• OTAs making it personal

Expedia has moved to the top in Engagement Labs’ annual ranking of social interaction, driven by strong word of mouth.

The study was released as online booking platform Hostelworld reported a 6% increase in bookings for the year, and appointed its first “chief customer officer”.

The Engagement Labs’ report saw TripAdvisor fall back from the Expedia, which was previously ranked second, moved into the number one spot in the ranking, passing TripAdvisor. The shift was fuelled by Expedia’s increase in online volume, which meant that consumers were talking more about the OTA in social media conversations.

While Expedia rose to the top of the list, TripAdvisor fell to number two in the ranking, due to a steep decline in its online and offline influence scores. Engagement Labs defined influence as how well the brand connected with the everyday influencers who had the largest social networks in both the offline and online worlds.

Travelocity, which moved up from its previous spot at number four to third in the ranking, experienced an uptick in offline sentiment – which means that consumers are having more positive face-to-face conversations about the brand.

“With so much competition among travel websites and booking tools, it’s no wonder that the top OTA brands are increasingly fuelling face-to-face conversations,” said Ed Keller, CEO, Engagement Labs. “Travelocity is a great example of a brand that saw a boost in its offline scores, particularly in offline sentiment, after launching several marketing campaigns to better engage its customers – proving that smart marketing tactics will not only resonate with consumers, but can improve a brand’s ROI.”

At Expedia, Inc’s third-quarter earnings call, newly-promoted CEO Mark Okerstom told the assembled that the group planned to become “much more customer-centric, putting the A back into OTA. Over the last 20 years, we put the power of research and booking into the hands of customers around the world. With the digital age, we made researching and booking travel exponentially better, but we still have a long way to go in truly alleviating customer pain points.

“The passion of our employees combined with the power of machine learning and our incredibly rich datasets make us confident we can do much better on delivering on the agent promise on a go-forward basis.”

At Hostelworld, the hostel-focused online booking platform reported its pre-close trading update for the year to 31 December, with overall bookings up 6%, and bookings on its flagship Hostelworld Brand increasing 13%. The group’s average booking value for 2017 was EUR11.5, flat on a the prior year.

CEO Feargal Mooney said: “We are pleased with the performance of the business in 2017. During the second half of the year we delivered an efficient booking mix with marketing costs for the full year marginally lower than our previously guided range. We continue to execute well on our strategy and this positions the group well to make further progress in 2018.”

The company announced the appointment of Former Ladbrokes Coral chief marketing officer Kristof Fahy as its first chief customer officer. The move follows the departure of chief marketing officer Otto Rosenberger, who left to become chief operating officer at travel agent Iglu. Fahy has also held roles including global brand communications director at Orange and brand director EMEA at Blackberry.

Mooney said: “Kristof brings with him a wealth of knowledge across both brand and marketing as well as experience in developing customer centric strategies that will be an invaluable asset to the business.

“His appointment underpins our commitment to put our customers at the heart of everything we do, and the creation of the chief customer officer role is a testament to this. The CCO role at Hostelworld will not only cover all aspects of marketing, it will have responsibility for all aspects of our customer interactions and engagement. In addition, the role will be tasked with developing and driving the business strategy and supporting the technology and global markets teams through data and analytics.”

Fahy added: “Hostelworld’s ambition is to be the online hub for people who want to meet the world. Hostels and the unique, social environment they create are a brilliant foundation for that ambition. The potential to build around that foundation is the opportunity here and one I’m very excited about.”

HA Perspective [by Katherine Doggrell]: Hope springs just over the horizon for personalised customer service, with even the motivated OTAs insistent on sending past customers frequent emails full of offers about past destinations. “Gatwick! You loved Gatwick! Discount for five consecutive nights!”.

As Okerstrom notes, the happy consumer is one in which their life is not summarily ruined by the experience of booking a hotel or flight – to paraphrase. Consumers are now wise to tricks by certain booking companies, which raise prices and remove offers for dithering purchasers, to increase pressure. Cookies are disabled and evasive action taken.

The current battle between the hotel sector and OTAs is over Okerstrom’s pain points. The global operators have noted this and offer the chance to bypass check in for loyalty members, but there is an argument to suggest that these perks should be standard, rather than turning the one-off guest into a second-class citizen and reducing the chance of repeat visits.  The OTAs do not distinguish, other than through the ease of the stored payment card, an aping of Amazon’s successful one-click purchasing.

The operators remain distracted, using their loyalty programmes to drive bookings through discounts, rather than driving future bookings by using the customer knowledge gained. It’s time to start mining.

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