Watch our video interview with KPMG's Associate Partner, Global Head of Leisure & Hospitality, Will Hawkley, to discuss 2021 travel trends, forecast of what's to come in 2021, consumer buying behaviours and impact to the leadership agenda.
Will Hawkley, Associate Partner, Global Head of Leisure & Hospitality at KPMG
The key trends here include: 1) Focus on the long-term strategy. This allows brands to ensure they can maximise organic performance once out the other side, so that when the search demand tide rises, they're ready to ride the wave. 2) Customer education, using content to inform of the changing travel guidelines and restrictions, with the key message that we're here for you, when the time is right. 3) Technical SEO and longer-term projects which may have been further down the roadmap initially, have often been pushed forward in order to get the house in order, again ready to come out the other side strongly.
Our SEO strategy surprisingly only needed little adjustments compared to CRM and PPC for example. We are focussing on long term gains and doing projects that move the dial, rather than putting too much of our efforts into SEO fads that might be short lived. Covid-19 didn't have an impact on how to do SEO right, if anything it made us focus more on the bigger picture. The most prominent change is probably the kind of content we need. Here we had to shift gears early on from a pure destination focus to more in-tune travel safety mode. We also had to take on a newsroom mentality for the ever-changing, sometimes hourly, travel advice.
Strangely the pandemic has allowed the time to refine and solidify our strategy whilst removing some of the day to day pressures. In many respects there is a greater degree of focus and understanding of how SEO will help the business achieve its goals in 2021 and beyond.
We have managed to loosely stick to our usual seasonal structure in terms of SEO content, but have dialled up the focus on domestic travel content and virtual activities. Like everyone at the moment probably, every time we make a plan it changes ona dime, so we have had to reforecast and adapt. The main themes have been an increased focus on domestic leisure. B2B marketing has been pared right down and that will probably be the case for most of 2021, depending on appetites and restrictions in different countries.
The onset of the pandemic presented an unprecedented challenge for us all, and especially the travel industry: Even with the uncertainty we were optimistic about the potential of HomeToGo’s vertical: vacation rentals had drastically grown in popularity leading up to COVID-19 and we had confidence we would come out of the pandemic even stronger.
In March 2020, we adapted our marketing budgets instantly, pulling back in most paid marketing channels to maintain healthy cost levels. While the world was in lockdown, we took the opportunity to invest further into Product, UX, PR and content. Our core focus as a data-led business allowed us to monitor customer behavior and adapt immediately, especially true in terms of how we understand SEO.
With COVID-19 accelerating the mainstreaming of alternative accommodations, we took the opportunity to share HomeToGo’s story in press. We saw an uplift in brand awareness as we drove press coverage and links via data-led campaigns leveraging HomeToGo’s internal search and booking data. This built trust with customers as we were able to inform them about best availability, cheapest price and inspiring, rural destinations throughout the summer.
For SEO onsite work, we focused on reviewing our inventory of landing pages in regards to changes in (domestic) demand and building out covid-related content and meta elements to improve conversion. This included inspirational elements and messaging related to a free-cancellation filter which has been developed during the pandemic, offering flexibility for the most in-demand destinations.
Since April 2020, we have either paused or did very little marketing activities. It was very hard to justify any paid activities during the pandemic due to the following reasons; bookings numbers were very low, we were not sure how many of the bookings will get cancelled due to many reasons and most of the staff was on furlough for the majority of the time. We kept updating the technical side of on-page SEO but stopped all PR and content activities.
Our SEO strategy has become even more important during the COVID pandemic, as we’ve minimised other marketing activities. When demand for travel subsided in March and April last year, we focused on improving technical aspects of Weather2Travel.com.
SEO during the pandemic has become a balance of being strategic (working toward the future), but also being quickly reactive to updated guidelines and restrictions.
It's positive to see in many cases SEO was already being treated very seriously at a board level. However with a reduction in paid search spend common across the sector, organic search has become even more important to attract awareness traffic and to be front of mind for when people are ready to travel again.
In a time when spending on PPC is not a guarantee for bookings and revenue, organic traffic has an even bigger chance to shine. Just recently we presented how SEO works to the entire company, explaining how the different departments can interact with us and find synergies. So we really saw more interest and engagement, but also concern about SEO being able to soften the blow of reduced-spending in PPC.
SEO has always been seen as a highly important channel for TravelSupermarket so from many perspectives nothing has directly changed as a result of Covid-19. However as mentioned previously a greater degree of clarity around our longer term strategy has emerged as a fortunate product of the pandemic.
At the moment any positive news is good news, and while we are working with very uncertain budgets, any area we are able to make a difference has been welcome. One thing we have taken advantage of is cleaning up metadata and any areas of the site/ad copy that are less than perfect in terms of keywords.
At HomeToGo, organic search marketing has always been at the center of our marketing strategy and has been a core driver of HomeToGo’s success story.
COVID-19 has only strengthened that relevance and organic search is championed internally as a large contributor of our traffic. We continuously aim to identify and scale organic traffic sources in order to fuel our paid marketing initiatives.
Going forward I can see more shift toward SEO as we could see the reward of the SEO work, we will be shifting budget from Paid to Organic.
In SEO, we’re more interested than ever in location listings management, and have focused our gaze, Sauron-like, into optimising and correcting these internationally.
Organic search marketing is still at the centre of our business, however, we have looked to expand the core products and markets that we are looking to promote. Traditionally we identified our brand as a foreign holiday product, as few people looked to UK holidays for great weather.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed people's habits and domestic travel throughout the world has grown in popularity. To meet this demand we've partnered with travel brands in the UK and expanded into international domestic markets as well.
In addition, we targeted associated e-commerce products such as travel related books, gifts and experiences.
Covid-19 is yet another reminder that even the best plans can be interrupted. I remember the fall out from the volcanic eruption causing travel distruption a few years back, but this has been a bigger beast to deal with.
Within travel, there is an opportunity to take advantage of current demand for future travel, which may be further in the distance than would typically be sold online. Even where flight schedules don't exist yet, there is still an opportunity for micro conversions and for users to sign up for news on future bookings.
It's no surprise that given such a tough time for the travel sector budgets have been hit. Many have needed to go down to a lean team with reduced external (agency / software tool) support, and cautious with spend.
The travel industry has been hard hit by this pandemic and our team made its contribution to keeping a healthy balance of spending vs returns. There are things an SEO can’t operate efficiently without and some others that are nice-to-haves. Honestly, it was a good exercise for me to question the use of each tool, platform and service we acquired throughout the years and make a cut.
Reduced – we are timing our return to activities and paid search very carefully in each location.
Overall, our spending has slightly increased. We shifted investments into areas where we saw immediate upside, for example launching a TV campaign for Germany to promote summer travel. We jumped on a moment when the world was talking about vacation rentals as a travel option, yet our competition was staying quiet.
We also invested in new destination content and tools that helped us gain additional insights to further scale SEO success and maximise our team’s time.
We have reduced our investment in SEO during the pandemic but we will be increasing our effort on Organic activities once we are back to some sort of normalities.
We have reviewed our SEO budget, alongside many other areas of our business, to ensure our workflows are running as efficiently as they can be, and that we are prioritising tasks that drive revenue. As a result, we have seen the pace, energy and collaboration across different teams increase exponentially as we move to improve our search visibility in time for when the world starts to move freely again.
We've looked to minimise costs across the business to ride out the pandemic, however, we’ve had to maintain a baseline of investment in SEO. Budgets for SEO are lower than previous but probably at a higher percentage of the marketing spend overall.
Initially prices are expected to remain relatively unchanged and although you need trust that it is the right time to travel, confidence is expected to return quickly once restrictions are lifted. Especially if as expected there's a rollout of vaccine passports (such as BA's app to record if you've had the jab). That said, a return to normality won't be instant. In our interview with KPMG, Will Hawkley predicted 1) domestic travel to return first with 2) European travel likely to wait until late summer. Phase 3) would be Long-haul destinations, which could take until 2022, and 4) business travel to then return afterwards.
I think we are all poised for that final go-ahead, not just the travel industry but people too. We have worked hard in the background to offer more of the holidays best suited for each possible stage of a post-lockdown world. We can offer more staycations, better alternatives to hotels, like villas or camping sites as well as clever recommendations and inspiration for that first post-covid trip. We also made our systems more stable and able to handle large amounts of traffic and bookings - just in case everyone books Benidorm the minute Boris gives his announcement 🙂
With the quick vaccination rollout, the UK market will be an early indicator for the recovery of our other European markets. Learning what works and what doesn't very quickly, will be crucial for success.
As we have seen during the multiple lockdowns and government announcements over the last 12 months, the market is incredibly changeable. Clear and up to date travel advice messaging has been difficult to achieve given the UK governments ever evolving strategies and policies surrounding the pandemic. The psychological impacts on people not being able to travel have been well documented and the sentiment among many I'm sure is a certain desperation to enjoy a holiday in any shape or form. Thus when travel is permitted I believe we will continue to see a frenetic pace of trading change
Personally I believe prices will stay similar to pre-pandemic levels as everyone is in the same boat, bar some enticing re-opening offers. I think there will be an increased focus on site optimisation and targeted marketing, as after a year of traffic with no conversions everyone is aware of exactly where their customers are based and what they’ve been looking at. I think there will be an increased focus on exclusive and impressive experiences (similar to post-recession) as while some consumers will be looking to just go anywhere, fast, others will have had a year of imagining their dream trip and will want to make it happen.
The 2020 rebound after the first lockdown has shown that the travel industry is very resilient. Some segments like business travel, air travel and cruises are likely to take much longer to recover than for example, vacation rentals, but the urge to get out and explore the world is unbroken.
In order to speed up pandemic recovery, airlines, hotels and cruise lines might offer substantial discounts and flexible booking options hoping to regain trust with their customers and secure early bookings. Industry surveys suggest that some travellers might catch-up on their lost experiences after the pandemic by booking longer and more expensive trips, favored by higher household savings.
This surge in demand might on the other hand lead to an increase in consumer prices in the top destinations as the 2020 summer travel period has shown. Recommending alternatives such as off the beaten path, rural destination trips should be in each company’s Marketing repertoire.
Travel did well as you can see most of the company changed their product offering and almost every company started to offer flexible product, which meant the customers could cancel or amend their booking without any extra cast. Most of the companies also offered refund where possible for existing bookings but overall it was not great for travel YOY bookings numbers were down up to 98% for many months.
We expect leisure travel to bounce back quickly once international holidays become accessible and the demand for domestic travel continues to run at high levels. We've already seen an immediate improvement since the government announced the roadmap out of lockdown.
With sensitivity (highlighting quieter resorts, escapes and destinations) and also helping nervous travellers to feel confident booking to more typical destinations. Having multiple price points for booking flexibility may also be a good option to avoid the cancellation issues faced by would-be travellers in 2020 and early 2021.
It's difficult to predict a long-term view at this stage. Most travellers will likely have to accept what they can get to a certain extent this year, before longer-haul destinations before more of an option. The focus on seasonality and changing wants/needs makes a lot of sense, but it really does feel like a case of reacting to the destinations / holiday types as they start to open up (with the expected pent up demand) and then watching/listening to the customers buying behaviours beyond this.
As I see it, it makes sense to move to a customer journey based more on wants and needs (seasons, events, type of trip) rather than dates and room type alone, so travel websites will become ever-more personalised and sophisticated in terms of the content that is served, and the way different users enter a journey funnel. I don't see the price-checking element of booking travel changing any time soon, but I do see the industry responding with ever-more innovative ways to make this easier for users.
Today, travellers have a wealth of different touchpoints with multiple brands, marketing channels and various forms of content to research and book their next trip. The journey is incredibly fragmented, non-linear and happens on multiple devices at the same time. Google and the competition is only one swipe or click away and customer’s expectations are constantly rising for the must-see destination, best rental recommendations and competitive prices.
Brands that want to become the one-stop for travellers need to account for this abundance of content. At HomeToGo, we think hard about how to best accommodate our customers’ rising expectations when it comes to inspiration, research and booking in an environment of growing complexity, aiming at offering the best content in every stage of the funnel. Just good content won't be good enough anymore.
Having a scalable tech foundation to adapt content to the various touchpoints of the user journey is key.
As a business we have to adapt, there will be a lot of new products on the market to match customer behaviour. Looking ahead we could see the emerging pattern in last-minute booking as it will be challenging to plan far ahead.
We have seen an increasing number of customers favour a travel experience that provides them with greater flexibility (as a result of constantly changing restrictions), greater control and convenience as the pandemic has progressed. This in turn has led to organisations accelerating their plans to digitise parts of the customer journey that cause unnecessary paperwork, increased contact points and wait times. Customer can now get to where they want to safer and quicker thanks to innovations like Avis’s digital check-in; this would have taken quite a lot longer without a brewing pandemic focusing minds.
It’s difficult to know how the customer journey will change long-term. The pent up demand for travelling right now will eventually subside but the need to travel will never go away. It is likely that customers will look to travel differently and those brands that can shape those changes will benefit - in the same way that Uber and Airbnb were able to identify and fill a need some years ago.
Domestic trips are clearly expected to be the first to return over international travel. With more rural destinations, rather than city breaks being the likely choice of destination. Longer-term remains to be seen based upon safety, vaccination rollouts in destination countries and the impact on the economic climate are still unclear.
You could say we saw a lastminute.com trend - lookers turning to bookers just before their departure date. People do their research early, so as soon as the go-ahead is given, they were snapping up the flights and hotels they wanted. Pent-up demand could see people splashing out on dream holidays - our searches show people are really dreaming of exotic locations, like the Maldives in lockdown. However practically, - Greece, Spain, France are likely to be favourites as they are familiar and you can come back home more easily.
At the moment - safety and trust are paramount over price - and this will probably last - worldwide vaccine rollout permitting for 2021. People are also looking for flexible booking terms (although for hotels this can be an issue of course).
Whether people stay as glued to social media as they have been remains to be seen, but I do think that hyper-awareness of certain issues like data protection, environmental concerns and unnecessary spending will linger in both B2B and B2C. In the UK with Brexit added into the mix, it will be interesting to see if there is a reduction in travel between UK and EU countries, with people who have either settled somewhere to live and work rather than flying back and forth for work or to see family.
HomeToGo recently published a study on travel trends in 2021. While COVID won't go away in 2021, we believe there are a few trends crystallizing at the moment that are here to stay:
The vacation rental segment’s growth will be persistent. We believe the category has a tailwind due to the increase of individual travel, the wish to experience a destination like a local and the increased safety and cleanliness.
Domestic trips reign over international travel. Destinations within driving-distance currently allow the most flexibility when planning a trip. International travel will come back, but due to the varying COVID-related travel regulations this segment will take longer to recover. Given the ease of driving to nearby destinations with your whole family, this trend is likely to persist.
Customers seek more rural destinations than urban trips. City getaways will come back as a segment, eventually. At the moment, an increase in flexible work from home policies and ‘workcation’ escapes in favor of regional travel.
We also see that customers increasingly demand more flexible cancellation options and more robust cleanliness and safety protocols. This not only means we have to work with our partners on the right technical implementation, but also on how to best communicate in the form of onsite product experience and marketing messaging.
Overall, the pandemic has shown how data-based storytelling and targeted onsite improvements are more important than ever in order to prioritise initiatives according to external factors and drive maximum business impact.
A lot of last-minute bookings and the days of the non-flex travel products are behind us for some time.
The short term trends seem to be around bigger bookings whether this is multi-generational travel, longer stays (including blended work and holidays) and upgraded products such as higher grade hotels, room types and airline classes.
However, the shadow of pandemic is likely to loom over us for some years. A recession would bring holiday prices into focus with consumers looking for the cheapest deals, while travel companies look to maximise revenue to claw back their losses.
The travel industry is still expecting consumers to embrace a more authentic experience, with a tailored local approach including sustainability at its core. However, this will take a while to make it into the mainstream. There is certainly an opportunity for travel tech platforms to match this evolution in customer behaviour.
This interactive table and chart displays the data for 200 different brand domains in the travel sector. Use the drop down category menu below to see how domains in industry sub-categories compare. The interactive chart displays the 10 brand domains with the highest or lowest visibility (overall or by 'Month on Month' or 'Year by Year' difference) across the past 52 weeks. Click on the arrow next to each column heading to view the data in descending or ascending order.
Click domains in the key to show/hide them
Data for the Top 200 Travel SEO League Table has been provided by SISTRIX. The SISTRIX Visibility Index is a value for the visibility of a domain in Google's search results and how the domain has developed with Google. The effects of Google updates on the rankings are also shown in the Visibility Index.
Watch our Travel SEO webinar where we discussed how the data for the top 200 domains was collected and categorised, followed by a panel with Hannah Butcher (Re:signal), Tahir Liaqat (APH), Felix Welckenbach (HomeToGo), Colin Carter (Weather2Travel.com), Rob Kingdom (TravelSupermarket.com) and hosted by Kevin Gibbons (Re:signal).