Posted on July 22, 2016 by staff

Personalised holidays key to rise in online travel agents


The days of visiting a high street travel agent to book your annual two weeks in the sun is becoming a distant memory – and On The Beach has taken advantage of the shift.

Do you remember the glossy brochures on the shelves? The handy tips from people who’ve been to your preferred destination? And the feeling of excitement when you walk out clutching your documents?

For generations that has been our experience of booking a holiday – but technology has changed all that.

The desire to create our own personalised trips and take control of getting the best deal has resulted in an explosion of online travel agents – in the same way that people are increasingly using online estate agents when selling their houses.

Cheadle-headquartered On the Beach has taken advantage of the perfect storm created by tech savvy customers wanting to book their own holiday without setting foot in a travel agent.

Jonathan Smith is the chief technology officer of the fast-growing online travel agent and says: “The key to being a successful online travel agent is being able to take a customer and understand them as an individual, know their requirements and tailor that experience on your website accordingly.

“Back in the day when you walked into a travel agents’ you would look at the brochures and be asked what kind of holiday you were looking for, whether you wanted to be near a beach or in a hotel with a kids’ club, for example.

“We want to offer a similar experience online so we’ve invested in ‘personalisation’.”

In its transition to a tech-led organisation, On the Beach began in 2004 selling package holidays on Teletext, with customers phoning an agent to make their booking. It later developed its first website, which ran in the same manner, until services gradually become more automated.

Today every aspect of a holiday can be built online, from choosing flights and hotels, booking any number of nights, to adding car parking and transfers, though a call centre remains for those customers who want to discuss special requirements like larger bookings where members wish to fly from different airports.

While it offers endless possibilities to those booking a holiday, Smith says, the shift has come through attempting to make sifting through these options as hassle-free as it would be when sitting in front of a high street travel agent.

“If you look across the system there are millions of potential holiday combinations, which is great, but it can be difficult for a customer to find their way through all that data and that’s where the personalisation comes in,” he says.

When holidaymakers visit On the Beach, the website creates a profile for them in the background, which registers every click they make, from search terms they have inputted to properties and destinations they have clicked on.

This continues each time they revisit the site, and statistics show that it takes customers 40 days to make a decision on a holiday from the first time they visit the website to making their purchase.

During this time, Smith says people generally come back about 16 times, making between three and five searches during each visit to the site.

Their movements each time create a picture of exactly what the person is looking for from a holiday, and this data is used to ensure On the Beach brings up only holidays the data shows customer will be interested in.

Likewise, the home page they land on each time contains information tailored to them and, of the marketing emails sent out to customers, 94 per cent are personalised using data from previous searches and holidays booked.

“For some families a beach holiday is a once-in-a-year event and it’s a very emotional purchase in many ways,” Smith says.

“From the first search we can start to personalise their experience so we can bring up only the holidays that closely match the type of thing we think they’re looking for.

“Using these personalised algorithms is transforming the online experience and will ultimately give people a very similar experience that they would have on the high street.

“The feedback we have from people is that we have just the holiday they’re looking for and that’s true, but it’s not by accident.”

Advancements such as this, which was launched in 2013, have led to massive growth for On the Beach and new features are being added to the personalisation process all the time, such is the importance placed on it by the business.

These include a price tracker feature which can send you alerts when a price moves up or down.

There are also plans to introduce a feature where visitors to the site can send questions to customers who have stayed in a particular hotel before, a feature Smith says will add an element of the high street experience.