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The Traveler Buying Lifecycle

Today we’re going to take a deep dive into the travel buying journey, or as it’s sometimes called, the travel buying lifecycle. This is a mental process that every traveler goes through when finding, purchasing, anticipating and experiencing travel. Understanding this process can have a tremendous impact on how you create a travel marketing plan for your company.


What’s in this guide?

  • The history of traditional travel marketing
  • What the travel buying journey is and why it matters
  • A video explaining how the travel buying process affects your travel website and marketing
  • A free infographic of the travel buying journey


The problem

There are 282 million Google search results for the term “travel marketing.” Some of them are valuable, yes, but here’s the dirty little secret: most of them are buzzword-laden with little depth or value. For 2-3 generations, the primary focus of travel marketing was relatively simple: create beautiful, glossy brochures around destinations and sell those to clients based on a zip code and a little psychographic information. The rapid scale of digital and mobile changed that somewhat, although not as much as you might think — instead of glossy brochures, it became sleek landing pages and Facebook-friendly photo shares. Some travel agencies and providers dabbled in PPC or other online advertisements, and some experienced great success. Most, though, stick to their traditional guns. And many feel confused and frustrated by how different the ecosystem is these days.


Why confused and frustrated?

There are lots of reasons — the Silent/Boomer generations, who have the most money for leisure travel, are aging out and, post-2008 recession (with the current economy somewhat uncertain), their future travel plans are not rock-solid. Most X’ers, are raising children, so their travel buying model is fairly explicit — and X’ers and millennials, if you’ll allow us a generalization about generations, want to be reached differently: via their phones, via their social channels, and via researching you — not being sold to in a direct mail format.

But here’s where the frustration comes in; Google has encrypted almost all search terms, so if someone arrives at your website, you frequently have no idea where they came from (i.e. what words they Googled to arrive there). You might have Google Analytics on your site (ideally you do), and you might be able to see that 1,181 people came from Facebook last week. That’s great! But it’s also frustrating: you have no idea exactly why they came, or where they are in the travel-buying journey.


The travel-buying journey?

If you’ve been in travel for some time, you’ve likely heard of this in some form or another. Different people throughout the travel industry and travel marketing world will define the stages somewhat differently, but overall it’s a variation on these six core stages someone moves through when considering, then going on, a vacation:

  1. Dreaming
  2. Planning
  3. Booking
  4. Preparing
  5. Traveling
  6. Reflecting


Or, it might demonstrate better like this:

The Travel Buying Lifecycle

Now the confusion becomes even more intense, however. Let’s say someone named “Amy” has visited your site on Facebook. You might know the particular link or photo she clicked to get to your site, so that’s a positive. Maybe she seems interested in the Caribbean. But, you have no idea necessarily if she’s dreaming or preparing. She could be planning — reviewing her different options — or maybe is there to contact you to give feedback about the recent trip you prepared for her.

The great promise of digital was that everything was going to be eminently trackable. That’s often true on the side of the companies themselves (Facebook’s valuation is mostly based on data), but for those of us running businesses and trying to digitize them successfully, it can be confusing and frustrating.


How do we overcome said confusion?

The first step is to understand the six phases above and what people tend to want from each stage of the traveler’s journey. Now, your traveler may have different goals in each stage. But as an example, the goals fall into the following pattern:


Dreaming: A traveler in this phase typically has no idea where they want to go yet. They may not even know they want to travel. Someone in this phase is experiencing the need to get away and want to see what their options are.


Planning: Traveler’s in the planning phase know where they want to go, but don’t have any idea on what to do when they get there. For example, a traveler may want to go to Prague but isn’t sure on what to do or where to visit while they’re there. A traveler in this phase usually wants to gather options and then validate their ideas.


Booking: Traveler’s in the booking phase know where they want to go and what they want to do and are ready to book it. For leads that you’ve helped nurture through the phases, they’ll most likely be willing to book with you but not always. This stage is mostly about price, yes — people want the best value. But they also want to believe they compared the right options and their ultimate selection was validated, and they’re going to get the best value (notice we didn’t mention price.)


Preparing: Obviously, a traveler wants to be prepared — but they also want to know the details of their trip and get excited about it. The prepare phase is often overlooked but an excellent phase of which to take advantage. There’s a lot of documented research showing that the lead-up to a vacation is one of the most enthralling times of a person’s year. Anticipation is half the fun, and your goal here is to be a part of that process and cement the emotional connection.


Traveling: In this phase, the traveler is experiencing the journey. They’re typically discovering How to find the best local options, posting their discoveries on social sites.


Reflecting: In this phase, the traveler is back from the journey and is now reliving the memories. He/she might do this by looking and sharing photos and videos with their friends. They might fill out some reviews for a supplier. Or fill out a feedback form for your services. They also might email people with recommendations.

Also note: a positive “reflecting” stage (“Man, that trip was great!”) often leads directly back into the next “dreaming” stage. Whether you know it, or care or not, this travel buying lifecycle is happening with your clients right now. Remarkable travel companies understand these phases well. They also understand the fears and goals of their travelers during each phase and use it to their advantage.

Here’s a video I’ve pulled from our Atlas Republic Marketing Method Training course to help explain it more detail:



A moment of silence for traditional travel marketing

If you understand the six stages and the needs at each stage, this is the hard truth you next need to understand: the way most travel organizations do content is, admittedly, pretty bad.  It’s always been about the sale, the rates, and the up-sell. There’s content — and often it’s beautiful pictures of expansive vistas. — but there’s no context.

Without context, the content has no value. It’s just a picture with a number near it (“$1499 for three nights!”). In a world with more options than ever before — choice overload or “the paradox of choice” is a very real thing — travelers don’t want to be sold to this way. This is the reason why you may have content but no clicks, Or clicks but no conversions. It’s time for value-add content.


That sounds like a buzzword. What is value-add content?

Let’s use the example of the dreaming stage above. How would you reach a traveler in the dreaming stage?

The answer is; anything that inspires the dreamer to travel. Some ideas include:

  • Overview blog articles (“Reasons to go to the Caribbean in 2017 — and hidden gems there”)
  • Splashy videos on hot destinations (supplier sponsored or self-created)
  • First-person stories of what you, or a client, did while in X-destination
  • Social content, ideally beautiful images of said place
  • Any inspiring travel stories that can be told – tell them.
  • Virtual Reality – immersive experiences will do wonders for selling a real experience or destination

You don’t need to mention price or your deals at this stage. This is just hooking travelers. It’s bringing them into your process. It’s getting them familiar with you and building trust. It’s not about selling them. They won’t be ready for that, and they’ll leave.

What about when a traveler is planning? Use video product tours, specific side-by-side comparisons of a product within a destination you sell frequently or 1-on-1 advisor discussions. In this stage, help them narrow down their choices so they can get ready for the next stage.

In the booking stage, they’re generally eager for offers – specifically offers that provide value. Using emails with the right offer at the right time is what will set you apart. How to do this will be covered in a future report but for now, just know that if you’ve been nurturing the lead through their travel buying journey, you’ll know what they want and how to offer it to them.

To make this easy, we’ve created this handy visual of the travel buying journey and what you should be producing, content-wise, in each of the phases.

traveler's journey infographic


The problem with general is that it’s general

For now, we’ve discussed general goals of travelers in each stage of the travel buying journey. However, those are normalized goals of a traveler in general. What makes this process truly remarkable is understanding YOUR traveler and filling in their specific goals for each phase of the travel buying journey. When you understand their goals, fears, concerns and hopes, you can create content that’s even more efficient at speaking your traveler’s language. That results in getting ranked, getting noticed and, ultimately, adding value and getting paid.

In our next article, we’ll discuss how to understand your traveler with a traveler persona.

Mikiah Fender

Before founding Atlas Republic, I spent eight years working at the luxury travel network, Virtuoso, helping them understand and attract modern luxury travelers. I’ve also helped hundreds of travel agencies, dozens of tour operators, and a handful of small ship cruise lines over the years with their digital advertising, web development, and overall digital strategies. I have a passion for web development, design and making marketing feel less like marketing and more like something people actually find value in.

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