The Future of Travel-Planning Apps

Travel-planning apps promise endless information to help us execute the perfect trip. Yet, our research shows us that these apps haven’t yet reached their fullest potential. How can destinations make the most out of their apps? The answer might be as simple as developing trust and personalization.

Every year brings new, cutting-edge technological advancements. As many of us know by now, smartphones are reliable and capable tools to assist with day-to-day tasks and provide a plethora of knowledge. It feels like technology is always one step ahead of us, keeping us connected and organized.

But according to our recent The State of the American Traveler survey, technology isn’t always the preferred source of knowledge used when it concerns travel planning. The report, published every quarter, asks a representative sample of 2,000 American leisure travelers about their travel plans for the upcoming year. The Spring 2019 findings show a notable decrease in American traveler’s use of apps to plan their trips compared to Spring 2018.

The most drastic difference compared to Spring 2018 is the decrease in use of company-specific hotel apps. There was a 13 percent drop in usage among travelers between Spring 2018 and 2019. Additionally, while a solid 60.0 percent of American leisure travelers used an online travel agency last year, this year the corresponding figure has sharply dropped to 52.0 percent. Similarly, only 44.0 percent of travelers report using online recommendations such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, or Trippy compared to 47.1 percent one year earlier. Airline and last-minute travel detail hotel apps both decreased somewhat as well.

 

Three apps did, however, appear to be on the rise. Weather apps increased in Spring 2019 from 25.5 percent in 2018 to 29.7 percent. Travel logistics and management apps increased from 8.4 percent in 2018 to 12.3 percent. Lastly, language translation apps increased to 7.6 percent, which is up from 5.5 percent one year ago.

So, why is this? Naturally, travelers want to feel a certain level of trust familiarity when receiving recommendations to plan their trips. As seen in the graph below, face-to-face interactions with relatives and friends score high in frequent use and assert the highest level of trust. But when travelers observe friends and family over social media to glean travel advice, both use and trustworthiness decrease.

 

Word of mouth is clearly the dominant travel-planning source, because leisure travelers value face-to-face interactions when receiving travel advice and use it to plan their trips more frequently. It makes sense: why would you take advice from a stranger through a screen when you could take that of a family member’s, who is more likely to know your idea of a perfect vacation?

Travel apps have the potential to provide greater variety and quantity of information compared to the knowledge and experience of a fellow traveler, there is no doubt about that. Recommendation Apps such as TripAdvisor and Yelp offer a plethora of honest opinions from real-life travelers. Travelers clearly appreciate the quantity of information travel apps provide, but maybe these applications haven’t yet reached their potential to include what travelers would consider a “quality” recommendation.

So, how can travel marketers generate the same level of trust as word of mouth? Providing user-generated content on the app or website, such as photos and videos of the traveler’s experience, could increase trust beyond a recommendation they write. Another idea is having filter options that allow the user to “customize” their ideal vacation experience and then receive recommendations based on their results. If destination marketing organizations and travel brands could incorporate the relatability and personalization of word of mouth, while maintaining the quick, accessible plethora of information that is appealing about travel-planning apps, it could have a significant impact on the future of travel planning.

Let’s Talk Image SEO

Search engine optimization for websites is now commonplace among companies, but image SEO isn’t as widely practiced and holds potential for unique user engagement. Whether images of your destination are used by travelers for in-market planning or merely travel inspiration, ensuring that these images are optimized across search engines is vital to destination exposure and capturing interest of the traveler.

When I was young, my family and I would sit around the dinner table contemplating where our next family vacation spot would be if money weren’t a factor. These conversations launched my sister’s year-long campaign to plan a trip to Bora Bora. At least once a week, she would whip out her smartphone and scroll through photos of tropical, Bora Bora beaches on her Instagram feed, stream videos of Bora Bora snorkeling adventures, and search photos of Bora Bora sunsets on Google. It was relentless, but quite effective and did spark some interest from my parents thanks to the quantity and variety of photos my sister found online.

Fast forward to now, and my sister’s travel planning methods are not far off from the average American leisure traveler, according to our The State of The American Traveler study. The study (a report on which is published every quarter—go here to subscribe), asks a representative sample of 2,000 American leisure travelers about their travel plans for the upcoming year. In the most recent survey, we asked travelers if they use their mobile phones to find inspiration and ideas for where to travel for leisure, and unsurprisingly, 61% of travelers reported using their mobile devices to, at the very least, find travel inspiration.

 

 

Mobile phones provide access to many types of information, such as DMO, hotel, and airfare booking websites. This information was clearly valued by travelers in our study, as the most common approach to find travel inspiration was a search engine for a general web search (69.8%). But the second largest percentage was a search engine for images or photos (39.4%). I found this interesting and it got me thinking: can image SEO help DMOs influence travelers beyond the reach of website SEO?

 

Image SEO is becoming more popular as companies realize the power of a photo. An article published in November 2018 by RedJavelin Communications gives tips on how to optimize image SEO. These tips include making the image certain dimensions so it is device-friendly and giving the image a thoughtful name so that it will appear in a search with relevant keywords. The article cites a study (see below for data) done by Jumpshot in September 2018, identifying the top SEOs used in the United States. Google Images emerged as a significant SEO (21.03%), supporting the data above from The State of The American Traveler.

 

It isn’t new news that when users see an image and text together, it is stored in memory for longer. Images not only broaden the type of user engagement but strengthen the chance that your destination will be remembered for the next potential vacation spot. And the exploration of the destination doesn’t end once the traveler sees the photo: Google Images provides a “visit” button on the righthand side of the photo, creating a new channel into your website.

Additionally, as seen on the chart above, using social media intentionally to create more photo exposure is another SEO method to consider. Travelers can like, share, and send images they find on Facebook or Twitter, for example, of your destination with a simple click of a button. The likelihood that your images will appear on these platforms increases with the frequency that you post. And as professionals in marketing know, including a photo with the information you post increases the likelihood of user engagement.

Image SEO is clearly an emerging tool to consider when trying to reach more travelers. Ensuring that images of your destination are easily accessible on the web not only offers a new channel to your website, but these images can then circulate through social media and increase visibility. When I finally land on a beach in Bora Bora, it’ll be image SEO that I thank.