In the travel industry, we’ve spent years moving toward an online driven travel model. From the growth of Expedia to Google Flights and the popularity of Trip Advisor, we as an industry have been faced with the fact that the purchase of travel is becoming a much more online driven experience.
But is that necessarily the right way to go?
The financial benefits of online business are an obvious ‘pro’ – the cost of setting up and maintaining a website can potentially provide a far better return on investment than a shop can due to lower overheads and increased potential reach. There’s also the ease it provides the consumer too; I know I’ve used online booking systems for my own personal holidays (it’s ok – I was booking a Thomson holiday!) and I appreciated the speed with which I could do it and the fact that everything I needed to know was right there in writing before me. Plus, I’m a huge supporter of an online approach to travel.
And yet, when I look at businesses like our own over here in TUI North America, and at the likes of Abercrombie & Kent (who’s new flagship store in London inspired this post), I have to wonder if online really is the best translation of our business values.
Where the primary driver of the business is to provide a truly personalised and customised experience for every customer, it seems obvious that no amount of fancy coding will give that truly individual feel to any website. As much as we can post out telephone numbers and use social media to convey our brand voice and engage the customer, are we ever really going to capture that personalised feel without including face-to-face interactions?
I’m certainly not going to go as far as to argue we can’t; I think there are some great websites out there and some brilliant campaigns which really work well for the brand (take Expedia’s current ‘Find Yours’ campaign – it encapsulates their brand values perfectly) but for A&K and others like them, I believe they’re making a great move by investing in physical stores.
The challenge they will face lies in the years we have spent encouraging consumers to move online. We live in a society where making purchases through a website is by no means uncommon, and it is seen to an extent to be somewhat archaic when we venture into a real life travel agent shop, so how do we refocus that consumer once again without seeming like a group of fools of blindly jumped aboard the web 2.0 bandwagon without foreseeing that we’d only be jumping off again a few years down the line?
For me, it comes down to differentiation. We do not need to ‘jump off the bandwagon’ – in fact, I think there is an argument for us to take the reins and drive the wagon! Instead, we must be able to showcase the more ‘old-fashioned’ approach of a physical shop as a continuation and a development of the path we’ve been heading down anyway, where online must enhance offline and any approach we take must always be customer focused. We must, in essence, reinvent the wheel by showcasing travel shops as an innovation.
We can already see this approach in action with the likes of Virgin and their concept store, where customers use iPads and augmented reality to browse destinations and put together quotes with the assistance of the in store advisors. There’s not a lot of information available on the new A&K store as yet, but it already seems from their PR that they are attempting to differentiate their store from the travel agents we know to something more experientially led, again making use of iPads and the store layout to give that innovative feel.
The point I’d like to make here is that we really do need to view every innovation we see as a new tool – to enhance and not replace what we already had. Online may be an incredibly powerful tool, but so is face-to-face and we really mustn’t forget that. In deciding how we communicate our business values, we have an entire toolbox at our disposal. I look forward to seeing what A&K do with their new addition.