The factors that influence the way people plan their trips probably hasn’t changed drastically over the years. In broad terms, it has always been about iterating across available choices, personal preferences and financial allocation to custom design a trip that suits individual travel, leisure, and hospitality needs.

But the information age has exponentially increased the choices in the trip planning process. A range of increasingly sophisticated digital tools is now emerging to help consumers sift through the complex array of choices and match them to more granular interpretations of preference in order to personalize their getaways. Consumers are now ‘travel snacking’ the way across search engines, OTA/service supplier websites & apps, social networks and video/photo sites to put together their own perfect getaway. According to an Expedia study, consumers on average visit 38 sites travel related sites before they actually book a trip.

A consumer’s travel planning process typically progresses linearly across the travel ecosystem which includes the booking process, preparations for the trip, home-to-airport-to-accommodation, destination activities, return and post-trip experience sharing. It’s a decision-making sequence that spans a loosely integrated conglomeration of services — OTAs, trip planners, vehicle rentals, airports, airlines, hotels, local entertainment/leisure — that travelers have to orchestrate into one coherent experience. According to Google, this sequence consists of several micro-moments when consumers turn to digital research to identify services that cater to their needs and preferences.  For service providers, therefore, a keen understanding of consumer motivations and behaviors during these micro-moments will enable them to tailor their services and their communication to specific consumer expectations.

The travel planning process begins with the inspiration phase or I-want-to-get-away moments. At this stage, a third of consumers who are planning a personal trip does not even have a specific destination in mind and a significant majority have no specific travel brands in mind. Brands that understand and respond to decision drivers in this phase have a better chance of becoming a preferred travel partner. Nearly two-thirds of both business and leisure trip planners turn to the web, particularly to search engines, social networks, and online travel videos, for inspiration. Mapping intent and expectation across multiple online sources and across consumer devices will help suppliers design appropriate branding and content strategies to become a part of the path-to-purchase.

Many travelers, especially in the leisure category, go into the planning and booking stage with no specific brands in mind. And search engines top the list of preferred online sources followed by hotel websites/apps, OTAs, airlines and map sites/apps, in that order. A Google study that tracked search terms across three key stages of planning and booking found that travelers were most interested in destination-related information during the initial planning stage. This was followed by information regarding pricing and then activities. Once travelers had a shortlist of possibilities, the search priority shifted to price and activity, followed by specific brands/websites. Brand searches came to the fore only during the final phase, when they were ready to book. Mobile is increasingly becoming a key tool in the decision-making and the booking process. Successful suppliers will be those that provide personalized and comprehensive and relevant information, functional tools and options and the best deals across all their online assets.

Tracking traveler motivations and behaviors across all stages of the journey, from inspiration to post-trip observations is going to be critical to the performance of every supplier in the ecosystem. But the overall customer experience is still determined by, as mentioned earlier, a loosely integrated conglomeration of services. Of late, there has also been significant activity in the much-needed space of helping travelers with a unified solution to plan and organize their entire journey.

The TripIt travel-planning app from Concur, for example, offers a paid service for business travelers backed by a “You handle the booking. We take care of the rest” promise. The service essentially transforms travel emails into a detailed itinerary, sends real-time alerts for travel plan changes and tracks reward points across multiple service providers, among others.

Last year, Google has now a free app called Trips to make it easier to plan and organize trips. The app compiles and organizes all travel-related information, like flights, hotel reservations, and call rentals, from Gmail and Inbox into a single source of truth as it were. The map also automatically plans out an itinerary of ‘things to do’ at the destination and make a personalized recommendation based on the user’s history. Google Trips is getting more powerful features with each update and could soon become the go-to source for planning and organizing getaways.

These digital solutions are, at the moment, more enablers than threats for the travel and hospitality industry. But these incremental disruptions are helping these technology businesses take control of key components of the travel experience. But technology can help the industry itself reinvent itself for the experience economy. For the travel industry, where most transactions currently occur in silos, a shift to a broader platform approach will be a more effective way of managing the travel experience. And according to Accenture, travel and hospitality companies that take the lead in platforms will be better placed to drive innovation and to enhance the experience.

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