What's Up in Digital Travel Marketing: Key Findings from the 2015 PhoCusWright Conference

As they do every year the week before Thanksgiving, on November 16-19 the leading minds in digital travel marketing gathered in Hollywood, FL for the PhoCusWright conference. Here are some key takeaways from digital travel’s premier event. (Be sure to read until the end for some prognostications on what this means for email marketing.)

  • Although this year’s “I, Traveler” theme ostensibly focused on the role of mobile, during the conference there was surprisingly little discussion about mobile itself. Everyone seems to have accepted that mobile’s time as a key marketing channel has arrived.
  • With mobile’s importance now firmly established, key themes during the conference were consolidation and what could be called “in-experience merchandising,” or the marketing of tours, activities, and other services to travelers once they have arrived in destination.
  • Consolidation in the travel industry is fairly obvious. On the second day of the conference, Marriott announced its $12.2 billion acquisition of Starwood. Coming on the heels of Expedia’s purchase of Orbitz, Travelocity, and Home Away, and Trip Advisor’s exclusive instant booking partnership with Priceline, it is pretty clear that big travel players are consolidating their control of digital distribution.
  • Many of the start-ups and innovators presenting at PhoCusWright this year are focused on solving what could be the next lucrative frontier in digital travel marketing: selling tours and activities, and providing sticky benefits and functionality, to travelers once they have arrived in destination. It’s likely that it will take some time for leaders in this space to emerge, and it will be interesting to watch. Some of the innovators presented solutions looking for problems, and it wasn’t clear how many of the innovations could result in successful businesses. (Veteran industry analyst Robert Cole provides a great summary of the conference presenters.)
  • Another ripple in the consolidation trend is ongoing questions about where Google is headed as a distributor of travel content and merchandising. Google’s VP of Travel and Shopping, Oliver Heckmann, faced stiff questioning about Google’s new mobile interface for providing enhanced destination information and owning the entire customer experience. Heckmann denied that Google was planning to become an OTA and was at risk of biting the hand that feeds it, or its many travel intermediary clients. Only time will tell what Google’s ultimate role in travel will be, and industry jitters are likely to continue for some time.
  • Although by the fourth day many in the audience were cringing every time they were mentioned, two other buzzwords during the conference were “authenticity” and “personalization.” There is nothing new with either idea, except that today companies have access to better and less expensive technology to customize the customer experiences they offer. One area in which authenticity is particularly important is the vacation rental business. We can expect increased activity in this area in the coming years: in an interview shortly after PhoCusWright, Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he expects that HomeAway will start competing head-to-head with Airbnb and Booking.com for rentals in urban markets.

So what does all this mean for email marketing in travel? 

Well, it seems that—yet again—we are reminded of email’s enduring importance as a direct marketing channel. Amidst all this change and consolidation in the industry, many travel brands—and especially hotels—will need to invest to maintain direct relationships with their best customers. As Charlie Osmond, the CEO (or, as he likes to put it, the “Chief Tease”) of Triptease (a provider of comparison shopping tools for hotels) put it, “direct is best.” The best bet for travel brands is to establish, nurture, and maintain direct relationships with their customers is to drive bookings through their lowest cost channel, their own web site. And an effective email marketing program is still the best way to do that.

There are other interesting findings and lessons from PhoCusWright this year, and if you attended we’d love to hear your feedback and insights. Be sure to check this space for updates too.

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