Why Do Consumers Prefer Booking with Online Travel Agencies?
In an age where travel is evolving rapidly, what role do online travel agencies play in the customer’s journey?
Online travel agencies (OTA) began their rise in popularity in the late 1990s, bringing convenience and increased efficiency to travelers everywhere. Since then, they have only grown in number and scope, offering up ways to book everything from city tours to luxury hotels to last-minute flights. For the modern traveler, OTAs provide the right balance of affordability and ease, and allow them to book travel and accommodations when the time — and price — is right for them.
With the advent of OTAs, the gap between travel and hospitality began to narrow. Customers could now book their reservations across the entire traveling journey in one online session — from the flight to the hotel to the rental car and everything in between. The appeal became even stronger as consumers increasingly began to live their lives online, purchasing goods and services from apps and sites where they normally would have visited an in-person location or storefront.
During the pandemic, OTAs benefitted from a low-cost operating model and were further empowered by the technological innovation that initially caused their entry onto the market. Acting as a mediator between travel brands and operators, OTAs have carved a niche within the industry, and in a time when customers are flocking to online-based options, their business model continues to thrive.
Beyond affordability and convenience, what is the actual value of the OTA for today’s consumer, and how has it impacted the travel experience? Here, we’ll explore the differences between traditional and online travel agencies, how OTAs have improved the overall travel experience and some typical situations where OTAs can enhance the customer journey in every stage.
Traditional vs. Online Travel Agencies
The traditional travel agency has roots going back to the 19th century when Thomas Cook founded Thomas Cook & Son. Through the years, travel agents have played an integral role for many travelers, and even amid the advent of OTAs. Today, traditional travel agencies appeal to those who prefer a fuller, concierge-type experience when booking their travels, as travel agents are experts in their craft and can typically accommodate more unique travel requests and needs.
For people booking larger trips or vacations, particularly going overseas, travel agents can provide a well-rounded itinerary that includes much more than flights and hotels. Agents can play the role of an advisor who gives advice and background information on local cultures, cuisines, sightseeing destinations and more, giving travelers greater peace of mind on their journey.
Business travelers may also find more value in using a traditional travel agency, as there are often multiple considerations to be made when planning business or corporate travel. If cancellations or delays arise, a travel agent can rebook flights or accommodations on the fly, leaving business travelers free to attend meetings or other obligations.
On the other hand, customers who want to take a more DIY approach may find OTAs more appealing and, ultimately, more cost-effective. OTAs can offer bundled services and price comparisons that help consumers make more informed decisions about their travel plans. Booking through an OTA also allows consumers to easily scan for online reviews, which can be a differentiator when deciding between one hotel property and another, or between two sightseeing tours.
No matter which route a traveler decides to take, the travel experience can be heavily influenced by the experience someone has when planning and booking their trip. By optimizing the customer journey and adopting an omnichannel approach to customer support, OTAs have an excellent opportunity to foster continued customer loyalty.
Booking Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Cruises
OTAs are a great solution for travelers looking for variety and a practical, easy way to comparison shop, from flights to train tickets and from rental cars to cruises. In a survey from Expedia, 57% of travelers said they were more likely to book a hotel via an OTA than before the pandemic, which may be attributed to the ability to find the best deal before booking or the ability to make changes more easily to existing reservations.
When it comes to booking reservations, OTAs can be supported by various customer service technologies that improve the overall travel experience. Powered by artificial intelligence (AI), live chat and messaging options are well-suited to an on-the-go traveler looking to make a reservation or cancellation and needs additional support.
Besides hotel and flight reservations, OTAs also make it easier for travelers to book rental cars, cruises and even train journeys. Many of these can act as add-ons to a round-trip journey or as a bundled service that provides a discount to the customer. The key for OTAs is to maintain consistent messaging and support across the entire travel experience — from booking to the return home — and to utilize technologies that empower agents to provide optimal service along the way.
Common Travel Customer Service Situations for OTAs
Changing plans, cancelled flights and misplaced travel documents are scenarios that millions of travelers have dealt with at some point or another. The rush to make a flight on time and the pressure to enjoy the time spent at one’s destination can make the stakes feel particularly high — with plenty of room for frustration to set in.
OTAs are equipped to handle common customer service scenarios and can use a variety of customer service tools to assist customers across their entire travel experience, with the goal of reducing customer effort.
FAQ pages and self-service content are ideal solutions for OTAs to provide their customers with assistance at their convenience. Typically housed in an online resource library or app, self-service content can quickly address questions and limit the amount of time consumers need to spend on the phone, thus improving overall customer service.
Self-service content can address many different types of common travel- and trip-related questions, such as:
- I lost my ID, and I have a flight
- Trip cancellation policies
- Vacation tips
- Safety tips
Beyond self-service content, social media customer service can also be beneficial for customers of OTAs. Being available on a range of social media platforms allows OTAs to connect directly with customers where they are, which can be especially valuable when customers are traveling across time zones or racing to catch their next flight.
Finding Opportunities for Growth in the New Era of Travel
As travelers return to airports and hotels around the world, OTAs have an enhanced opportunity to improve the travel experience from the time of booking and beyond. The customer journey in the world of travel is changing, though with the latest technological innovation in place, combined with continued efficiency and ease of use, OTAs are poised to keep customers coming back.
To learn more about how online travel agencies can thrive in the latest era of travel, download the Best Practice Guide for Delivering Best-in-Class Customer Experience in Travel and Hospitality from Sitel Group.