the Human Touch—But Digitally
It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: UGC means trusted recommendations and more potential bookings, but it’s the guests that create the content to encourage the initial leads. Here’s how tour companies can nudge both content and bookings to grow:
—Capture photos, videos, and guide names on-site with photographers.
—Use them as a marketing tool to communicate with guests and create your future brand ambassadors.
What is this two-step process doing? It’s making sure every communication is personalized. For example, sign-off messages from the customer’s guide that include their photos, videos, or a ‘thank you’ clip from staff members to take them back to a happy memory and rebuild the connection. Your guests can share this on social platforms and via emails to their friends and family.
The next step is re-engagement—and timing is everything. Brands need to remember their customer’s birthdays, previous holiday dates, and any meaningful dates they capture during the guest’s adventure. At these touchpoints, remind guests about their experience with personal photos and keep the interactions going with guides to increase the chance of a response.
Marketing platforms allow you to create personal timelines for guests and automate management across multiple channels, from email to messaging apps. And, enabling a feature that tags the guide and asks them to respond to their clients makes the communication much more personal. If you can retain the on-site bond online, these people will be your biggest digital promoters.
The future customer is digital, but the craving for a human touch remains. Adventure companies should keep note of the receptionists, guides, or service providers customers interact with on trips and continue communications online post-experience.
Ryan O’Grady is the Founder and CEO of Fotaflo, a complete photo marketing platform that empowers your tour or activity business to move beyond a simple photosystem.