Group travel has fallen behind when it comes to online shopping. While not known as early adopters, it is fair to say that we have slipped further behind than usual when it comes to the use of the web to drive consumers to buy from us.
Much of this is a byproduct of technology that hasn’t allowed us to execute the way we want, while part of it comes from an antiquated view of what our websites should do for us.
The chart below shows just how far behind we are from our industry cohorts. So let’s discuss each in some detail.
|Comparative dates/times/ inventory||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|Online terms agreements||X||X||X||X||X||X|
At the dawn of the internet, there were “contact us” websites, basically virtual listings of how to get hold of the company you were interested in. Then, that moved to “brochure” sites, virtual advertisements that showcased what the company did, how they did it, and the tools they used to do it. These were fancy, digital brochures designed to influence buyers to want to work with the company.
The next evolution became the ability online to “do.” That is, to move from what they have learned to take the next step of actually doing a deal of some sort. From buying a car to booking a hotel, buyers want to be able to say “yes, that is the one I want” and click a few buttons and buy it.
The data gathering step has also changed. What used to be huge sites designed to deliver tons of information have shifted to pages designed to give everything someone needs to make a decision in a few seconds. This includes photos, videos, social proof, and more, all organized for speed.
For many in the group transportation space, their sites stalled at the “online brochure” stage and have yet to evolve further.
Instant Online Pricing
Imagine, if you will, how you would feel if, when trying to book a hotel for an upcoming weekend away, you went to a website, found the room at the hotel you wanted to book, and then had to submit your data to that company and wait an indeterminate amount of time for someone to send you back a quote, that you then had to send back to tell them that you wanted the room, and wait again to see if they actually still had availability of that room on that day.
You are probably thinking what I am thinking … nope.
In the charter industry, we have long hung onto the idea that getting a quote is so challenging that it requires the focused efforts of an experienced salesperson to get it right.
This has left our buyers in the exact scenario mentioned above. Frustrating and behind the times.
Sometimes when I book a vacation, I try to do it on a budget. One of the ways that I am able to do this is to shop for days when things are less expensive and play with what I am looking to bring the cost down.
For example, when shopping for a cruise, what month I go, what port I leave from, what type of cabin I book, and what excursions I want to take can make a HUGE impact on the total cost. The best part is that I can do it all in a few minutes online. I can tweak all the parameters and get exactly what I want before I commit to booking. Even if I am daydreaming and trying to budget, I can do it all and never have to talk to a person or wait for a price.
Because of how the motorcoach industry has held on to our legacy quoting process, all of this is put on our sales teams to quote, update, requote, and on and on as we work to give our buyers what they want.
We often think of comparative shopping in terms of comparing our product/service with others. But there is a more powerful type of this when we enable technology to let buyers compare our own products against themselves.
Think in terms of rental cars. If you go to a website like Enterprise Rent-A-Car, you can compare the cost of vehicles based on your dates and locations, all within the Enterprise brand.
You can quickly see the difference between a full-size, mid-size, compact, and SUV. You can see what happens if you move the dates or the pickup location, and you can make an informed buying decision.
In group travel, much like the calendar pricing above, this falls to salespeople to manage, and if you are like most companies, when someone starts down this comparison type of shopping, they feel like a never-ending time suck and often get pushed to the back of the list, never to be communicated with again.
This one is pretty obvious. If you look at every category on that chart above, it’s easy to see that you can book anything that you want except a charter bus. We have all booked tickets and made reservations and hardly given it a second thought because that is the standard we are accustomed to. That is, unless someone wants to reserve a bus. Then the game changes.
Send an email, and wait for a response. Ask for the booking, get a confirmation that the booking is actually available, sign a document and email it back that you understand the terms and conditions, pay a deposit via check, and then you have a booking.
I don’t have to say much to highlight just how different things are for our industry vs. the rest.
Part of online bookings is inline payments. This means that as part of the buying process online, you paid online. Legacy software providers have danced around this for some time in terms of a backend process. That is where you provide a link to someone once the booking is completed for them to pay a deposit or to pay their balance. But while this is an “online” process, it is not “inline.”
When you book an airline ticket, you pay, and then your booking is made. The same goes for booking hotels, train tickets, rental cars, Ubers and the rest.
There are a number of reasons that this is the case. The first is ease and conditioning. It just makes sense – I want it, I click the button, I pay.
The second is there is no time like “right now” to get someone to pay if they are shopping. I am far more likely to pay for my burger when I am hungry than when I am not. If I capture the payment and finish a deal at the time of initial interest, the chances of a sale go up exponentially compared to trying to land a “follow-up” based sale.
This has been hard for the group travel market to put into practice.
We just changed our dates for our vacation and confirmed that my in-laws are indeed going to come with us – I need to change the hotel and the rental car. So I pop into the apps, make the changes, see what it does to my total cost, book an extra room and swap to a bigger car, make decisions, pay any change fees, and bang… done in a few minutes.
My soccer team was just informed that the tournament was delayed a day and that the venue was moved 75 miles away. I have to change the booking with my charter company. Well, buckle up. We’re talking phone calls (multiple), new contracts, change confirmations etc., etc., etc. Sum it all up… not a few minutes.
Putting customers in charge of changes, additions and revisions just make sense for companies whose sales teams need to find more time in the day.
Online terms agreements
There is a little checkbox on the bottom of about anything we buy online. It says something like “continuing with this purchase means you agree with our terms and conditions” or “I understand and agree with your terms and conditions.”
Most of the time, we don’t even notice it, but what it equates to is a legally binding agreement between the buyer and the seller – no less effective than a 30-page initialed and signed document, faxed, emailed or digitally signed.
The method of delivery of contracts, terms and conditions in the group travel industry is not only antiquated, but it’s also downright silly. “Innovators” are pushing to move from asking someone to download and print a document, sign it, scan it and fax or email it back, to the newer version of that same process that requires someone to go to a website like DocuSign and digitally jump through those same hoops. All while our industry peers are pre-checking a little box at the bottom of some step along the way to a purchase that does the same thing.
Some will say, “I need the person to know what we are asking of them,” and I agree. There are two types of language in these agreements. One is the legalese that we put there because our lawyers told us to; the other is things we really need you to know, like our cancellation policy. It’s better for us both that you know now rather than deal with the issues not knowing will bring up later.
But our friends in other industries have already dealt with this as well. For example, book an airline ticket since June 2020 and you see that you have to specifically agree to wear a mask while onboard and that you won’t travel if you feel sick. Legally, they could have buried that in the mountain of a “terms and conditions” page, but they needed you to know what they have to say, so they called it out and made you check a couple of extra, not pre-checked, boxes. That’s right, they didn’t ask me to sign and fax, just check a couple more boxes.
So what’s next?
We talk a lot as an industry about why we get left behind, why we are not at the table more often when it comes to conversations about the future of travel, rulemaking, and being a part of the long-term solution to the big problems facing us as a planet.
While I am not suggesting that the reason this is happening is that we are asking people to fax us documents, what I am suggesting is that these types of behaviors are indicators that we are not facing the future with open arms but rather holding on to the “way it has always been.”
Technology is changing, and there are tech tools that are leading the way to put more checks in the boxes that will drive a wider acceptance of our services through a better, more familiar, and complete online shopping experience.
Chris Riddell is CEO of The Bus Network, a United Motorcoach Association member. The firm provides tech solutions SalesDriver and OpsDriver for the group transportation industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.