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The Complex Journey to Bookings: How to Leverage the Billboard Effect


Travel shopping is a complex journey. The average shopper spends many days, visits multiple different websites and accesses information on different devices. Every single touch point a travel shopper has with a hotel online impacts bookings. Search, OTAs, and Online Booking: An Expanded Analysis of the Billboard Effect by Chris K. Anderson assistant professor at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration validates this premise and sums up the magnitude of the situation.

The study observed patterns of online consumers who booked rooms on IHG branded websites (holidayinn.com, crowneplaza.com, etc.) over the course of the 60 days leading up to booking.

Here’s what he found:

●      83% of bookers performed a search on a traditional search engine specific to their hotel research (Bing, Yahoo, Google)

●     75% of bookers visited an OTA (Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc.)

●      Of the 75% that visited an OTA only 22% of bookers visited Expedia exclusively

●     2/3 of bookers performed a search AND visited an OTA

During this 60 day period (prior to booking on an IHG branded website) the average consumer…

●      Visited an OTA 12 times

●      Requested 7.5 pages per visit

●      Spent 5 minutes on the site during each visit (or 60 minutes over the course of 60 days)

That’s 90 pages viewed and a total of one hour spent on an OTA.

This data confirms that:

    1. Travel shopping is a non-linear process and is performed in fits and starts.


  1. Consumers use OTAs as research and comparison engines (not just booking engines) throughout their hotel selection process, undoubtedly impacting their booking decisions further down the buying path.

What isn’t addressed in this particular study is consumer behavior on non-transactional sites (meaning sites that do not process bookings directly) prior to booking on brand.com. The question that arises is, did the consumers tracked also visit review sites, travel guides, listing sites, destination sites and social media sites during the 60 day period leading up to their booking on IHG.com?

PhoCusWright data can give us some insight. Non-transactional sites in general account for 33% of all web traffic to travel related sites. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that a percentage of the consumers tracked in Anderson’s study also visited a non-transactional site within the 60 days prior to booking on IHG.com.

What does this mean for hotel marketers? Reaching AND engaging travel shoppers throughout the entire buying cycle is crucial and directly impacts purchase intent. By the very nature of how hotel distribution works, most hotels (particularly if they are part of a global hotel chain) are successfully reaching consumers through their hotel listings, but engagement is another story. Most hotels appear within a glut of sameness and consequently, engagement levels are low

The fundamentals of retail and e-retail, and countless research studies prove that engagement increases with the richness of the visual experience. The longer you can keep consumers engaged with your hotel, the more likely they are to book. The Holy Grail of every marketer should be to obtain higher levels of engagement with consumers at every touch point (isn’t this the fundamental premise of the hospitality industry?).

One way to provide a richer experience to the consumer and increase engagement is with video… and the time to do it is now. Forrester published a report earlier this year Trends 2011: Video Enters Travel eBusiness Prime Time stating that “2011 is the year of video.” In their study, 21% of US online leisure travelers report watching travel-related video (I would suggest this number will grow exponentially as more video content is created and made available to consumers). Consistent with their shopping behavior, online travel shoppers are also watching video on a variety of sites (not just YouTube) as this data shows.

Which sites are getting the bulk of the video views?

●      37% on travel supplier sites

●      34% on online travel agency websites

●      20% on travel review/community sites

●      17% on social networking sites

The Billboard Effect confirms the non-linear and exhaustive path the consumer follows before making hotel accommodation bookings. It also confirms the effectiveness of OTAs in marketing to consumers and educating them on the hotel and what is offered. Data also supports that consumers also consult other non-transactional sources during the process, making them critical marketing engagement channels to leverage as well. To take advantage of this, hotel marketers need to ensure that their hotel is seen in its best light no matter which digital front door the consumer uses to find it and right now, rich visual experience (especially video) go a long way to do that.

For a more in-depth look at how travelers research and compare hotels online, I encourage you to visit our resources section for white papers on the topic.


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