I just finished reading excerpts from Forrester Research’s latest analysis of the U.S traveler’s online travel shopping experience, and to put it simply, the picture this noted market research firm paints is not pretty.  This rather scathing report, Using Digital Channels To Calm The Angry Traveler, essentially calls for travel suppliers, online travel agencies and other intermediaries (like travel affiliate marketers) to stop fiddling with eBusiness while Rome is burning’.

According to Forrester, there is growing dissatisfaction – and disaffection – among U.S. leisure travelers who shop for or buy travel through online channels, and this trend could lead to a considerable number of these shoppers abandoning the Internet for ‘bricks and mortar’ travel agencies.

Forrester estimates that there are 130.3 million online travelers in the U.S., and that these online surfers represent 87% of all travelers.  Henry Harteveldt, Vice President of Travel Research and the study’s principal author, notes that many of these travelers “…feel that they, and their business, are taken for granted by online travel players.”

How disaffected are American travel consumers with online travel sites?  To shed some light on this issue, here’s the gist on several of the most salient statistics from the 18-page report:

  • Consumer satisfaction with online travel shopping appears to be at an all time low; less than half of U.S. leisure travelers (46%) who shop for or buy travel online enjoy the experience today, a 15% drop from 2007
  • A still smaller percentage, 34%, believe the online travel sites present choices clearly and meaningfully, down from 39% a year ago
  • Lastly, and perhaps most ominously for travel affiliates and OTAs, Forrester reports that 26% of these online shoppers would consider turning to a good offline travel agency today, versus 21% in 2008.

“Travelers – both business and leisure – are frustrated, confused, and annoyed,” says Harteveldt, adding that “They’re unhappy with the way the channels they’re asked to use are designed and configured. They’re not sure what they’re actually buying, because travel organizations’ focus on generating revenue has come at the expense of the selling and customer engagement process. And travelers say the service they receive is inadequate.”

To reverse the growing traveler disaffection trend and avoid the real threat of  customer abandonment, Harteveldt recommends that online players such as airlines, hotels, cruise lines, OTAs (and we would add, travel affiliates) must pay more attention to the eBusiness processes and experiences they deliver to their customers.

Additionally, he points out that to “…re-engage travelers, travel eBusiness professionals must recognize that travel eBusiness is comprised of four continuous phases – not isolated, unrelated processes – supported by the five pillars of merchandising, context, engagement, value, and customer appreciation.”

TravelDividends agrees with much of Forrester’s study findings and recommendations; we too, believe that all web-based travel players (whether competing in the supplier-direct or indirect intermediary channel) need to do a much better job in identifying, understanding and delivering on customer needs.

Forrester also points out that the reason travel consumers still use travel agencies today is because those travel consumers know that they can count on travel agents to provide them with terrific customer service, whether that service is required in the trip-planning, en route or post-travel phase of the travel experience. Again, TravelDividends concurs with this assertion, as well as the market research firm’s recommendation that online players should replicate the travel agency industry’s ‘customer care’ program on their websites.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any online travel suppliers, travel affiliates or other online intermediaries that don’t provide similar (if not superior) customer service; rather, it’s the fact that there aren’t a lot of them.  TravelDividends believes that for travel affiliate marketers to not only maintain their place in the travel distribution ecosystem, but to significantly grow it, requires that they work diligently with their supplier partners in assuring that the customers receive the required service levels in all phases of their travel experience.

Do you agree with Forrester’s and TravelDividends‘ conclusions?  If yes, what tactics and strategies do you employ (either as a travel supplier or travel affiliate) to assure that you meet your customers’ needs?   As a travel affiliate, what suggestions do you have for travel suppliers that can help both of you retain customers and build brand loyalty?  Likewise, if you are a travel supplier, what would you recommend to your travel affiliate partners as the key success factors and winning strategies for customer retention?

Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment or by sending an email…and as always, many thanks for your kind participation on this and other blog posts.