Lost – or abandoned travel bookings refer to online travel customers who visit a website, put travel products into a shopping cart then leave the site without confirming and completing the transaction. There’s an abundance of articles written on the issue of abandonment in the travel industry, perhaps because the high incident rate makes the potential for large revenue gains from even slight improvements very attractive. Can a travel agency, tour operator or other travel business take measures to address this issue and improve outcomes? Of course they can. But they should consider whether the best, first step is breathing life back into lost travel bookings - before trying to prevent them in the first place.
Prioritizing abandonment outcomes over prevention probably comes across as puzzling advice because many articles on abandoned travel bookings misinterpret shopping cart data and confuse the issue.
For example, econsultancy.com cites shopping cart abandonment in the travel industry at 81% - compared to 68% for the retail industry in general. This is a large gap, but it’s certainly conceivable a well-executed prevention plan could close it over time. However, these figures make the highly questionable assumption that online travel and general retail visitors create shopping carts at the same rate. If online travel visitors create fewer travel shopping carts and abandon more, the problem is much more severe that the 81%-68% comparison implies.
In fact, that appears to be exactly the case. In a 2014 white paper, Quibit research showed how different travel purchases are from general retail: travel has an online conversion rate of only 0.75% - compared to general retail at 5.29% (7X greater!). On the other hand, the average travel online sale amount was 10X greater than general retail. There’s no question online travel is a very different purchase than online retail and absolute numbers of travel shopping carts abandoned by online customers is much higher than in retail; therefore turning even a fraction of those carts back into sales is the highest and most immediate revenue opportunity.
Resurrecting Abandoned Travel Shopping Carts
The good news is that the sale isn’t lost just because an online customer left a travel agency or tour operator website – because the vast majority of them will. Instead, a customer leaving the website needs to be viewed as just a predictable step in the journey to a sale. It’s also a step that typically leaves a travel agency or tour company with the ability to build a customer profile from the searches they made, types of travel services they browsed, travel dates they picked and content they looked at. There’s an excellent chance they’re a serious customer and now you know a lot about them.
Of course, having that information is of little use if you don’t know how to reach the customer, so acquiring their email address is a critical objective. It’s also a difficult objective: few people readily give up their email addresses – around 85% of customers who abandon a booking are anonymous. To lower that number your website should be able to do two things: 1) offer content whose value justifies surrendering an email address; 2) have a wide range of customized call-to-action pages for that content so follow-up emails will be very relevant and focused on specific customer travel preferences. Once an email is acquired or a cookie is accepted, following these guidelines will increase the likelihood of bringing abandoned carts back to life.
Personalized: As noted, why would a customer view follow-up emails as anything except an unwelcome nuisance unless they brought high value to his continuing customer activity? If that customer left a profile for a trip to Paris in the spring, limited-time offers for Paris travel packages or unique side trips to attractions near Paris would be well worth opening the email. It’s also a good way to make the customer realize how important the company views their business.
Orchestration & Urgency: Emails should be part of an orchestrated campaign for the lost sale and also future travel plans. Don’t waste time! They should begin almost immediately, certainly in an hour or so in case the customer left the site to circle back to check prices or revisit social media and reviews one final time. Then they should be released at varying intervals so the customer won’t feel harassed and build up feelings of annoyance or even hostility. The emails should, of course, be personalized – not just for the customer’s travel preferences but also the time elapsed since the cart was left. If the profile is for a spring trip to Paris, email themes must move on once summer arrives.
Intelligent Recognition: Email links should not only bring a customer back to their pre-abandonment website location, any entered data should be saved and displayed. Few things can be as infuriating as having to enter information a second time. Of course, intelligent recognition of returning customers is very much in a company’s interest as well; by returning to a familiar page and seeing all their information preserved, the customer can immediately complete the abandoned sale or do it with very few additional actions.
Behavioral Re-targeting: Ever wonder why some ads seem to follow you around the Internet? It’s not an accident. Rather than rely on just follow-up emails, companies tag online customers with cookies when they show a level of interest in a product (e.g. a trip to Paris). Banner ads are displayed when those customers visit other websites that meet a certain criteria. This re-targeting approach has two differentiating benefits over recovery emails; the personalized ads are seen beyond the reach of the original website, and it eliminates the necessity for lost customers to open and read the email.
Does this seem like a lot of work for a highly uncertain reward? Keep in mind that software automation will minimize the workload and recovery efforts can raise customer conversion rates from 20% to 30%. With the travel industry experiencing thinner margins and greater competition, recovering lost sales could make a real difference for many travel companies.