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.

 

Welcome to 2019: American Traveler Sentiment Weakens

Complete results from our January The State of the American Traveler survey will be released in February.  As an early sneak peak, this post looks at domestic traveler sentiment and what may be early signs of a softening leisure market.

The new year has started with undertones of considerable uncertainty. While economic indicators had remained strong for much of the past year, talk of a slowdown now is in the wind. Sluggish growth, trade wars, higher interest rates, inverted yield curves, political gridlock and government shutdowns are all part of the conversation. We are currently experiencing what may be early signs of a pessimistic shift in the collective traveler psyche, as our latest sentiment tracking survey point toward a potential weakening of the domestic leisure travel market.

Every quarter, Destination Analysts ask a representative sample of 2,000 American leisure travelers about their travel plans for the upcoming year. In the most recent survey wave, the percent of travelers who said they expect to travel more in the next 12 months decreased. Only 33.4 percent said they would be taking more trips, compared to 37.0 percent one year earlier. As this data typically has a seasonal pattern, comparing past January waves is likely to be the best point of reference. The chart below shows how travel expectations have dipped significantly below performance levels seen in the past two years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This moderate degree of pessimism seen in trip expectations also extends to future travel spending. When asked if they expect to spend more in the upcoming year on leisure travel, only 32.2 percent of American leisure travelers said that they would be beefing up their expenditures. This is down from 36.5 percent one year ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel volume and spending expectations have indeed softened, but potentially more unsettling is a drop in the general sentiment of how important leisure travel is as a budgetary item. Once a year, we ask how much priority travelers intend to place on leisure travel as they allocate their family budgets. At this time last year, nearly two-thirds of American leisure travelers (65.3%) said that leisure travel would be at least a “somewhat high priority.” This year, the corresponding figure has sharply dropped to 59.6 percent. The chart below shows the results from this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, what’s the bottom line? It may be too early to tell. As we move further into 2019, we expect that the domestic leisure market will likely remain robust, however a significant downside potential exists. With uncertainty on so many fronts, we’ll hold our breath and hope for a positive outcome.

Red Tide: DMOs & Ecological catastrophes

Earlier this year, our blog examined a variety of natural disasters through which our clients had unfortunately been suffering. (Read more here)  Of course, we hoped that was the end of it. Our friends in the industry would see no more trouble; or as the great Willie Nelson said, “nothing but blues skies from now on.” Alas, those dreams were shattered this summer when a severe and unusually persistent Red Tide ravaged the south Florida tourism industry.

If you’re not familiar with what a Red Tide is, it’s a real mess. Red Tide is a dangerous accumulation of naturally-occurring microscopic alga that has been documented along Florida’s Gulf Coast since the 1840’s and occurs nearly every year. It can harm sea life as well as cause respiratory inflammation and unpleasant burning skin reactions in humans. A combination that is not good for tourism. This year, an unusually persistent Red Tide — the longest in the area since 2006 — happened along the Florida Gulf Coast. In coastal tourism communities, the impact to the local tourism economy was severe.

If there is any good news in the situation, it’s that only half (49.1%) of American leisure travelers had actually heard of the Red Tide situation prior to taking our most recent The State of the American Traveler survey. (This may be one of the few cases where a destination marketer wants its customers to be in the dark, unfamiliar with its product.) Still, amongst American leisure travelers, the event has had a significant impact on desires to visit.

When asked how the Red Tide would impact their travels in the next 12 months, 40.3 percent said it would make them less likely to visit the Florida Gulf Coast. While a certain percentage seem interested in experiencing this unusual event, they are outnumbered 5 to 1 by those who say they are less likely to visit.

Impact of the 2018 Red Tide
(Effect on Likelihood to Visit the Florida Gulf Coast in the Next Year)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The impression left by this disaster with travelers isn’t good. While it is unclear how this will actually impact travel behavior, let’s hope that people have short memories and that the upcoming year will be a banner one for Florida tourism. As a matter of fact, as we move into the New Year, let’s hope for a 2019 free of the disasters that have recently destroyed the great work being done by our destination marketing community.

California Dreaming

Americans love the great outdoors. Two out of three say experiencing nature (away from urban areas) is usually an important part of their leisure trips. Furthermore, over 40 percent say the idea of taking leisure trips focused primarily on being outdoors and experiencing nature is appealing. With this in mind, we look at which destinations are set to capitalize on this passion in 2019.

No doubt about it—the winter days are upon us. Time to slow down, cozy up and dream of the tropics. What’s that? Humidity’s not for you? Right then—maybe the slopes. Saguaro and desert blooms? Mangroves and mossy trees? Amber waves of grain? Lucky for us, our beautiful country has it all.

If you’re like most Americans, you probably have a pretty good idea of where you’ll go next to soak up the great outdoors. (Forest bathing in the Redwoods, anyone?) But if you’re looking for further inspiration, we’ve got you covered. In our latest The State of the American Traveler survey we posed the following scenario to a nationally-representative sample of leisure travelers. “Imagine a friend wants to take a leisure trip focused primarily on being outdoors and experiencing nature. This friend comes to you for advice and asks where to he or she should go. Which two states would you be most likely to recommend for being outdoors and experiencing nature?”

Here’s a list of the top states. Where would you recommend your friends go in 2019? Will you take your own advice?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wherever your greener pastures lie, take advantage of these extra-long winter nights to conjure the outdoor odyssey of your dreams.

BOT Wars! Alexa vs. Google Home: Which is the top travel planning assistant?

While A.I. bots are far from ubiquitous, their growing presence in American homes is undeniable. According a recent Destination Analysts’ The State of the American Traveler Survey, over 15 percent of travelers report having used such an artificial intelligent assistant device to plan their trips in the past year, up from 13.3% one year ago.  Younger travelers are clearly the most active users of these high-tech assistants.

Q: In the PAST 12 MONTHS, have you used a device like Amazon Echo or Google Home for travel planning?

As our reliance on this technology’s ability to quickly disseminate information and answer burning questions such as, “How tall is Shaq?” increases—it begs the question, what role will these devices play in the travel space? As our industry ponders this greater question, Destination Analysts set out to answer a simpler question: Is Alexa or Google Home the better travel planning assistant?

How we answered the question: In an open forum at this year’s eTourism summit we pitted two travelers against each other; one avid Google Home user and one Alexa advocate. Our participants brought in their own devices and each were tasked with completing three different travel planning assignments: 1. Gather inspiration for a travel destination 2. Find information on a specific destination they wanted to visit and 3. Book travel or accommodations for an upcoming trip. At the end of this fearsome bout, the unequivocal champion was Google Home. Alexa repeatedly failed to provide accurate responses to simple queries, meanwhile Google spouted useful and actionable information without skipping a beat. You can read more about the Battle of the Bots in The Travel Vertical’s article here: https://thetravelvertical.com/2018/10/16/expedia-launches-action-for-google-assistant/

The applications of this new digital medium are continually evolving. As we look to the future it will be interesting to see how marketers take advantage of this platform to get their message in front of these tech conscious consumers. Destination Analysts will be tracking these trends and sharing our findings in later editions of The State of the American Traveler so stay tuned!

America’s Tourism Challenge: The Trump Slump Update

 

Global Tourism is booming. An estimated 1.3 billion persons traveled internationally in the past year, marking a robust 7 percent annual growth rate. However, it’s painfully clear that America hasn’t kept up. Our country has been losing market share, and with it, billions of dollars in tourism revenues. How much does the controversy swirling around Donald Trump contribute to this situation? Our The State of the International Traveler survey sheds some light on the topic. This year’s findings suggest that while the exchange rates and the cost of visiting the U.S. are the most important factors behind our declining market share, our politics matter too. The actions and policies of President Trump, the most visible symbol of our contentious political climate, have clearly played a role in America’s ongoing tourism challenge.

Five years ago, our company decided to launch a research effort to understand and track what international travelers think about America and its many diverse destinations. This survey, conducted at the start of each year, is called The State of the International Traveler. In it, we probe the minds of more than eleven thousand likely international travelers in America’s fourteen largest feeder markets. This study also gives us the opportunity to learn about current social issues, such as the controversial positions and policies of our 45th President.

America’s Tourism Brand in Decline
(% writing in America as one of the destinations they most want to visit this year)

It’s clear that America is facing a challenge. We ask international travelers an unaided question to write in the top three countries they “most want to visit” in the upcoming year. Fortunately, we are still the world’s most popular destination, but our lead is narrowing. Since 2015, the proportion of international travelers reporting that the U.S. is one of their top destination has steadily declined, slipping by 12.4 percent.

Our contentious politics are one part of this problem. Nearly half of all travelers surveyed reported having a worse opinion of the United States based on our political situation, specifically the “actions and policies of President Donald Trump.” When asked how the actions and policies of President Trump has impacted their view of the United States, half (49.8%) said their opinion of our country has worsened to some degree. Offsetting this, about one-in-five (18.1%) said their opinion of us has improved. Shifts in interest in visiting the United States is somewhat less pronounced. About one-third of likely international travelers (35.4%) say they are less interested in visiting due to our President’s actions and policies.

Interestingly, the large overall proportion of travelers reporting they’re less likely to visit (35.4%) masks significant variation between countries. The charts below show that while there are problematic outcomes in much of the world, in India, Brazil and China, the situation is reversed. A larger share of travelers in these countries are “more likely” to visit than “less likely,” indicating President Trump may be a net positive in these markets.

The root cause of the decline in America’s market share is complicated, and politics are only one part of the full picture. The situation bcomes clearer when we look at reasons travelers have decided not to visit the United States. The chart below shows the proportion of all likely international travelers who say each reason keeps them from visiting the U.S. more often.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As expected, the reasons most commonly cited for skipping on a trip to America were financial. The most frequent answer given was that the U.S. is “too expensive,” followed by the closely-related “unfavorable exchange rates.” The strong dollar in recent years has made travel to America costly, and the situation is unlikely to change in the near future. Still, nearly one out of every five (18.2%) likely international travelers say that discomfort with our national politics is keeping them away.

Three Reasons Destination Marketers are Obsessed with China

Among the many intractable challenges DMO marketers face, deciding which traveler types to go after is always top-of-mind.  One thing is clear though: our industry’s keen interest in the relatively nascent Chinese travel market is well-founded.  Not only is the volume of potential visitors from China staggering, Chinese visitors intend to do the one thing that is most desired by destinations–spend a lot of money in market.  Our 2018 The State of the International Traveler survey asked likely international travelers to report what they would expect to spend on a two-week vacation in the U.S.  The chart at the bottom of this post shows the average amount that travelers from each country say they would expect to spend overall, for shopping and for hotels.  Three fun facts about Chinese travelers jump out at us.

  • Chinese travelers have, by far, the largest travel budgets. The typical Chinese traveler would budget $6,362 for two weeks in America, or $454 per day, which far surpasses the closest competitor. The second biggest spending country was Australia at $5,355 for a two-week trip, or $383 per day.
  • One Chinese traveler’s economic impact equals three Canadians. The sheer difference in terms of expected budget for an American vacation between China and other countries is extraordinary.  China’s travel budget gap with other countries is most pronounced when we look at America’s largest contributor of international visitors, Canada.
  • Way outside the norm set by other countries, Chinese travelers would also plan to spend more on shopping than on lodging. The typical Chinese traveler would budget $1,888 for shopping and only $1,271 for lodging in hotels.  This won’t be music to the hotel revenue manager’s ears, as that represents a meager $91.78 per day.  Chinese travelers’ budget for shopping is almost as large as the entire trip budget of Canadian visitors.  It is more than double that of most other countries studied.  When it comes to retail spending around a destination, nobody compares.

Average Expected Travel Budgets: Two Week Vacation in America

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: The State of the International Traveler, 2018, Destination Analysts, Inc. A survey of over 800 likely international leisure travelers in each of 14 of America’s biggest feeder markets.

Safety First: A Key Concern of International Visitors

America may be the most high-profile of countries. What happens here can quickly find its way into the news around the world. Of course, no news travels more quickly than bad news, and America has recently had no shortage of such content. Mass shootings, wildfires, landslides, violent protests, hurricanes (and even now a volcanic eruption in Hawaii) have all punctuated the news cycle this year. Does the American proclivity to deliver sensational headlines keep international travelers away? It seems so, at least to a degree. One in five likely international travelers in America’s top feeder markets say personal safety concerns have kept them from visiting more.

The last few years have seen a substantial increase in overall global travel volume alongside a downward trend in unaided interest in visiting the United States. The latter trend has been measured in our annual international tracking study The State of the International Traveler. In 2017, we saw a -2.9% decrease in the overall number of international travelers writing in “The United States” in an open-ended question asking about destinations that they most wanted to visit in the coming year. Our most recent 2018 wave of the study showed an additional -4.7% drop in that figure. This consistent downward trend in unaided interest in visiting the United States strongly suggests that international travelers are choosing other destinations over the United States when they travel.

In this most recent wave of our international tracking study, we added a question to determine major deterrents to visiting the United States. The top two reasons cited for not visiting the U.S. most often were financial in nature, “too expensive” and “unfavorable exchange rate.” Not too surprising with the strength of the US dollar nowadays. But the third most cited deterrent to visiting was “Concerns about my personal safety.”

Personal safety is a serious concern of many travelers. One-in-five (20.8%) travelers around the world say safety concerns have kept them from visiting the U.S.  Interestingly, when we look at the responses by country, we see that the Asian countries of China, South Korea and Japan are the most likely to report personal safety concerns while traveling in the United States.  Nearly half of Chinese travelers reported this concern, a disturbing result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Safety is also a major consideration when travelers are deciding which specific U.S. destinations to visit. Information about safety was rated overall as the fourth-most important type of information to U.S. destination decisions, following only hotels/lodging, restaurants/food and national parks. Information about safety outranks information about shopping, iconic and historical attractions, entertainment/events and transportation, to name just a few.

Travelers from China, Japan and South Korea were also the most likely to say that online video content would be influential in their travel planning and most importantly in the destination decision. This suggests that there is an opportunity, especially for destinations who are focused on moving the needle on visitation from countries like China, to create more online video content about how safe and welcoming it is here in the United States. Some destinations are already capitalizing on this opportunity. Take the “Everyone is Welcome” video campaign from Discover LA. The Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board reported a substantial increase in visitation from China last year, setting them apart from the downward trend in visitor interest currently seen by the nation as a whole.  You can read more about it here.

Marketing Insight:  Online video content featuring welcoming, safe communities is a win on two counts: it addresses a top-of-mind travel concern, and delivers the message in a popular, preferred channel.

The State of the International Traveler 2018 Quiz

How Well Do You Know International Travelers?

--This Quiz is hard, but give it your best shot!--