Comment: Travel brands must build loyalty with existing customers to boost bookings

Ben Snutch, chief customer officer at marketing agency Go Inspire Group, argues travel companies focus too much on finding new customers rather than giving valuable existing bookers reasons to return

Curiously, for an industry built on delivering brilliant experiences, brands in the travel sector seem to focus too much on finding new customers rather than giving valuable existing bookers reasons to return. Just 53% of travel brands use personalised emails, according to Adobe – hardly a shining example of a first-class retention marketing strategy.

All along the customer journey there are opportunities to build bonds with day trippers, city break bookers and holidaymakers to cement relationships and create loyalty. So why do so many of those efforts stay grounded?

Sectors adjacent to travel understand the power of customer retention. We recently launched a retail study among CMOs and others overseeing loyalty at their organisation. By a margin of 55% to 20% they told us they will focus on retaining their existing shoppers in 2023.

The same direction of travel would be a smart move in this sector. Travel brands that focus on building loyalty will lower budgets while enjoying manifest success in filling gaps in bookings.

An end-to-end approach to retention marketing is the way to make that happen:

1) Strategy

Far more could be done by travel and hospitality brands to improve their retention strategies. Cruise lines are a great example of brands that work hard to keep customer loyalty afloat, and their work could be replicated across the industry.

Whether customers are seasonal researchers or frequent flyers keen to get away on a whim, data, analysis and insight is the foundation of retention – but also acquisition.

Data is important not just to create a positive customer experience but also to drive CRM, a key weapon in travel marketers’ armoury. This means leveraging all the data available, from booking systems to social media, to pre-empt customer needs and intervene at relevant touchpoints.

Counting up customers

Here’s an easy exercise many brands overlook that would build efficiency into travel marketing campaigns. Analysing customer data will provide a figure that equates to a proportion of the capacity a brand is trying to fill, allocated purely to repeat bookers – before the business even spends any budget on acquisition.

The remaining space shows a simple total number of customers that would be needed to fill the other slots. In this way, always remembering to make this calculation early to ensure time is set aside for acquisition, strategies can be much more efficient than if brands bank on scattergun acquisition campaigns alone.

Budget won’t be spent twice using paid media to get existing customers to buy.

2) Creative

With invaluable, data-driven audience insight to hand, travel brands can devise eye-catching campaigns that extend existing customers’ experience long after they’ve unpacked from their previous trip.

This is where earlier work on insight really pays dividends. Knowing what persuades the audience to buy makes the creative process much more successful. It’s vital to fill the creative brief with customer knowledge gathered from the data, to target people with inspiring ideas ahead of their next booking.

Tailored messaging is key, with more personalised picks offering cut-through.

3) Execution

Marketing to boost rebooking can be applied through multiple channels, from the unrivalled cut-through of highly targeted door drops and partially addressed mail to digital channels. It’s important to be smart with physical communications. Applying personalised QR codes can provide unquestionable attribution and can drive digital adoption without additional costs associated with other digital methods.

Whether opting for a printed comms approach, such as the tried-and-trusted holiday brochure and other direct mail executions, a print-to-digital customer journey or a digital-first drive, brands must pay attention to analytics and efficiency.

This means:

  • Taking learnings from other channels about what engages and converts customers
  • Having a strategic not tactical approach; why, for example, would brands bid on their own name or target existing customers as part of their PPC strategy?
  • Don’t forget the power of test and learn; analysing how initial test programmes perform and optimising the creative and media strategy accordingly.

With appetites for travel growing again as many of us have been starved of a much-needed break, travel brands have a huge opportunity to make hay.

While global events and a growing cost-of-living crisis continue to challenge the sector, brands that prioritise customer experience will fare better when it comes to improving loyalty, building resilience and future-proofing their businesses.

Of course, a customer retention strategy shouldn’t be seen as a standalone effort; new customers will always be needed to leave no seat, room or cabin empty. But no brand wants to pay twice to target customers who are already on their books.

That means having a clearer view of what makes customer tick and drives loyalty. Loyalty that’s valuable for your brand, as well as for your customers.

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