Secret Escapes harness Machine Learning to Improve Marketing ROI

 

Traditional marketing saw companies aim to hit the jackpot, make that perfect ad and sell you their product in an instant. Even if they left you with little more than an annoying, unforgettable jingle, they succeeded. The seed was planted.  

But that was advertising before the internet. In the dawn of the information era, where everything is accessible to customers and catchy jingles no longer swing sales to the extent they once did, companies must develop new methods to be discovered and remembered by customers.

Discovered is the key term there. Particularly in the case of the travel industry. We know that smaller travel agencies struggle to compete against the industry’s big players. And that a handful of platforms dominate search engine results and therefore bookings. That’s the downside to having a system that allows well-funded companies with astute business models to gain a global stranglehold. It’s tough on startups, but everyone has to start somewhere.   

But it’s also an opportunity. A frenetic market has its own possibilities.

SEO and Adwords

We know that the majority of travellers are now researching, planning and booking trips online using every device you can imagine. Smart TVs, mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Even voice assistants.

In part that’s out of convenience. These devices are now our gateway to the online world. It’s also because E-commerce is more trusted than it was. Not to mention the sheer amount of content and travel guides online. Organising your travel experience online has become a no-brainer.

However, this move toward digital has a downside: It’s hard for travel agencies to grow and get noticed when people have so many potential options for flights, accommodation, tours and more. Especially when a small number of players dominate the online travel game.

SEO has long been a major determinant of lead generation. However, Google’s Adwords platform provides a way for operators big and small to bypass all of those SEO hoops and put their links directly in front of potential customers.

Google is comfortably among the most popular websites in the world, with 28 billion visits every single month. Its many travellers’ gateway to the internet. So generating leads through the search engine – whether through organic SEO or by paying for them using the Adwords platform – is vital if a travel agent wants to survive and thrive.

Which explains why smaller agents such as Secret Escapes are looking for ways to refine their Adwords techniques, doing whatever they can to lower their Cost Per Lead (CPL) and ultimately, increase the efficiency of their marketing efforts

Improving AdWords Outcomes With Machine Learning

British travel agent Secret Escapes is seeking to solve these problems through the use of machine learning.  

Hang on, you might be thinking. What is this vaguely AI-related buzzword all about?

Well, very briefly, machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence that uses algorithms to scan huge piles of data in search of patterns and trends. Patterns and trends that a human couldn’t otherwise spot. It’s being applied already in the travel industry, it’s being used for various things, from fraud detection to developing intelligent travel assistants.

You get the idea: Machine learning is capable of doing a lot of the heavy lifting in a short time frame.

Secret Escapes thought they could use the technology to reduce their CPL.

The membership-only online travel agency, which specialises in luxury packages, decided to adopt a Google Ads Smart Bidding approach called tCPA, or Target Cost Per Acquisition. This is a dynamic, automated approach to bidding that uses advanced machine learning to optimise bids automatically, and tailor bids to each auction.

The test started in Google AdWords’ Draft & Experiments with a seven-day learning phase, then continued until the results reached significance. The team tested across multiple markets at the same time so they could compare outcomes and collect more insights.

When the test was complete, they found that using tCPA bidding on average produced a 23% better click-through rate, 65% more conversions and an overall cost per lead that was 38% lower than their previous bidding setup. In some accounts, they even saw 100% greater impression volume.

So what do those numbers mean in practice?

Well, no doubt a 23% better click-through rate granted the company’s products and packages significantly higher exposure than they would have done otherwise. The devil in the detail also suggests that the ads were improved in the sense that they were better targeted, too.

Which of course contributed to a whopping 65% more conversions.

A 38% lower CPL is also music to the ears of any marketing boss.  

Rumyana Miteva, Head of Search at Secret Escapes was certainly happy with the results. “Machine learning is evolving and automation within Google Ads is getting better and better, which give us the confidence to continue using automated bidding at scale,” she said.

Holistic travel industry marketing

Secret Escapes have proved that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get great results through GoogleAds.

And there’s certainly a lot to be gained from using the platform cleverly. However, here at Travelshift we favour a more organic approach to winning business.

Our marketplace software empowers small operators to dominate their travel niche by banding together, creating awesome content and connecting travellers with the information they need and local experts. It’s packed with tools and pre-made solutions to help your marketplace get off the ground and seamlessly attract both buyers and sellers.

It all adds up to a software platform that naturally creates the quality and quantity of content that search engines seek out. Not to mention an informative, go-to source for those curious about your travel niche or chosen destination.

You can find out more about our marketplace software here. Or contact us today to find out how our software can provide the foundations for your travel industry ambitions.

These Robots Have Serious Travel Industry Potential

Ah, robots. We meet again. For an industry so reliant on customer service and authenticity, you’d think travel companies would steer clear of employing too many non-human workers.

But no, the race to innovate never stops. Particularly when adaptable robots can provide easy customer service, free labour and, in some cases, an extra security measure.

Here are three travel industry robot stories that have caught our eye in the past few months.

Meet Eurostar’s newest recruit: Pepper the robot

Eurostar is deploying Pepper robots to help with customer service on train platforms

If you’ve ever dared to venture out into the world and use the trains in a major city, you’ll know how easy it is for your well-organised plans to be derailed. Particularly if you’re planning to travel between countries in Europe.

Racing to get to the train on platform 3, travellers can often realise too late that a grave mistake has been made. Platform 3 does not have the train they thought it did. If only things could be made easier. If only things could be more accessible.

Well, high-speed rail operator Eurostar is aiming to make that a reality. The solution? Robots.

When we talk about robots, it’s easy to think about a huge warehouse. Thousands of machines crammed in doing the same monotonous task over and over again. On the plus side, they never need to stop for a toilet break. On the downside, they’re not known for their people skills.  

Few robots are known for their approachable personalities. Most are more likely to calculate the chances of you having a good morning than say ‘good morning’.

Eurostar is aiming to break that stigma with Pepper, a humanoid robot made by SoftBank robotics.

Read more: Report Digs in to Travel Technology Trends for 2018

Pepper enters the fray

The train company, which connects the UK to cities in mainland Europe, is introducing Pepper to give travellers information and assistance.    

London’s St Pancras is the first station to host the new Eurostar scheme. Pepper will give information on train times, platforms, prices, and more. Eurostar hopes that technology on platforms will improve their customers’ experience.

A customer service agent that’s always happy to serve?

Pepper has an in-built tablet that lets customers access an interactive map of St Pancras station to more easily find their platform. It also includes train-specific information to give customers an idea of what’s to come on their Eurostar service.

Pepper uses a camera, microphone and no small amount of computing power to help it understand different facial expressions, speech and even body language. The ability to adapt to your behaviour could enable Pepper to respond to even the trickiest of customer situations. And if you for some reason are not in a rush you can even take a selfie with Eurostar’s new recruit.

For many travellers, the idea of getting journey information and advice from a robot might be a strange one. But the European rail giant believes this is a step that will raise the bar for customer satisfaction, as well as providing customers with young children extra entertainment on the platform.

Eurostar’s head of digital, Perrine Allain, said, “We are always looking for new ways to innovate, and explore technologies that can help enhance the overall customer experience.

“Pepper offers a fun way for customers to find out more about their journey and destination, and we look forward to hearing the feedback from our customers so that we can continue to improve their experience.”

Eurostar is launching the Pepper pilot at St Pancras to begin with. The company has confirmed plans to move the robot to another of their destinations in the new year.

Read more: Artificial Intelligence Will Change the Travel Industry Forever

Robot security guard to patrol Tokyo station for Olympic Games

A robot security guard ready for the tokyo olympics

Another robotic train station assistant has been unveiled – this time in Japan’s capital of Tokyo. But this one is focused on security rather than customer service.

Perseusbot is the joint creation of the Tokyo Metropolitan Industrial Technology Research Institute, Seibu Railway Co, IT firm Nihon Unisy, and AI computer vision developer, Earth Eyes. The robot is due to join Japanese railway staff in 2020 for the Olympic and Paralympic games.

The project is being implemented to help preserve the peace and ease the burden on security staff during what will be a busy time for Japan’s capital.

With terror attacks on the rise around the world and tensions heightened at large-scale public events, Perseusbot will form part of additional security measures at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Read more: How to Choose a Travel Marketplace Niche

A robot to protect and serve

Perseusbot is 167.5 centimetres tall. Its aim will be to assist railway staff once the games begin. The robot will patrol station platforms and combine security camera footage with an onboard AI to detect and report suspicious people or objects.

Perseusbot will also send alerts to the smartphones of security guards. It’s being trained to recognise items that have been left unattended and aggressive movements made by travellers.

Earth Eye’s AI technology has been used in the past to spot shoplifters. The company website explains how the technology can be used alongside video feeds as a security measure, to “detect and notify suspicious behaviour as soon as possible… it shows the deterrent effect of preventing crime in advance.”

The team responsible for the robot will need to be careful that prejudice and bias don’t infect the AI’s training data. We’ve seen that happen before, most notably with Microsoft’s ‘Tay’ – arguably the most dramatic example of AI gone bad.

The bot was connected to social network Twitter to learn through conversation with the public in order to learn from its interactions. However, it ended up being taken down after a number of inappropriate tweets.

Clearly, Tay lacked the neutral input required for its training data and was quickly shut down by an embarrassed Microsoft. With Perseusbot the risks are higher.

This is the real world and the diplomatic costs of racial profiling, for example, could be significant. If the system is predicated on biased training data, the AI  could pick up some bad habits and do more harm than good in 2020.

Alibaba’s Space Egg steps up to the plate

alibaba space egg for hotel room service

Alibaba is also entering the domain of robot customer service. But this time our mechanical friends won’t be assisting travellers in a train station, they’ll be rolling around hotel corridors instead.

Alibaba’s ‘Space Egg’ offers a glimpse into the future, one in which human porters are obsolete and replaced by indefatigable AI-powered robot servants. The Space Egg was revealed in mid-September in Hangzhou, China before being put to work in October at a hotel in the same city.

On the face of it, the Space Egg has been designed to replace traditional porters and represents the latest step in the hotel industry’s bid to automate roles previously occupied by human workers.

But Alibaba says the robot can take over menial tasks, trundling room service from the kitchen to guests’ bedrooms, for example, allowing staff more time to spend on keeping guests happy.

How do you like your eggs in the morning?

The Space Egg works by connecting to the hotel’s Wi-Fi network, the kitchen and a dynamic ordering system. It receives an order from a smart device found in each guest’s room.

The robot then knows where to collect it from – usually the kitchen – and how to navigate around the hotel. The Space Egg uses built-in directional lasers to communicate its intentions and moves around while avoiding obstacles and people. It can even tap into the hotel’s Wi-Fi network to open elevators, and has facial recognition software that enables it to make small talk with travellers.

The rollout promises to take the jobs of low-skilled hotel staff, which could, in turn, maximise the profits of hotels and improve efficiency – something that’s been the driving force behind projects like Japan’s Henn-Na, a hotel entirely staffed by robots.  

Lijuan Chen of Alibaba AI Labs stated that the robot will “bridge the gap between guest needs and the response time that they expect. The robot will be the ultimate assistant for hotel guests who want everything quickly and conveniently at their fingertips.”

Final Thoughts

So there you have it: rail operators, hotels and transport authorities around the world are exploring how robots can improve and, in some cases, protect, the travel experience.

Which is an interesting concept. You’d normally associate brands like Eurostar and any traditional hotel with an appreciation of the value of human contact. It’s often the little things, the friendly words and small gestures, that make a trip memorable and help to instil that sense of loyalty.

But ultimately the benefits of robotics can’t be overlooked. Whether that’s in terms of performance: a robot that can recognise crowd safety issues in a flash; or through relentless drive: the ability the provide customer service and intra-hotel delivery without sleep, food or pay.

Perhaps the wave of travel industry robots is just a matter of time.

How To Boost SEO and Build Links For Your Travel Startup

Getting noticed online isn’t easy. Especially in the travel industry, where a handful of platforms dominate search results, customers flit from site to site in search of the best deals and loyalty is a becoming a thing of the past.

But that doesn’t mean that starting up in the industry is a lost cause, or that driving traffic is impossible. There are plenty of ways that you can boost your hits, build a strong presence and work your way up the organic search rankings.

Today we’re going to go through a few of those. But let’s make one thing clear before we do: A prerequisite to taking any of these steps is that you have a solid idea that’s ready to go – a niche travel concept that people are going to be searching for in the first place.

For more information and guidance on that particular hurdle, see here: How to Choose a Travel Marketplace Niche

So, onwards.

Building Links in the Travel Industry

There are a bunch of things you can do to boost your platform’s SEO and improve your Google ranking. But today we’re going to focus on just one aspect: link building. Essentially this refers to the practice of getting other website domains and pages to link to yours.

Generally speaking, the more links you get, the better your domain will rank in search engine listings. This is because Google largely bases search results upon the concept of relevance. If other sites are linking to you for a particular topic, then it shows a level of consensus. It suggests that your site is the place to go for useful information within that sphere.

But it’s not all about quantity. Google’s algorithms are way past being fooled by thousands of bogus links from totally irrelevant sources. In fact, spammy links like that are likely to harm your SEO rather than improve it.

Instead, the source of your backlinks is crucial. The better and more trusted the source (which effectively translates as domain authority), the more impact it will have on the site it’s linking to.

Which sites have good domain authority? Usually it’s those that are established, trusted and reliable. So we’re talking about long-standing company pages, factual encyclopedias and, of course, respected publications.

Respected publications could include popular blogs or more conventional publishers, like newspapers and online magazines. These two groups are the link sources that we’re going to focus on today.

Here’s our rundown of the best way to build solid, SEO-boosting links for your travel industry business.

1 – Build relationships with travel industry partners

Getting great links back to your website isn’t easy. To highlight that point, we thought it would be a good idea to start with a hard method that takes both time and patience.

Like any relationship worth having, building connections with other companies and individuals working in the travel space doesn’t happen overnight. It might also require some legwork on your end to get things started.

Let’s say you’re a travel startup offering motorcycle tours in Africa, like one of the companies we featured in our Gap in the Market series, Wheels of Morocco. There’s a way to gain publicity from other travel companies without letting your rivalry get in the way.

For example, an Africa-based tour company focused on motorcycle trips might want to develop a working relationship with a tour company offering similar experiences in Asia or South America. The two companies aren’t necessarily competing for the same customers – and could each benefit from mentioning (and linking) to the products of the other.

That’s just one example, of course. Travel companies needn’t be operating in the same sector to mention one another and develop a relationship. A food tour company might appreciate the witty product descriptions of a snorkeling trip startup. Why not mention it and why you think it’s so great in an article or social media post about marketing? Share the love and start building those relationships.

This also works with news publications and journalists of course. Which gets us to a key thing that travel industry companies need to appreciate when it comes to publishing content and posting on social media: it’s not all about you. Not everything you throw out into the ether needs to be about your products and services.

The more you mention others and support your fellow travel companies and publications, the more you’ll find that favour reciprocated.

So, to finish off this little section let’s make one final thing clear. This link building strategy is not a quick fix. It will take time and effort. But it’s also important to point out that relationship building comes in many forms. You might want to explore the potential of official partnerships. You might just want to mention other travel businesses in passing on social media or blog posts.

Put your company out there and see what sticks.

2- Become the go-to source

best seo tips for building links in the travel industry

Building relationships with journalists and publications takes time, but it’s worth it in the long run.

We mentioned above that it’s a great idea to build relationships with journalists and publications – both in the travel industry and out of it.

Which brings us to the second way your travel business can secure vital backlinks from publications: become a go-to source. Whatever your travel industry niche, there’s bound to be journalists out there interested in hearing about it, talking about your personal experiences and getting first-hand insight to support their articles.

If you’ve got the time and the patience, cultivating these relationships can be invaluable in the long term.

So start out with a speculative but interesting press release, build up a contact list of relevant journalists and media publications, hit send and make yourself available for further comments.

See where it takes you. At worst you’ll get some easy publicity. At best, you’ll become a go-to source for relevant publications, which could add up to countless backlinks with strong domain authority in the coming years.

3- Get interviewed

how to build backlinks for travel business

Make yourself and your team available for press interviews. It’s a great way to gain publicity and build strong backlinks.

Any travel startup – even those with just a handful of employees – have individuals with interesting stories, insights and expertise to share.

So just as you might send off regular press releases to the media in search of publicity and online traction, why not make your staff available for interviews? That way your team can effectively be the news.

The brilliant part of this strategy is that your potential publications are no longer limited to those dedicated to travel or your travel niche. Instead (or as well) you can target business-focused publications and those that cover startups, local news and something related to your travel niche.

The takeaway is this: just because you’re buried in what you do, day in, day out, it doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of people out there interested in hearing what you and your team have to say.

Again it comes down to building relationships. For example, your marketing manager can become the go-to source for journalists who write about online marketing, or your product manager could be a regular interviewee for a business magazine. Think outside the box and watch the high DA backlinks come pouring in.

It’s also important to realise that getting interviewed is no longer something that’s limited to written journalism. Why not reach out to radio shows, relevant Youtube channels and podcasts? All offer the chance for your travel company to gain publicity and awesome backlinks.

4- Guest Write

Lots of our marketing hints and tips for travel industry startups take the two birds with one stone approach. And that’s a theme that crops up a lot when we’re talking about SEO in general.

For example, if your team members do interviews as we suggested above there are two benefits. The first – from a traditional marketing point of view – is that your name is getting out there. Your products and services are being exposed to a relevant audience and you’re generating leads organically.

The second part of the double whammy is that you’re gaining backlinks, boosting your SEO and creating a virtuous circle or relevance.

That two birds with one stone approach also applies to the art of guest writing. It’s not a new concept, but it is certainly an effective one.

It starts with a simple fact: publications, no matter the industry, are always on the lookout for interesting articles and content more generally. Sadly, the publishing industry isn’t flash with cash and many editors work hard to put together features and opinion pieces alongside general news.

This fact represents a fantastic opportunity for any travel industry startup looking to gain credible publicity and solid backlinks. Instead of being the source or getting interviewed as we’ve mentioned above, why not pitch articles yourself?

The best way to do this is to get in touch with the editors at relevant publications and ask some genuine questions about what kind of content they are looking for. It’s then up to you to pitch interesting ideas and convince them why you or a member of your team is the ideal writer for that article.

Before you know it, your company could be represented with regular guest post spots in a number of publications. Not only will this allow you to carve out a reputation as a thought leader and draw leads to your brand. It’ll also get you a bunch of high domain authority links to boost your SEO.

5 – Keep a finger on the pulse with these PR tricks

Most PR is opportunism, pure and simple. It’s about knowing how to be in the right place at the right time.

From an easy SEO win, there are some easy strategies you can use to get mentioned, quoted and featured by leading publications.

First up, keep an eye on Twitter trends such as #JournoRequest. These will link you directly to journalists looking for sources, inspiration and more. It might take a while, but there’s bound to be a request related to something relevant you can bring to the table. Maybe a journalist is looking for interesting travel ideas or some insights from a startup CEO.

Once you’ve found an opportunity that looks like you could fit the bill, get in touch. It’s as easy as that.

If you don’t want to spend valuable time trawling through Twitter, keep an eye out for relevant stories that have already been published, and follow up on articles with the appropriate editor or journalist. They will always be open to hearing from an alternative source with a different side of the story to tell.

For the ultimate convenience, consider signing up for a press service like UK-based Response Source. They act as a go-between for journalists and companies, connecting publications to people and organisations that fit their query. For startups, the service offers a great way to connect directly with journalists who you know are looking for information and sources.

The only problem can be the expense: So consider signing up for a free trial to see whether it’s worth the money in the long run.

All of these methods exist to help you get in touch with journalists and get your travel company noticed. There’s just one thing to remember: All of these journalists will likely get multiple responses to their requests for comments. So make their lives easier and you’ll have a great shot at being featured.

Whenever you contact journalists, include quotes that address their questions or topic in the first email you send. Outline why your company is best placed to be included.

Make yourself available to provide further details and don’t forget to include an ‘About’ section that offers a quick overview of who you are and what makes your travel company noteworthy.

6 – Create stuff worth linking too

content marketing ideas for seo in the travel industry

Make more content worth sharing and you’ll notice a positive impact on your Google ranking.

Moving away from traditional PR, you should never, ever forget the importance of content marketing.

Content marketing boils down to a simple, necessary truth for any travel company that wants to be successful these days: In the age of online connectivity, if you’re not publishing content and building your brand for others to see, you’re missing out on a vital opportunity.

You’re also missing out on the chance to develop a community-driven platform that can inspire and entice potential customers – something we know a little bit about.

But getting back to content marketing: The whole idea is to create things that other people want to see. At an SEO level, that means creating things that are worth linking too, that people will willingly share and, if you’re lucky (and highly skilled), content that has the chance to go viral.

Some ideas to get you started: An epic, in-depth guide to your travel niche; an online magazine packed with inspirational content; infographics, maps, useful tools that automate a usually tricky task, how-to features… that kind of thing.

7 – Publish your research findings

travel industry seo tips for link building

Don’t be afraid to publicize your market research. Industry insights are worth sharing and people will take notice.

A great way to develop original content and conduct vital market research at the same time is to get out there and survey your potential customers.

In the travel industry that’s easy, because everyone is a potential customer. Why not explore demographic or geographical preferences to gauge who the ideal target market is for the kind of trips your company offers? Then all you have to do is publish your findings in a shareable, accessible medium.

You will quickly become recognised as a trustworthy source of primary data and your backlinks will begin to reflect that.

And it doesn’t always have to be direct. You could explore social media trends or look at travel industry statistics as a whole. Performing research doesn’t necessarily mean sending out surveys and hoping for the best!

8 -Make your content more shareable with name drops

Most people love to show off. It’s human nature. Which is why when you mention someone online in a positive light – whether that’s an individual or a business – they tend to respond.

That natural instinct translates well into SEO. If there’s a particular piece of content out there that you think your readers will find interesting or valuable, don’t be afraid to mention it or link to it.

As well as boosting your SEO by providing relevant external links, you can create posts on social media, tag the companies or individuals that you’ve referenced and watch as they go on to share your material.

A common format for this type of thing is Top X type articles.

For example, if you, as a travel company, put together a feature on the Top 10 places to get travel industry news, you can then share that article while tagging the sites you’ve mentioned. Watch as the backlinks come in.

In a way, this goes back to building relationships. Interact with other companies in the space and you will soon become a point of reference.

9 – Old school link reclamation

Newsflash: The internet is not a perfect place.

Some sites are old and broken. Some links don’t work anymore because they point to sites which are old and broken. And some companies and individuals have gone ahead and mentioned you without providing a link for their readers. How rude.

The solution to all of these issues is good, old fashioned link reclamation. This can often be a tedious business, scouring the web for broken and missing links that could instead be pointing to your company website.

But there are some new tools that help speed up the process, including LinkClump and Buzzstream. In fact, for more information on link reclamation than we could possibly hope to provide in this post, check out this fantastic guide from Moz.

One easy thing you can do before starting any sort of link reclamation process is this: If your startup is starting to build a name for itself, consider setting up a Google Alert. This will ping you an email whenever people are talking about you online.

Then, all you have to do is check if they included a link in their article. If they didn’t, drop them an email and ask nicely for a backlink. Chances are they won’t protest, as they were kind enough to write about you in the first place.

But they might need a bit of persuading. Time is money after all. So try to entice them by sending a link to some extra content on your site that’s relevant in some way to the original mention. Or send them some cookies. Either way.

The good thing about link reclamation in the travel industry is the sheer amount of travel writing and related blogs out there. Search for long enough and you will be able to build a huge collection of potential leads.

Just make sure the links you seek to reclaim are relevant to your travel niche. Spam will get you nowhere.

10 – Build a user-generated encyclopedia

We already covered this to a degree in point 6. But here at Travelshift we take the notion of building content worth linking to very seriously indeed. In fact, you could say that user-generated content is the fuel that makes our marketplace software so successful.

Take our Guide to Iceland platform as an example. Since launching in 2014, our Iceland-dedicated travel guide and booking platform has become the go-to source for Iceland tourist information, with millions of visitors every year. In turn this has helped us to build a highly profitable marketplace with explosive growth and fantastic travel products and services.

Sure, it’s all made possible by the solid foundations of clever marketplace software, but the main reason we are where we are is that we’ve encouraged travellers, local guides and vendors to create inspiring content that allows us to compete with (and more importantly, outrank) travel industry giants.

Want to find out more? Contact us today for more information.

travel search terms seo

 

IBM and Travelport want to Revolutionise Corporate Travel With AI

For businesses who regularly send employees away from the office to work with clients or abroad for meetings and conferences, the cost of corporate travel can be significant. Particularly when trips and accommodation are often organised at the last minute, and those tasked with doing so have to source information from a range of different sources.

Travel commerce platform Travelport and technology giant IBM have together launched IBM Travel Manager, an industry-first AI platform designed to help businesses manage corporate travel spend and take the guesswork out of organising travel.   

IBM Watson tracks and manages travel costs

So how does it work?

IBM Travel Manager is operated through IBM Cloud. The platform harnesses IBM’s resident AI, Watson, to intelligently track, manage, predict and analyze travel costs in one place.

In a bold statement, Travelport and IBM claim that their new capability will “fundamentally change how companies manage and optimize their travel programs.”

Annual global business travel spends are expected to hit beyond $1.2 trillion this year according to the Global Business Travel Association. With numbers like that, it’s easy to see what kind of impact a disruptive corporate travel solution could have.

It also means corporate travel managers are always looking for innovative ways to reduce costs.

Currently for businesses to get a full picture of travel patterns, a travel manager might have to sift through data from various travel agencies, cards, expense systems and suppliers. It’s the only realistic way to get a full understanding of spend and compliance.

However, the important part here is that this process usually happens after the fact, from a historical view rather than in real time.

Read more: Gap in the Market Volume 8: Corporate Travel

Using AI to Analyse corporate travel data in real time

The new platform features advanced artificial intelligence that combines cognitive computing with predictive data analytics. IBM says the technology uses “what-if”, hypothetical scenarios with integrated travel and expense data “to help travel management teams, procurement category managers, business units, finance and human resource departments optimize their travel program, control spend and enhance the end-traveler experience.”

In English, that means the new platform uses IBM Watson to gather travel data and cost information from a variety of sources, before analysing the most cost-effective outcome, assessing the bigger picture and making sure corporate travel managers book the right things at the right time.

IBM Travel Manager gives users complete, unified access to previous siloed information. But the real power of this platform potentially comes from the integration of travel data from the Travelport global distribution system (GDS). Together they offer real-time predictive analytics, recommending how adjustments in travel booking behavior patterns can positively impact a company’s travel budget.

“IBM Travel Manager, with Travelport’s data, is unlike any traditional travel spend reporting solution currently available today from travel management companies, suppliers, corporate booking tools or other third parties,” said Fiona Shanley, Travelport’s Chief Customer and Marketing Officer.

Read more: The Trump Effect is Real: US Travel Industry Slump in Numbers

“While other solutions only provide a fragmented historical picture, IBM Travel Manager combines and normalizes data from all key sources, allowing for more robust insights and benchmarking than other reporting solutions.”

“IBM and Travelport are using the power of AI to unlock previously unavailable insights from multiple internal and external data sources. Travel managers can use this information to proactively drive improved supplier negotiations via real time and holistic data, enable budget holders to understand and change spending patterns, and improve travel policy compliance monitoring,” said Elizabeth Pollock, IBM Industry Client Leader for Travel & Transportation.

So how will businesses find working with IBM Travel Manager? So far we know that it will feature “an interactive and intuitive dashboard that offers end-to-end visibility of travel spending, the ability to create alerts and notifications, predictive and pre-defined spending trend analysis, and natural language understanding to analyze text and uncover insights from structured and unstructured data.”

The product is expected to be commercially available to customers around the world through both IBM and Travelport.

Read more: Report Digs into Travel Technology Trends for 2018

Another tech giant enters the travel industry

We’ve written plenty about how Google has been slowly moving into the travel industry. Given the influence the company has over search results and new technologies that are changing the way we travel, from translation services to virtual assistants, the company’s potential impact shouldn’t be underestimated.

IBM’s partnership with Travelport – whose own travel commerce platform provides distribution, technology, payment and other solutions for the global travel and tourism industry – is another example of technology giants moving into the lucrative travel market.

The application of AI – and importantly the reams of data it will have access to through Travelport’s GDS – should give business travel managers more insight than ever before and empower them to make more cost-effective decisions.

There were other announcements in the corporate travel sector this week, including partnerships between a variety of travel management companies, global distribution systems, and airlines. American Express Global Business Travel and Carlson Wagonlit Travel, for example, are teaming up with Sabre and Amadeus on various initiatives.

How Travel Companies Can Adapt to Google’s Increasing Influence

Google: you might have heard of it. The search engine giant, 20 years old this year, has become synonymous with the internet. The company is a household name around the world and even a verb.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact this single company has and continues to have on the travel industry. As consumer behaviour changes and bookings and research increasingly shift online, the gatekeepers hold all the power. Google is the gatekeeper. The door through which the majority of western travellers find their information, discover trips they want to go on and complete bookings.

Read more: Google Steps Up Presence in Online Travel Space

In turn, Google’s dominance has forced travel businesses to adapt. Websites are now tailored to meet Google’s everchanging SEO standards. Entire businesses are designed and adapted to suit Google’s framework and take advantage of its peculiarities.

Google has always indirectly influenced the way travel businesses operate. But things have moved on in the past year or so. The search engine giant has shifted its business model. You know the established drill: Most of Google’s revenue is through ad sales. Companies pay to get listed on Google and target certain search terms; Google charges a small fee each time they get found. There are plenty of businesses out there who bypass organic SEO and are happy to pay for easy traffic.

That translates as follows in the world of travel: Google makes plenty of money from travel companies, from hotels to ride-sharing platforms to OTAs. All have to fight for traffic. All are desperate to be at the top of search results for their chosen keywords and terms.

But now Google is becoming a travel agency too. The reason? Ad fees pale in comparison to referral fees. Platforms such as Skyscanner, Expedia and Kayak all aggregate search results and gain commission from completed purchases. So why shouldn’t Google do the same, particularly when it has control over the flow of traffic?

Read more: Searchmetrics Study: Travel Industry SEO & Ranking Factors

And now it appears as though Google has started to use its muscle when it comes to search results, a development that shouldn’t be of any surprise to travel industry watchers.

Google exerts further control over travel industry search results

According to a recent study from Searchmetrics, travellers searching online for flights, hotel rooms and other related products using Google are now faced with fewer “organic blue links” on the first page or results. Instead, that space is being taken up by the search giant’s own tools and services.

This is significant: the playing field is shifting. Google is using its power as a platform to boost the search returns of its own tools. Inadvertently, this means that travel companies with products to sell are further down the pecking order.

Searchmetrics’ study looked at thousands of U.S.-based queries as part of a wider, cross-vertical analysis. The aim was to find out the extent to which search results are changing as Google introduces more of its own tool and services on search engine results pages (SERPS).

And this is what they found…

On average, 8.8 blue links were shown by Google to travel-related queries, down from the traditional ten. Google-created content shown in SERPS varies between desktop and mobile devices, but overall there is an increasing number of different elements served up instead of travel content, the study found.

Chief technology officer and founder, Marcus Tober, says: “Getting onto Google’s first page for important search terms is a necessary goal for all travel brands, and the universal search elements offer an additional way of appearing there.

“Travel marketers need to understand which universal search integrations commonly appear for the keywords and topics their target customers are searching for and optimize their web content to increase the likelihood that Google will feature it.”

So why is this happening?

Searchmetrics disclosed that Google’s own elements, which include news, maps and the knowledge graph (facts and details about a product or destination) were featured in most travel industry search results.

This is the quantified likelihood of each individual element appearing on page one of a desktop search engine result:

  • Images – 18%
  • Videos – 6%
  • News – 20%
  • Maps – 17%
  • Adwords (top) – 15%
  • Adwords (bottom) – 9%
  • Knowledge graph – 65%

And here are the figures for mobile search results:

  • Images – 15%
  • Videos – 6%
  • News – 16%
  • Maps – 23%
  • Adwords (top) 32%
  • Adwords (bottom) – 7%
  • Knowledge graph – 22%

As we can see, the knowledge graph has become a recurring result for travel queries. The sources of that ‘knowledge’ are going to benefit hugely. So how can you become one?

Well, the study concludes that “As a brand, you need to be sure to have an up to date, active presence on these sites with good quality, relevant information. Information that is well structured, with headings and bullets is more likely to be used. Encourage reviews and ratings as they are often included in a company’s knowledge graph listings.”

But what else can companies do to push up the rankings or hold on to their place on page one?

The Threat of Google

As we’ve seen, it seems as though travel companies should be worried about how Google is displaying search results and the amount of real estate left on the front pages after a query has been plugged in. But are there ways to get around these new challenges and continue to drive traffic through search engines?

Of course there are. And we’ll come to those later. But right now would be a good time to think about some comments from travel industry leaders made at a recent EyeforTravel Europe. In particular, they were discussing the threat and impact of Google.

Attendees on the day were asked: what is the biggest threat to the industry right now?

Clearly, and as we have seen, one of the possible answers was the role of Google. However, it appears as though the rise of Google was way down the list of concerns of some delegates.

That outcome confused keynote speaker, chairman of Rome2Rio and former founder of Viator, Rod Cuthbert, who said: “With Google’s hotel product, they are now allowing hotels to advertise directly, and if a consumer chooses a particular property they can pay using Google Pay. So now they are [also] getting payment data, and they are at the top of funnel”.

In fact, Cuthbert has hopes that the European Commission will eventually get a grasp of Google’s anti-competitive behaviour in the travel industry.

A different view, however, came from Eurail CEO Brenda van Leeuwen who argued for the “need to play smart”. And that may well mean partnering with Google, and others like Skyscanner and Expedia, to put the rail industry on the map.

It might not be fair, but travel firms do need to keep on top of Google’s moves in search. So, if Google announces, as it did earlier this year, that sites which “follow the best practices for mobile-first indexing” will see significantly better results, then brands need to be on the ball.

google travel industry influence

Top Tips to Address Searchmentrics’ Google Research

So we know that the number of organic blue links that Google is placing on page one of travel industry search results has gone down from 10 to an average of 8.8 on mobile and desktop. We also know that the first results page is increasingly dominated by Google’s Knowledge Graphs, as well as images, apps and maps – anything which leads to a higher clickthrough rate for searchers.

So how can travel companies address their own websites and content to meet these shifting requirements?

1. Maps

First up: Maps. The Searchmetrics study found that 23% of travel search results include at least one map on mobile phones and 17% on desktops. More often than not, this map data comes from companies’ Google My Business pages.

So how can your travel business work with that statistic? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Consider creating posts to your website highlighting events or sales periods. Sometimes these show up on Google Maps, and you might generate some leads that way.
  • Get feedback and reviews! If you encourage customers to leave reviews about your travel service, these comments can make it more likely that Google will list your Google My Business page in maps.

2. Images

The most important thing to note here is the presence of images in travel search results. 18% of desktop travel searches include at least one images box. 15%  feature images on mobile.

So what should you do to make the most of this? Obviously, you want your images to be the ones that are featured. Which takes us back to an SEO basic principle: Use high-quality images and ensure that image file names, image titles and alt attributes include words that are relevant to the topics that are being displayed.

Google’s algorithms can’t identify images through pixels, so these references are your travel company’s chance to show how relevant they are to a particular search term.

3. AdWords

The harsh but siple truth about ranking in the top spot on Google is that you get what you pay for, to an extent. That’s why 32% of travel searches on mobiles include at least one AdWords’ ad at the top of the page, compared to 15% on desktops.

So when putting together Google Ad Words campaigns, try to find search terms to bid on that are neither highly competitive or irrelevant. You want words and phrases that suit your audience down to the ground.

After that, it’s a case of always working to improve your landing pages to make them as effective as possible. Aside from those details, you should also obviously have a big focus on coming up for organic search terms.

Holiday Pirates CEO David Armstrong recently shared a few insights at EyeforTravel Europe, as you can watch in the video below.

4. Knowledge Graphs

And now to Knowledge graphs, those pesky things that suddenly appear in 65% of travel search results on desktops, and 22% on mobile. Clearly, these represent an opportunity for travel brands to get right onto the first page of results.

Usually Google takes the information for the graph from sources such as Wikipedia. But the data can also come from an organisation’s own website or Google+ page. If it’s a business that’s been searched for, details from its Google MyBusiness listing, links to social channels and contact information will also be included.

So the obvious thing to do is to keep these updated for your travel business and play the Google game. If you’re hoping to provide the information for a specific knowledge graph, be sure to organise your content in a way that encourages Google to use it.

For example, your website pages should be well structured, with headings and bullet points and easy-to-read content.

5. News results

The last but not least factor you should consider is Google News, which aggregated breaking news stories from numerous sources around the web. When travel terms are searched on Google, the search engine displays news results 20% of the time on desktop and 16% of the time on mobile.

So what’s the message here? Well, getting on the first page of Google doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be killing ti with organic search terms or spending a fortune on Ad Words. Instead, travel businesses also have to realise that there’s an opportunity to be discovered purely through being in the news.

So get involved with travel publications and other news sources that offer travel advice, information and analysis. If you develop a positive relationship with key media players in your chosen niche, you could find your company hitting the first page of Google for your chosen search terms – inadvertently through news articles.

Helping You Build a Content-Driven Travel Marketplace

travel search terms seo

Here at Travelshift we build travel marketplaces that get noticed. Our marketplace software is proven, adaptable and has a bunch of features to help you quickly scale in your chosen niche and compete with the bigger players in no time.

Crucial to that process is our focus on building a content-driven platform. We provide our clients with all the tools they need to become not just a booking platform, but a hub for all things related to their niche: a newsroom, a blog, a social platform, a community of tour operators, local guides and travellers.

This means that you’re quickly building your Google ranking from day one with authentic, community-driven content that perpetuates sales and boosts your SEO.

As we’ve mentioned, Google is stepping further into the travel space and becoming its own OTA of sorts. This means that the competition is fiercer than ever for bookings and research. Particularly when Google could act in future as the gatekeeper to information and bookings.

However, as the large majority of Google’s revenue comes through search, it remains in the company’s interests to provide relevant results to travellers looking for inspiration and opportunities. For that reason, the foundation of Travelshift software – our ability to drive traffic and sales through the power of community building – is here to stay.

Want to find out more about how we can help you set up a travel marketplace in your chosen niche? Contact us today.

 

Why the World Cup is a Unique Travel Industry Event

Ah, the World Cup. It only comes around every 4 years and is always over far too soon. This summer’s tournament is no different, with 32 national teams from around the world heading to Russia to compete in beautiful game’s greatest spectacle.

Like so many international sporting events, the World Cup brings together people and cultures that wouldn’t normally mix. It’s a festival atmosphere that somehow manages to drag everything into the mix. That explains why there are various sponsors from all over the world – including an ‘official beer partner’ – and every conceivable brand is seeking to get involved with the action.

This World Cup’s FIFA Partners include Adidas, Coca-Cola, Gazprom, Hyundai/KIA, Qatar Airways and VISA. But aside from the huge multinationals, individual nations are also looking for ways to boost tourism as a result of the tournament.

Travel Industry Stories From the FIFA World Cup 2018

As we reach the end of the group stage and discover which countries will be facing off in the first knockout rounds, it feels like as good a time as any to look at how travel industry players are making the most of World Cup.

Here are a few examples.

Russia, Obviously

As the host nation, Russia has opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of football fans from all over the world.

In fact, more than 1.5 million foreign tourists are expected to visit Russia during the World Cup, the head of the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism, Oleg Safonov, said.

“We believe that about 1.5 million people will visit us. The figure may be even revised upward,” he said.

Eleven Russian cities are hosting matches throughout the tournament: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk, Rostov-on-Don, Yekaterinburg and Sochi. The host nation hopes that, contrary to Russia’s international reputation, the 2018 FIFA World Cup will have a long-term positive effect on Russia’s tourism industry.

moscow, russia - how is the fifa world cup impacting the travel industry

It’s too early to say what the long-term benefits will be to Russia, but it’s likely that cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg  – currently the main fan hubs – will see increased numbers of tourists following the positive experience of many international visitors. Market research company Euromonitor believes the World Cup could put Russia on the map for more tourists after the tournament ends.

“The number of inbound arrivals in Russia is expected to record a compound annual growth rate of 4 percent by 2022, reaching 37.5 million trips,” Euromonitor’s sports industry manager Alan Rownan said. In fact, Euromonitor forecast a 1.4 percent increase in the number of total arrivals to Russia in 2018.

“However, negative factors, such as lack of mid-tier accommodation facilities, safety concerns, relatively high visiting costs and burdensome visa regulations for non-ticket holders will have an impact on the incoming tourist flows,” said Rownan. “Furthermore, the recent political tension between Russia and UK is also likely to undermine tourist flows from the latter.”

Given the billions of dollars Russia has spent preparing to host the tournament with infrastructure investments, it’s unlikely that those funds will be reimbursed overnight or even within a matter of years. The World Cup is being framed by Putin as a longer-term project to improve facilities in the country, not to mention the international prestige that comes with hosting.

There have been fears that foreigners have been put off making the trip for a variety of reasons. These range from strained diplomatic ties between Russia and the West, to threats of football hooliganism and discrimination against minorities.

But speaking to Skift, Varvara Topolyanskaya, general manager of Australian Russia tour operator Discovery Russia, said the World Cup is a chance for fears and doubts to be eased and reputations to be restored.

Her company is bringing more than 1,000 travellers to the World Cup.  “We’re hoping for a completely different image of the country after people watch the matches on TV,” said Topolyanskaya. “We’re always asking our clients of their first impression of Russia and the number one response we get is that Russian people are so friendly.”

She added: “I think we have a lot of brainwashing right now in the media on what Russia is like, but that’s not what Russia is.”

Beyond the Hosts – A Chance for Smaller Nations to Build a Reputation

One of the best things about the World Cup is the platform it gives smaller nations to make a name for themselves.

At Euro 2016, for example, the Iceland football team captured the imaginations of people around the world – both on the pitch and off it. As well as making it through the group stage and beating England in the last 16, the team’s fans became famous in France for their passionate support.

The easiest way to understand is to watch the video above.

Sure, the ‘ThunderClap’ doesn’t directly make Iceland a more appealing destination. But its popularity says something about the nation to the wider world: that despite being the smallest country in terms of population at the World Cup, it’s going to have its say no matter what.

In fact, according to Bloomberg, Iceland’s tourism industry is expecting its football team to drive further interest in the country’s tourism industry.

Which is handy, because by Icelandic standards the country’s tourism boom has plateaued…

tourism and the world cup

However, the chance to shine on the global stage is an opportunity to bring back some spark. “Iceland is stepping on the big stage this summer,” said Skapti Orn Olafsson, a spokesman for the Icelandic Travel Industry Association, so “we surely have a clear shot on goal to use the attention in a positive way.”
No puns intended, of course.
Yet there is real hope that an injection of footballing interest in Iceland will stretch beyond the smallest nation in the tournament becoming many fans’ second team. It could drive more visitors, too.
On the flip side, it might turn out that the appreciation of the Icelandic krona (it has strengthened by more than 40 percent against the euro since 2009) – one factor thought to be contributing to the slowdown in growth – is a blessing in disguise. Although it has turned Iceland into the most expensive tourist destination in the world and led to Landsbankinn to declare that “the tourism boom is over,” there have been worries about the sustainability of Iceland’s tourism growth.

An Influx of Chinese Tourists

Anyone working in the travel industry will know how lucrative it can be to tap into the Asian markets. Across the continent, there is a real demand for international travel experiences – no more so than in China.

Incredibly for a country whose team hasn’t even made it to this summer’s World Cup Finals, it’s expected that more than 100,000 Chinese tourists will make the trip to Russia.

Interestingly, Russia is becoming a magnet of sorts for Chinese holidaymakers, so it’s no surprise that they are flocking in to watch the football.

According to data released by Trip Advisor, the number of Chinese tourists between January and May increased by 38 percent year on year.  Data collected by Ctrip suggests that, for example, two-leg tours to Moscow and St. Petersburg over the summer have seen a month-on-month increase of over 100 percent. The conclusion: It seems as though the Chinese are coming for the football and making a vacation of it.

And Don’t Forget India

Another football-mad country that failed to qualify for this summer’s tournament is India. According to the India Times, wealthy Indians will be heading to the World Cup in huge numbers, despite a spike in airfares and hotel rates.

According to the piece, the relative proximity of Russia makes it an ideal starting point for a summer trip of famous sporting events, from the World Cup to the Wimbledon Championships.

“We have seen an increase in people travelling to Russia during this period. Airfares and hotel rates have definitely gone up by at least 20% due to increase in demand for the World Cup, but this hasn’t dampened demand,” said Karan Anand, head of relationships at Cox & Kings, one of India’s oldest travel agents.

“We have also seen a 10% increase in last-minute bookings to Russia, and expect this to continue, and even peak closer to the final stages of the tournament.”

The Other Side of the World Cup from a Tourism Perspective

It seems obvious to say but we will say it anyway: If the World Cup is drawing travellers to Russia in huge numbers, surely there are other destinations missing out?

That appears to be the case, at least in the Seychelles.

seychelles tourism hit by weak russian ruble and fifa world cup 2018

The archipelago in the western Indian Ocean is a popular destination for tourists from around the world. Among the country’s most common visitors are Russians. However, the Seychelles has seen just a two percent rise in inbound tourists for the first half of the year. The boss of the Seychelles Tourism Board, Sherin Francis, has said that the figure is below what the country was predicting.

One huge part of that is the fact that the number of Russians coming for the summer has dropped by a huge 18 percent compared to the same period last year. Francis believes that the FIFA World Cup is partly responsible: Many Russians are no doubt staying at home to enjoy the party and choosing to travel around their own country instead.

The value of the Russian ruble has also dropped in recent times, making travel abroad more difficult for the Russian market. Both of these conditions “are not favourable for prompt recovery of this market,” she said.

“Four years ago, we had only one percent increase and this year we see ourselves faced with a similar situation. Russians are travelling within Russia to watch the matches as the event is taking place in their country. We also see other potential visitors from Europe as well as other markets travelling to Russia to support their teams,” said Francis.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. The World Cup is a unique travel industry event that causes some obvious tourism shifts, as well as some unexpected ones.