With more than 100k flights, 1.5 million bookings made every day, and every tenth person in the world employed in travel services, it’s no surprise that the value of the travel industry is estimated to hit $13.5 billion by 2027. That’s one reason why it’s become an attractive place to get into the game both for bold entrepreneurs and deep-pocketed investors. In the past, people used to plan their trips through travel agencies – but with the appearance of the iPhone, everything changed. Today, the smartphone has more computing power than the Apollo spacecraft had, which means that travelers are ever more autonomous, faster, and demanding when planning their trips.
Booking, Airbnb, and Expedia disrupted the travel industry by empowering customers with new tools to build their routes, find itinerary options and plan activities. At the same time, travel giants, who heavily invest in their feature-rich apps, set a high bar for travelers’ expectations. Users expect travel brands to provide them with personalized guidance, the ability to fix their problems at meteoric speed, and a seamless experience with every swipe of the screen.
The ever-evolving preferences paired with the flexibility customers want at their fingertips pushes travel service companies to be inventive in their attempts to develop a fully-functioning app. Below, we’ve gathered some stories and insights that can inspire you to develop a travel service that your customers will totally love:
Mobile, Web, Progressive Web Application: Finding the Sweet Spot
To make the big decision about whether you need a desktop, mobile, or progressive web app, you need to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and understand their habits. 98% of travelers carry their smartphone with them throughout their journey. In 2016, The Economist coined the term “Phono Sapien”, ironically assuming that the person with a phone is the apex of human evolution. Jokes aside, their phone is the thing people look at on average 80 times per day, and it’s fair to say that mobile is now an irreplaceable part of any travel experience.
Mobile apps built with React Native or specifically for every platform are designed from scratch and are exclusively for mobile use. For your customer, this means a more pleasant experience coupled with the ability to run some tasks offline. On the other hand, users may be leery when downloading apps online and quite light-heartedly delete any app they haven’t used for a while. In order to pin your app in user’s menu, you need to constantly roll out updated versions with new useful features.
Before entering the mobile space with a native format, take a look at the chart below. It shows that the website experience is as important as mobile, so make sure your web app performs flawlessly.
If a combination of a native app and a desktop application for some reason seems too costly for your product, you might consider building a Progressive Web Application (PWA), which combines the best from native apps and responsive design websites. The cool side of PWA is that you need to develop and maintain only one platform: your website.
PWA offers many of the capabilities and conveniences of an app, but without the need to download a mobile app. MakeMyTrip.com, a popular booking website in India, shared that after the company consciously developed a PWA, the results surpassed their expectations. Commercially, that meant that first-time shoppers were 3 times more likely to convert on the PWA than they were on the native app. Moreover, MakeMyTrip calculated that the PWA drove a 160% increase in shopper sessions.
In an attempt to provide a seamless experience to the customer on a variety of devices, companies need to find the sweet spot between investing heaps of money in tons of code for all platforms and focusing on platforms that will fuel the customer experience best.
Customer Needs in the Spotlight
In any industry, there are sceptics that say the market is already divided among the giants, is incredibly competitive, and new companies that want to have their piece of the pie are insane. But let the numbers speak: according to Crunchbase, Travelperk has raised $75 million in funding, Lola – $37 million, and TripAction – $154 million. What do these travel startups share? They all approached starting a travel business under the umbrella of corporate travel, though these companies laser-focused on their target audiences and hammered out unique approaches to cater to their segment’s needs.
As simple as it may seem, knowing your target audience and its needs is crucial for your travel service. Usually, companies crystalize those needs at the very beginning, but as they scale, it’s easy for them to fall into the trap of losing sight of what their customers want. If you want to grant your service a long life, keep your user in mind every time you want to jam-pack your app with shiny bells and whistles. Jeff Bezos always left an empty chair during meetings in Amazon to remind everybody that the customer is always present and should always be considered. The more you know about your customers’ tastes and needs, the more personalized an experience you can build.
Let’s imagine that some tourists plan a trip to Paris. They don’t need to see the Eiffel Tower and courageously stand in a 2-hour line to the Louvre to get a selfie with Mona Lisa. Everybody has a different goal. Just take a look at what different customers would expect from their app:
The list with these types of trips goes on, though they are not that unique: every year, 15 million people visit Disneyland; 40,000 photos with the hashtag #inlovewithParis are published to Instagram accounts; 621 Michelin restaurants are ready to satisfy the exquisite taste expectations of premium guests.
A perfect travel app is not necessarily committed to serving all of the global travel market. Finding your segment and laser-focusing on things that match their passions will score you points on the travel giants.
One example of a travel platform that serves niche customer needs is PADI Travel (former Diviac), an app that helps divers around the world plan their trips. The diving community has its own culture and specifics, so it was necessary to build a robust booking system and spice up the solution with features that are super-important to divers. For instance, each diving spot has a temperature calendar that shows the average temperature of the air, water and precipitation level for each month, which helps divers make a proper wetsuit choice according to their cold/hot water tolerance.
Source: Padi Travel
The app is handy when divers want to plan a trip with a spouse who may be a non-diver, need to see a particular type of fish underwater or understand what is needed for an upcoming trip. In a few clicks they can find a liveaboard, dive boats used to anchor over coral reefs and other scenic dive spots, and get all the necessary information for the trip without needing to open twenty more tabs and storm Google with questions. The app saves time and assures divers that they can trust this booking service. That’s why thousands of divers plan their vacations via PADI every year.
Joel Perrenoud, the founder of the Diviac startup, now merged with PADI Travel, in his interview on how to grow a startup into a leading travel service, says:
Our key unique selling proposition has been the focus on a specific target group, scuba divers. It doesn’t matter if they’re Korean, American, or Swiss. They have the same needs and interests […] Every time two divers speak to each other, it’s like, “What’s the best place you’ve ever been to?” We’ve really taken this to heart and built a platform around it.
Experience Is King
We live in the age of social anxiety, and one of the best things that a great travel app can do is minimize stress and deliver a smooth interaction. You’ll never build intimate relationships with your customers with an app that stresses them out by turning navigation in a riddle. Be it a desktop-first or mobile, if you don’t consider your customer, your app will suck.
Intuitiveness and user focus are crucial. Booking.com is well known for using a data-driven approach. On the basis of analyzed data they collect from their users, Booking.com creates superior user experiences by testing, tweaking, and optimizing new features.
Source: Booking Design Blog
A profound approach to designing user experience can be noticed in the Hopper app, which predicts whether you should buy a flight now or wait for a better price. Hopper’s interface ably reflects the app’s mission “to bring the joy and inspiration back to travel planning through intuitive design, big data and sophisticated algorithms”.
Hopper designers have an insightful story on how they improved both the user experience and conversions. After the team found out that filtered watches had higher conversion rates than unfiltered ones, they decided to integrate filters in the interface more natively. The team decomposed filter queries and suggested a new personalized filter card every time a user was choosing a new option.
Source: App Advice
After the new style of filter-curated user journey was incorporated into the app, the team saw that the number of sessions with filters increased from 2.6% to 23%, while the conversion rate increased 10 times.
There’s no hard and fast rule as to how to make a stunning app with intuitive design, but as Hopper’s example shows, you should always measure results, innovate and iterate for the best. That’s the way you can see drastic improvements.
Hard to Build – Easy to Use
A great travel app keeps it simple. According to eMarketer, apps are deleted 5.8 days after they’re last used, so make sure you make a killer app, not an app that tests your users’ patience.
Speed and performance can make or break your in-app experience. Remember Pied Piper from the “Silicon Valley” TV series? In case you haven’t seen the show, the app’s performance and the ability to run it fast were the critical things that fueled interest from investors. As the application became more complex by adding functionality and business logic, its performance degraded. But your users won’t tolerate that, according to a survey by Dimensional Research.
- 61% of users expect mobile apps to start within four seconds
- 49% want responses to inputs in two seconds
- 53% of users will uninstall an app if it crashes or has errors
There are many apps whose performance decreases as the phone’s storage space is eaten up. What if more photos taken by the user will squeeze out your app’s performance? To prevent malfunctioning and crashes, make sure your QA strategy is in place. Develop an infrastructure that will make sure your travel app:
- Can withstand interruptions
- Is secure
- Has robust performance
- Can seamlessly adapt to time zones.
Personalization Beyond “Dear First Name”
True personalization is a key part of user experience, so it’s no surprise that many brands put tailored offers on top of their priorities in travel app development. A Deloitte research paper proves that people value not only personalized communication but also products and services that are tailored to their tastes and behaviors.
- 36% of consumers expressed an interest in purchasing personalized products
- 48% said they’d be willing to wait longer in order to receive it
Virgin America, in an attempt to personalize the user’s journey in its mobile application, took into account the context and tasks users wanted to achieve beyond the screen. The app propagates the philosophy of making flying fun again, so the developers decided to engage users via playful features. For instance, 24 hours before the flight, the app changes into “serious” mode, switching from a white background to black. The boarding pass is also different for a new destination – the display shows a new visual through animations and playful images.
Adding rich visuals can rope in users and skyrocket your audience’s loyalty. The one thing you should remember is that in the case of poor integration, heavy graphics files can cause clunky experiences, so make sure you figure out a way to stuff your app with loads of interactive content as seamlessly as possible.
Source: App Advice
Hilton has partnered with Uber, and its HHonors app enables guests to set up alerts to arrange rides as needed. Passengers who fly Virgin America from New York City to Los Angeles or Chicago can continue watching the movies they started on the plane in their hotel rooms. Some hotel brands apps allow guests to pre-adjust room temperature, light, entertainment options, and a welcome drink according to their preferences before they check in.
The focus on personalized experiences is likely to get traction and will be a source of competitive advantage for brands that can deliver tailored customer interactions.
Leveraging Content to Inspire, Assist and Convert
Even the best of us have a story about when they missed their connecting flight, took the wrong transport and felt like the dumbest person on earth when they couldn’t find obvious things. But when you see the signs in different languages, airports, and stations screaming with loads of information, let’s be frank, it’s hard to stay calm and concentrated. A perfect travel app can help decrease that frustration by providing relevant content at each point of the customer’s journey.
A road sign in New Zealand. Source: Teara encyclopedia
Push notifications are a great way to keep users abreast of changes on their trip and show that they are being cared for. Relevance and context is a must here – Think with Google’s data reports that 45% of travel app users said that trip status updates and notifications were most useful.
Imagine a person who heads somewhere on a business trip and has a meeting in 2 hours. There’s a high chance they would appreciate an app that fetches local traffic data and sends a reminder to alert them to come earlier if they want to be on time.
Source: Accengage study
The Accengage study analyzed 50 billion push notifications and found out that notifications in the travel industry have one of the highest open rates – 70.2 %. To increase the open rates, the study suggests the use of emojis (which will bring opens up a further 20%), rich formats such as gifs and videos, and experimenting with the time of sending, which can result in a 40% increase in conversions.
Another way brands can use content is to put users in the driver’s seat and empower them to share and communicate. TripAdvisor and Foursquare encourage users to share their photos, while Booking.com and Airbnb invite them to leave reviews. Lonely Planet launched Trips, a platform to encourage people to post their stories about recent adventures, creating a community around that service.
Unlike many other industries, travel can inspire people. One more good thing you can do for your users is to create a blog that supports your solution with insightful pieces of content. For example, the above-mentioned PADI Travel company publishes blogs where divers can find extremely relevant insights. At the same time, it gently interweaves the content with a call to action, so if the travelers have set their heart upon a particular trip and want to book it now, they don’t need to do another ton of research to make it happen.
Source: Padi Travel blog
Sophisticated Technologies Will Steal The Show
Savvy travelers of the future will choose the travel service that completely resonates with their evolving needs. To keep up with this pace of change and create more tailored experiences, companies should consider powering their travel solutions with advanced technologies like AI and chatbots.
Machine Learning / Artificial Intelligence
As AI-powered solutions and machine learning systems accumulate travel data and learn what converts or what offers work best for the customers, the systems will hone on their skills to generate truly personalized offerings at a great pace. Since modern savvy consumers expect personalized assistance at every point of their journey, more companies allocate great amounts of money to technologies that promise to convert reams of consumer data into unique travel bundles.
By leveraging years of insights from past experiences and third-party data like search queries, calendar schedules, and many more data points, AI systems can create unique insights on user preferences and future behavior. Insights-driven apps can generate accurate tailored offers ranging from hotel recommendations to in-destination notifications about nearby activities.
Booking.com became one of the first companies to experiment with machine learning. The solution’s interface is available in 43 languages, and to avoid dooming manual updates after each change, the company developed a machine learning system that would not only translate but also localize all of the website’s content.
Lola Travel, a travel startup whose app is for managing corporate travel, is also reaping the benefits of how AI analyzes what customers liked in the past. When first using the app, Lola travelers name their favorite hotels, and then the algorithm matches their descriptions with millions of reviews scraped across dozens of sites. After a thorough analysis, the traveler gets their room based on his preferences rather than a commission-based decision.
Hopper says that 25% of its bookings come from AI-based suggestions of trips, which means that users did not search for the exact locations they booked. It was all the algorithm’s work.
AI-powered systems can identify what works best for different types of customers:
Source: The New Digital Traveler Report
Based on collected information, AI and machine learning can help you understand your customers better, work out the best strategy on how to interact with each customer group, adapt the relevancy of your content, and drive conversions.
Fuelling Customer Service With Chatbots
Apart from enticing experiences, customers need an app they can rely on, an app that will provide them with all the information and assistance they need. When it comes to providing online customer support and guidance 24/7, chatbots are the name of the game here. AI-infused chatbots enabled travelers to search, book, or request information about trips in a natural, conversational style.
Dutch airline KLM developed a chatbot that allows customers to store all their critical flight information – such as the boarding pass, personal offers, check-in reminders, flight status updates – in Facebook Messenger. The Director of KLM Social Media, Martine van der Lee, said that after introducing the chatbot, KLM’s number of Facebook messages increased by 40%. To date, the KLM chatbot handles over 15,000 conversations in 13 languages.
According to Martine, since the adoption of AI, KLM has seen these improvements:
- AI supports 50% of all customer interactions
- During the past 5 years, automated forms helped to save around 5 million clicks
When your customer base expands and you know that a chatbot can solve a problem faster than a person can, you should consider setting your sights on this technology. Equipped with different levels of intelligence to cover a broad range of tasks, chatbots can streamline interactions and keep customers satisfied and loyal.
Okay Google, Tell Me Where My Boarding Pass Is
To date, voice assistants remind us of Dory from “Finding Nemo” – one minute after talking to them, there’s only a slim possibility that they will remember anything you said.
Source: Push Conference
Despite the fact that voice applications and technologies are not yet at a mature stage, travel companies are making moves toward the adoption of voice-enabled devices. In 2017, Kayak became the first online travel company to allow voice-activated hotel bookings via Amazon Echo. Marriott rolled out Alexa-enabled devices across five of its major hotel lines, and Hyatt integrated Google Assistant to help with voice translations.
As the sales volumes of Siri, Echo, Home, and Cortana are ramping up, travelers are becoming a lot more comfortable having conversations with bots and virtual assistants. Travelport’s Digital Report data says that 23% of travelers have used voice to research or book a trip.
Voice assistants have great potential to show their owners personalized results as they pull out personalized options among the hundreds that exist, which is much faster and more convenient than a typical web search. Current digital assistants have some downsides as well – like the inconvenience of talking with machines or poor recognition of complex queries. But, as with any emerging technology, the more data it has to learn, the more advanced it becomes. So if you decide to start a travel service powered with voice or partner with an open-source virtual assistant, remember that voice search isn’t just about providing apps that people can use to find your products. It’s also about what kind of response they will hear.
We, humans, are quite irrational and inconsistent in our choices. Some of us want to explore new destinations, others want to return to a small village every year, some chase after their hobby passions, and others have detailed work/travel schedules. For the travel app players, it’s becoming harder to engage customers and keep them loyal. Travel service development is a long-term process, and it’s extremely important to understand consumer needs and the things that affect these needs not only today but in the future.
Below, we’ve squeezed the main ideas of this article into 5 quick bullets:
- Focus on the needs and motivations of your customer. Understand what emotional and rational triggers drive your customer, as well as the pain points you can help solve. The better knowledge you have, the more calibrated your offers will be.
- Personalization is a must. Create a rounder picture of your audience using insights on their past behaviors.
- Create experiences. Make your app an easy-to-use co-creator of a trip.
- Offer relevant content. Inspire your user’s imagination and spark interest with high-quality and timely content.
- Explore new technologies. Hone your ability to drive conversions, reduce costs and make tailored offers by unleashing the power of AI-based technologies.