The use of virtual reality in the physical arena for tour operators

The world is constantly changing and over the last decade, there was the shift from offline to online communication channels and information sources. This affected all economic sectors, as well as the tourism industry. Where travel agencies played the most important role in travel planning process for decades, the Internet took this role and businesses had to adapt their business strategies. Besides Internet, social media started to play an incredibly influential role in the daily life of people and also in their travel planning process. But how can tour operators constantly change their business and marketing strategies to stay up to date with the latest trends and to keep in touch with their customers? That question has been answered very well by the D-RT Group BV, to which D-reizen, VakantieXperts and the Thomas Cook Travel Shops belong to. They implemented the latest trend of Virtual Reality (VR) within the physical arena like in stores and on travel trade shows.

As we all know, virtual reality gives you the opportunity to experience something without actual being there. This technology could be applicable to all sectors and industries, so does it for travel and tourism. When looking to the customer journey, people use all types of information channels to get inspired for their next holiday and to learn more about a destination. One of the trends in travel and tourism was the decrease of the importance of the physical arena. People could access all information at home and in case they would have a question, they could use the chat function on the website or throw their question on social media and someone would come up with the answer. This is still the case and the use of mobile devices and social media will only increase the coming years. However, people also seek new experiences and want have as much information as possible about their next holiday. With the development of virtual reality, a new information and marketing channel has been established, but at this moment, the majority of the customers does not have access to VR equipment and could not have to complete VR experience (Oates, 2016). They do have the possibility to watch 360-degree/3D videos on their mobile or desktop device, but that does not have the same level of involvement as a VR experience would have. This because of the fact that VR really immerse the customers in the experience and a higher level of engagement could be reached between travel brands and consumers as Greg Oates (2016) says. Therefore, tour operators should take the lack of accessibility for the consumers as a chance to offer something unique in the physical arena and to engage customers on another level than they are used to.

According to Boswijk (2011, as cited in Peelen & Beltman, 2013), it is essential to create unique, personal and memorable touchpoints during all stages of the customer journey to engage people with your brand. Especially during the first stage of the process, or the I-want-to-go-away moments as it is called in the customer journey 2.0, it is important to engage potential customers with your brand. Offering the chance to have a virtual reality tour at your preferred destination already, creates these unique and memorable touchpoints. Thomas Cook was the first tour operator using VR in stores. The idea of “try before you buy” gives people the opportunity to ‘visit’ New York already and to make a helicopter tour over Manhattan or to take a boat tour around the Statue of Liberty while they are just standing in the store in their hometown (Elbers, 2015; VRwereld, 2016; Woollaston, 2014). Even though Thomas Cook started using VR two years ago already in the United Kingdom and Belgium, it is still not a widely spread trend. Only this year, D-reizen was the first tour operator in the Netherlands using VR on the Vakantiebeurs in Utrecht. This suggests that there is still plenty of room for all tour operators to jump into this trend and to engage customers on the next level. For now, the challenge is to increase the awareness of virtual reality for both the consumers and the tourism businesses and to make it more common to use this promising technique.

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Elbers, L. (6 February, 2015). Belgen gaan aan de slag met virtual reality bril in Neckermann winkels. Retrieved on October 6, 2016 from http://www.travelnext.nl/belgen-gaan-aan-de-slag-met-virtual-reality-bril-neckermann-winkels.html

Oates, G. (6 July, 2016). Travel Brands Experiment With Virtual Reality as Consumer Adoption Lags. Retrieved on October 6, 2016 from https://skift.com/2016/07/06/travel-brands-experiment-with-virtual-reality-as-consumer-adoption-lags/

Peelen, E. & Beltman, R. (2013). Chapter 15, Multichannel management. In E. Peelen, & R. Beltman, Customer Relationship Management (Vol. 5, pp. 253 – 276). United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited.

VRwereld (31 August, 2016). Virtual Reality in de reisbranche. Retrieved on October 6, 2016 from http://www.vrwereld.nl/virtual-reality-in-de-reisbranche/

Woollaston, V. (28 November, 2014). Try before you FLY: Travel agent uses virtual reality to let holidaymakers explore their dream destinations. Retrieved on October 6, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2852928/Try-FLY-Travel-agent-uses-virtual-reality-let-holidaymakers-explore-dream-destinations.html

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The importance of social listening for tour operators to get a better understanding of your customers

There is no need to say that the use of Internet and social media has increased incredibly fast and have become one of the most important aspects of people’s life. With an average time spent online of six hours per day in 2014, it is an undeniable fact that Internet plays a major role in every day life. About 30% of the time online, is spent on social networks, like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Besides that, another 15% of the online time is spent on micro-blogging, like Twitter (Mander, 2015). When taking Facebook as the example, the reason for using this social network has changed over the years as well. Where Facebook first functioned as a platform to share your personal activities with friends, it has changed in to a new online environment for businesses as well. Companies increasingly use the online network for marketing purposes and clients use it as an online service desk at the same time. In terms of customer engagement, it is important to have a high level of interaction online and to get to know your customers in a different way. This could be achieved by applying the theory of social listening.

As customer engagement is all about building relationships with your customers it is extremely important to know your customer and to know what the best way would be for approaching them. To get the complete customer profile and to build intensive relationships, it is important to know the customer not only as just a “buyer” of your product, but also as a person and to understand the context he or she is living in (Peelen & Beltman, 2013). As Gerard Wolfs explains in the book of Peelen and Beltman (p. 202, 2013), the key of building a relationship with your customer is to get to know the story behind the event or purchase. Understanding why a customer bought a particular product is more important than just the fact that he or she just bought that product. There should be a balance between the objective data, such as the demographical, monetary and frequency statistics and the subjective data that explains the emotional elements of the purchase. This emotional intelligence becomes more important than just the statistics itself and the only way to understand these subjective aspects is by listening to your customers.

Social listening relates to using social media to listen to your customers and collect the subjective type of data. This for the reason that customers share a lot of personal information on these platforms. At the moment a company shares a post, people start to react and ‘tag’ friends and a high level of interaction takes place on the Facebook page. As social listening is about monitoring and analyzing these digital conversations, it is important to follow this interaction and to get involved in these conversations to be able to get a better understanding (Griffith, 2016). For the tour operating industry, social listening is very important as well as your goal is to improve the customer profiles for marketing purposes. An example of a company that has a high level of interaction on social media is the Dutch travel company SRPRS.ME. Every time they post something on Facebook, they provoke reactions and comments from potential customers. People start talking about where they would like to go, with whom they would like to go and in some cases even when they could go on holiday. All this personal information is valuable for the company, in terms of getting to know your customer in a different way than just from a ‘buyer’ perspective. When people tag a friend and say: “Let’s go on a broke holiday in October”, SPRS.ME can use this information for personalized marketing. This is the key of social listening and therefor extremely important in the modern society with the increasing use of social media.

Another tour operator that definitely listens to its customers is Footprint Travel. The interaction on their Facebook page is not specifically high, but they actively reply to comments of their clients. Besides gathering data of their clients, they also try to make them aware of alternative products and take the opportunity of social interaction for commercial goals, but all in a friendly way.

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Source: Footprint Travel Facebook (29 September, 2016).

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Griffith, G. (September, 2016). Get to know customers better by monitoring social media sentiment. Retrieved on 28th September, 2016 from http://raconteur.net/business/get-to-know-customers-better-by-monitoring-social-media-sentiment

Mander, J. (January, 2015). Daily time spent on social networks rises to 1.72 hours. Retrieved on 28th September, 2016 from https://www.globalwebindex.net/blog/daily-time-spent-on-social-networks-rises-to-1-72-hours

Peelen, E. & Beltman, R. (2013). Chapter 5, Customer Knowledge Strategy. In E. Peelen, & R. Beltman, Customer Relationship Management (Vol. 2, pp. 93 – 116). United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited.

The position of tour operators in the first stage of the customer journey 2.0

The customer journey is a well-known model used to understand and explain the customer experience from the beginning till the end. As mentioned by Peelen and Beltman (2013), Boswijk (2011) explained, the customer journey describes the sequence of contacts between the customer and the organization. There are so-called touch-points, which are the moments that actual contact takes place. In terms of customer engagement management, it is extremely important that you engage your customers during these touch points of the customer with your company. Only a few years ago, Google came with “The Five Stages of Travel”, including the dreaming, planning, booking, experiencing and sharing phase of the customer journey of travelers. However, due to the increased use of mobile devices and changed customer behavior, the traditional customer journey is almost outdated already and it is time to understand the customer journey 2.0 from now on (Gevelber & Heckmann, 2015).

First of all, due to all technological development and the massive increase in use of mobile devices during the decision making process of travelers, the customer behavior has changed and has resulted in a new customer journey; the customer journey 2.0. As Gevelber and Heckmann (2015) state, mobile web conversion rates for travel sites have grown 88% over the last few years, which explains the absolutely need for tour operators and other players in the tourism industry to react to this development. Besides that, the customer behavior in general has changed very quick over the last few years. People want to live in the moment and to get the most out of everything. This in combination with the possibility to get all answers right on the spot on your mobile device, has resulted in a society that lives on so-called micro-moments. These micro-moments are an intent-rich moment when someone acts on a need (Gevelber & Heckmanm, 2015). In travel, these micro-moments are the I-want-to-get-away moments, I-want-to-make-a-plan moments, I-want-to-book-it moments and the I-want-to-explore moments.

This trend of living in the moment, has definitely resulted in a changed decision making process of the customers. To start with the I-want-to-get-away moment, the majority of the potential customers – about seventy percent – searches for information on their smartphone, but just to look for the most relevant information on that moment (Think with Google, 2016). In the earliest stage of the customer journey, it could be said that customers are not loyal to any brand at that moment. This is exactly the moment that tour operators should ask for attention of every single potential customer. In case of tour operators, it is important to understand that the customers are still in the orientation phase of the whole customer journey. This means that the majority did not make a decision about the destination and specific tour operator yet and people are looking for inspiration. This is exactly the moment for tour operators to engage with new customer and to impress the potential customers (Think with Google, 2016).

But what is the best way to engage people during this early stage of the decision making process? As mentioned before, people want to be inspired and are looking for help to make the best decision for their next trip. For the reason that more than half of all searches for possible destinations are done on mobile devices, it is extremely important to be visible online and to be in the top search results on online search engines and to be sure your website is responsive on mobile devices. Most of the searches are geography or type of trip based, so it is important to provide detailed and useful information about all destinations as well as theming different types of trips on your website. It is essential to combine this information with visuals such as images and video. This because people want to get an idea about what to expect at a certain destination and what you can offer as a tour operator. TUI is doing well with these type of videos and visuals. One of their latest campaigns is the “50 shades of …”-videos. These short videos show what a certain destination has to offer and the interaction on their Facebook page is significantly higher when new videos are uploaded than when just an offer is published.

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Source: TUI Facebook page (29 September, 2016)

Another way of engaging customers is by publishing vlogs, created by your own customers. A vlog of people who when on a honeymoon to the Dominican Republic for example could engage a specific target group with potential new customers. People who are looking for a honeymoon will be triggered at that moment and they get an answer to their need of information at that moment. When making the content as personal and recognizable for the customer as possible, the more they will feel engaged with your company and it will be more likely that they will stay with you during the following steps in the customer journey. Also during the next phases, engagement and creating touch points with the customer is essential in order to keep them attached to your company. Overall, to be there and to be useful in the online environment, with the special focus on mobile devices, is the most important aspect of creating engagement in the customer journey 2.0.

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Peelen, E. & Beltman, R. (2013). Chapter 5, Customer Knowledge Strategy. In E. Peelen, & R. Beltman, Customer Relationship Management (Vol. 4, pp. 201 – 250). United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited.

Think with Google (July 2016). How Micro-Moments Are Reshaping the Travel Customer Journey. Retrieved from https://think.storage.googleapis.com/docs/micro-moments-reshaping-travel-customer-journey-b.pdf

Gevelber, L. & Heckmann, O. (November 2015). Travel Trends: 4 Mobile Moments Changing the Customer Journey. Retrieved from https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/travel-trends-4-mobile-moments-changing-consumer-journey.html

Understanding the idea of 1:1 marketing for tour operators

The key principle of customer engagement is to engage and involve people as individuals to your company (Marketo, 2015). Customers expect extremely personalized communication and do not want to be one of the thousands of people who receive the same offers and special deals. In order to be able to personalize your marketing strategy, you will need all details about the clients purchase history and preferences as well as the relation with your company. Based on this data, the identity of the clients becomes clear and a customer profile could be created. However, more data is needed in order to make the marketing even more personal and to enroll the 1:1 marketing strategies (Peelen & Beltman, 2013; Marketo, 2015). One way of doing so, is to understand the context-based events of your customers. What are they planning to do and which events will result in a potential purchase? Tour operators absolutely need the use of these customer profiles in combination with the context-based events in order to market the perfect holiday on an individual and personal level.

Knowing your customer is essential for customer engagement. To get to know the customer, specific data should be collected in order to make the so-called customer profiles. In previous blogs and literature has been explained how a customer profile should be created and which steps one should take to create the best profiles with valuable customer information. But why is it so important to unravel the identity of the customer and to use the customer profiles as the fundament for the marketing strategies? Knowing the customer makes it possible to tailor the marketing strategy and to approach the customer on an individual level, which in called 1:1 marketing according to Marketo (2015). However, in order to be able to tailor the marketing, it is also important to understand the context in which the customer operates. As human behavior is often context-driven, decisions and actions are based on the context in which one is placed (Peelen & Beltman, 2013). To understand this context, it is important to know which events are happening to the customer. According to Peelen and Beltman (2013), events could be defined as “the occurrence of something leading to a change in the situation and needs of the customer”.

In terms of events that can happen to the customers of tour operators, these events are mainly based on the need for holidays. This for example when preparing a wedding, people will look for a honeymoon and they will have specific needs and wants for this event. Another example could be a student who is about to graduate and is looking for a holiday after the exam period. All these specific events that could happen to a customer, are important to understand to be able to apply 1:1 marketing. In this case, Internet plays a significant role for collecting all data and to identify which events take place and when (Peelen & Beltman, 2013). Both websites and social media are the sources to gather the information from. When someone suddenly searches for a city trip to Valencia for example, there might be the chance that this customer is about to book a holiday in the nearby future. Tour operators can adapt their personal marketing strategies based on this information and come up with personal offers and tips for that specific customer. These offers should include all information gathered about the customer, such as the accommodation preferences, activities to do and personal interests. Besides, the preferred travel period could be identified, based on the searches one has done online and the relation to the events of the customer. The preferred travel period could be useful, in order to give the best prices and availability over that specific period, or a discount code valid for that period could be send to the customer. All these specific factors will lead to the best deal for the individual customer and is it most likely that they will book a holiday with your tour operator (Marketo, 2015).

An example of customized marketing on Facebook has been done by several tour operators already. Last week, I looked for the best travel period to the Azores online and the next time I opened Facebook after that, an advertisement from TUI about their trips to the Azores. Another example is from Footprint Travel, who advertised after a search for responsible tour operators. This illustrates how tour operators try to engage potential customers to their brand and products. However, it should be noted that this is not 1:1 marketing, as these advertisements of Facebook are shown to everyone who did similar searches in Google. A tour operator that does apply 1:1 marketing better is Djoser. They send news letters to their customers based on their searches online and offer trips to your searched destinations.

Source: screen shots personal Facebook page, September 2016

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Marketo (2015). The 5 Principles of Engagement Marketing. Retrieved from http://uk.marketo.com/ebooks/elements-of-engagement-marketing

Peelen, E., & Beltman, R. Chapter 5, Customer knowledge strategy. In E. Peelen, & R. Beltman, Customer Relationship Management (Vol. 2, pp. 93 – 116). United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited.