Competing Successfully With OTAs

Richard Earls, Travel Research Online

Limiting myths are the stories we tell ourselves to justify a timid approach to building our travel practices. Most limiting myths have a small truth somewhere in their origin that over time takes on a far greater importance than their reality suggests. By examining these myths, you can greatly diminish their influence in your travel practice. Here’s a limiting myth we will tackle: “You cannot compete with the big online travel agencies.

This limiting myth is not true. In fact, the online travel agencies (OTAs) cannot compete with you! But only if you play to your strengths. Let’s see how.

My father once told me “Never play the other man’s game.” Smart marketers build their efforts around inherent specialties and strengths. If you try to compete with the OTAs playing by their rules and imitating their tactics, you will quickly find yourself out-matched. So don’t do that. Instead, compete with the online travel agencies using your own set of tactics geared to and fueled by your own strengths.

Take the time today to go to Travelocity or Priceline and look at the site with a critical, professional eye. By their very nature, OTAs specialize in price. Their sites are built around booking engines and the concept of “lowest price.” Practically every message on the Travelocity site is dedicated to a pricing issue. In order to do so, the online giants must deal in commodity travel. For the client that is absolutely sure of what they want, Travelocity has an answer.

The high volume, low margin strength of the OTA however, is also its weakness.

The fact is, most clients do not know exactly what they want.

Most clients have questions and special circumstances and needs. Consumers need your help. They don’t want exactly what Travelocity offers, or they don’t know the value of one hotel over another. That is your strength. Don’t compete on price. Instead, compete on accessibility, compete on customization, compete on attention to individual needs and detail. That’s where Travelocity cannot compete with you. You can provide a host of services the large OTAs cannot begin to provide consumers.

But if your website imitates Travelocityyour strengths are hidden and you fall into a wrong-headed marketing trap.

Compare Travelocity with a travel agent site featuring mostly supplier specials, perhaps a booking engine as well. Maybe your own site has a booking engine and a lot of supplier promotions. If so, you have wandered into Travelocity’s venue and you are playing their game: price. You are allowing your strengths, personal service and relationships, to go by the wayside and be diminished by emphasizing price.

Do this experiment and see how comfortable you truly are with an emphasis on supplier content:

Search “river cruises” on your supplier search engine. Choose a cruise at random. Now do what a consumer would do with all of the information on your website about that particular cruise: Google it. Chances are you will come up with dozens of listings promising the “lowest price.”

The client who bounces off of your website to Google will never be back to speak with you. If you set the consumer up to think first and foremost about price, you have ceded a big part of your competitive advantage from the outset. As a travel professional, your emphasis should be on relationships, on specialties and services offered. Holding out hundreds of “specials” does not serve you well. Test out those specials on your website and see where they lead to in a Google search: ouch. 

So what is a travel professional to do?

Your website should focus on you and your agents, on relationships, individuals and attention to detail. Focus on value instead of price. Get rid of that “search engine” and the “booking engine.” Take the fight to your turf and you can win. Your website should encourage a call or an email to begin a relationship based on trust in your expertise, not supplier specials.

When you can properly relate your value to a client, when you align your website marketing with your true strengths, the online travel agencies will be worrying about competing with you.

Richard Earls is the Publisher of Travel Research Online, an online travel industry resource dedicated to enhancing the professional lives of travel agents.





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