3 Conversion Lessons for Online Travel Teams

In this article we share three lessons from the November Online Travel Breakfast Briefing where 20 Travel Sector leaders discussed the opportunities and challenges facing them as we approach 2015. They also heard from two OTAs:

Matthew Lawson, the newly appointed E-Commerce Director at loveholidays.com, who spoke about his guiding principles and what he thinks is wrong with online travel.



Chris Dalrymple, Head of E-commerce at OnTheBeach.co.uk, who spoke about lessons in personalisation.




Outlined below are three important lessons from the Briefing relevant to anyone working in online travel.

1. Stop putting technology first

Matthew Lawson argued that most online travel companies put technology first and not customers. Online Travel sites should start with customer needs and then technology (site functionality and back end systems).


Matthew cited his previous experience at AO.com where he introduced user centred design practices leading to a 40% conversion growth with no additional marketing spend.

In fact, more than two-thirds of attendees conceded that they felt too focussed on technology rather than the needs of their customers. But that’s changing. On face value, and if the ambitions of the attendees were anything to go by, it does appear that 2015 may well be the year where customer-focus starts edging toward becoming the norm, rather than the exception, in Online Travel. Many attendees felt there is wider acceptance (even amongst senior managers) that growth cannot be sustained by delivering technology-led solutions alone and that understanding customers is a significant competitive advantage.

indexWhatUsersDo opinion

We are seeing a maturing of the market from technology-first, then to design-first and now to a customer-first approach. AO.com is a great example of how to start on this journey - by gaining user-empathy within the senior team.

Tweet this: "Online Travel Teams should put Customers before Tech"

2. Stop wasting time optimising the booking funnel

Matthew stated that “anyone can optimise a booking funnel” and that online travel brands need to think more holistically about their customers’ journeys. Particularly those customers who are earlier in the funnel – researching their holiday, well before they are ready to book.

In his view, many travel sites are too focussed on those customers who are ready to book - or assume everyone is -  meaning they’re missing out on opportunities to engage earlier in the wider (holiday research) funnel.

indexWhatUsersDo opinion

Many digital marketeers are taking steps to better understand the customer journey “even before they reach my site”. There is a growing awareness that customer journeys do not start and end with your site, and untapped opportunities exist to engage with and influence customers earlier.

Tweet this: "Online Travel Teams should focus on the pre-booking funnel"

3. Approach Personalisation in small steps

It is clear that Personalisation is growing in importance for the travel sector. More than half of attendees were either working on Personalisation or planning to within the next 6 months.

Chris shared how Personalisation had been tackled at OnTheBeach. He admitted they were in the relative luxurious position of having complete ownership of their technology, something not enjoyed by everyone in travel. But, even with a strong technical base to work from it was important to take small steps, with the first one being to develop and implement the technical architecture to support personalisation. Following that, the team’s next small steps were personalising Home Page Deals and then Recommended Hotels.


Chris emphasised that personalisation should be tested and rules refined – like many digital improvements it’s a continual improvement process to understand the customer intent that can be inferred from data.

Several techniques for tracking users across devices had been implemented by attendees, but there is no silver bullet to track and thus personalise consistently. Many felt the key was to prompt users to login and, where implemented, 5% of users had logged in on mobile devices.

indexWhatUsersDo opinion

On the face of it, personalisation in online travel is a no-brainer – who would not want the “corner shop mentality in the digital age” that means highly relevant holidays, offers and content is displayed. However, think back to Matthew’s “too technology focussed” point above, how do we ensure that personalisation is based on actually needs, rather than what’s technically possible? I think, just as we have seen with AB (and MVT) Testing in the past 12 months, Personalisation will follow this four phase cycle at many companies during 2015:

Phase 1 > Personalisation is technically implemented/possible.

Phase 2 > Digital Teams enjoy success by “personalising” some low hanging fruit based on their intuition on what they think will appeal to users.

Phase 3 > As more elements are personalised there’s a plateau in conversions (teams realised their intuition is not enough to create successful personalisation rules).

Phase 4 > Teams start basing their personalisation decisions upon user insight, rather than their instinct, and start enjoying success again.

Tweet this: "Approach Personalisation in small steps - testing as you go"

Conclusion - it's culture

The challenges that face the Travel sector are not technical. They’re cultural.

How can a technology and instinct led industry re-focus itself on customers?

The rise of AirBnB and Booking.com would suggest that starting with customers, investing in User Experience and hiring “the right attitude” into an organisation is what it takes. But, these are relatively new companies, so do not suffer the complex legacy systems and cultures faced by others who:

- use complicated third party systems for inventory

- need to serve people on more complex journeys who do not yet know their destination.

Perhaps, when we see travel companies remove the booking form from their Home Pages, we’ll see the beginnings of a more customer-focussed approach.

It seems some are already heading in this direction.


Thank you to Chris and Matthew for giving up their precious time and sharing. We run free Breakfast Briefings every month, usually in central London.