Understanding Traveler Decision-Making

CMO Lauren Walsh explains what hotel marketers need to know about how travelers make booking decisions.

This article originally appeared in Tnooz on February 7, 2017.

Regardless of industry, it’s frighteningly easy to lose perspective on the role your company plays (or doesn’t) in people’s lives; as marketers, we often have an outsized view of how important our brands are.

While we spend a lot of time and resources thinking about what we want to say and how to say it smartly, we don’t always spend enough time understanding what our customers are trying to do and, more importantly, how they’re going about doing it.

Facts and figures around mobile booking or average return rate are valuable, but they don’t explain the why: why do customers prefer one channel over another? Why are most bookings made by return guests vs. new guests?

These questions can lead to some of the most breakthrough ideas for how to reach people. Understanding how and why a customer makes a decision is the first step to actively influencing those decisions for the better.

In the hospitality industry, understanding decision-making is particularly important. Given the growth of aggregator sites, travellers often evaluate hotel choices without ever reaching a branded experience— meaning, whether or not a traveller picks your property is increasingly out of your hands.

Or is it? It is possible to understand how your customers make booking decisions and, in turn, find new ways to make sure you’re getting in front of them at the right times.

Look at what customers do, not what they say

This may seem obvious, but as most researchers will tell you, what people think they do in a given situation isn’t always what they actually do. It’s important to conduct qualitative research to observe your customers to understand why they make the choices they do.

Begin by picking your pool wisely. It can seem attractive to base strategy on large-scale quantitative research, but the reality is not every traveller will be your ideal guest. Once you have the right people, give them a scenario and watch.

Much has been written on the merits of asking “Why?” again and again, and understanding consumer preferences is no different. The key is to ask that question in different forms, looking at both the emotional factors and the functional ones that go into the choices people make.

Be clear who you want to be and for whom

Many of the biggest hotel brands have made their mark by guaranteeing consistency in the guest experience to appeal to the widest possible base. For less mass-market brands that strive to offer a unique stay, elevating your property’s differentiating factors will be key.

Research shows that when booking, travellers seek out hotels that match the desired trip experience. A traveller looking for a romantic vacation, for example, won’t identify a hotel and then see if a romantic experience can be had there; a hotel will be chosen because it actively facilitates a romantic experience.

This means it’s highly important to understand what experiences your target is seeking, and how that intersects with the type of experience you’re best equipped to provide–then double down on that message.

Variety in the types of experiences travellers want demands that brands know very specifically and tangibly who they are and who their target customer is – trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for mediocrity. Don’t be afraid to appeal to certain mindsets and types of stays, even if it means excluding others.

Meet customers where they decide

Travellers often make booking decisions after only using search-based tools (such as Google, TripAdvisor, Booking.com). This means that a hotel’s own website is less important than ever. Rather than attempting to change how decisions are made, the key is to find ways to improve your own chances of being selected as people are navigating these resources.

Mindshare, time, and smartphone real estate are some of the most scarce and valuable commodities out there, so it’s important to require consumers to do the least amount of work possible to find and evaluate your brand. Given the weight travellers give to search results, page rankings, and peer opinions, identify ways to disseminate your messages across these channels.

Publishing content across social media (owned channels as well as influencer channels), aggregate sites, and third-party content platforms whose audiences dovetail with your own will help increase search relevance, awareness, and a guest’s likelihood of booking with you.

The hospitality industry faces many challenges, from OTAs to Airbnb. The chances hotel brands have to make an impression on a consumer seem fewer and further between.

While hotels long focused on the experience customers have during a stay, the ways consumers are making decisions requires hotels to focus increasingly on the pre- and post-stay experience that will lead to decision-making in your favor.