For many, the offline and online worlds are poles apart. Yet combining them for your business can produce something that is very much more than a sum of these seemingly disparate parts. In this article, I will look at some examples of companies that are making their bricks and clicks work as hard for them as they possibly can.

Last year, Liberty Travel – one of the largest travel agencies in the US –announced that it intends to accept online bookings for the first time. In some quarters Liberty’s refusal to enter the impersonal, traffic-driven world of online sales has been seen as a commitment to quality. Great service, the argument went, can’t be provided when the customer just fills out a form.

However, at the time President Emma Jupp told Travel Weekly said that this is a blinkered approach. While clients will be able to book online ‘to shop the way they want to shop’, she continued, a newly designed website will look to put them in touch with a dedicated travel adviser ‘at every opportunity’.

“Customers can research on the website and book 24/7 online, by phone, by chatting through the website. But the site will also identify agents who are experts and who can work with the customer and help them complete that transaction.”

There is much that can be learned from this method. And although travel agents may be the most obvious example of a bricks and clicks-ready business, my argument is that these principles can be applied to most businesses in the travel sector.

The ‘now’ factor

Untitled

As Jim McCall, managing director at The Unit – a design and user experience agency that works extensively in the travel sector – says, in today’s online generation, consumers are looking for immediate results.

“They want instant access to the best deals and don’t want to waste time looking for a holiday that no longer exists,” he adds. “Unfortunately, as the travel industry tends to rely on outdated booking engines, this is a common issue.”

“We’ve always prided ourselves on our customer service,” says Matt Davies, director of Direct Ferries and Direct Rail. “The ferries side of the business in particular really benefits from having staff available to answer enquiries. Quite a lot of calls we receive are from people travelling by ferry for the first time, and they want to know exactly what to expect. If we limited our responses to just emails I’d doubt if we’d turn many of these into bookings.”

Another approach has been taken by Destinology, a luxury travel firm that opened its first bricks and mortar store last year, a decade after it was founded as an online-only business.

At the time CEO Dominic Speakman said the store would add to, rather than replace, the services the company offers. “Rather than customers leaving with a brochure and us never seeing them again, they will go away with a quote and we will have their email address so we can continue to market to them,” he continued.

Several months on, Speakman describes the move as a success, mainly as it was not approached as a transition from online to offline retail ‘but a way of complementing both tactics’.

Personalistation

For smaller outfits – such as hotels, bed and breakfasts and so on – directing potential customers on to the phone is often a necessity as they lack quality booking systems, as well as the reputation enjoyed by the bigger brands.

But among the larger firms Liberty’s approach stands out, especially when compared to the ‘please only call us if you really have to’ methods used by companies such as Ryanair. And aside from offering immediacy, expertise and building trust (areas in which O’Leary’s firm could definitely do with improving), it’s also a way of getting consumer feedback that is near impossible when relying on online-only booking processes.

“Companies who focus on implementing new systems to make sure they are communicating with the consumer in real time can see huge improvements in both their online and offline marketing,” says McCall.

For example, he continues, while consumers are increasingly choosing to start their initial holiday research on a mobile device, a high proportion still wish to make the final purchase offline in a travel agency, usually as they feel they can get better deals.

“However, this only works if customers don’t have to repeat themselves. When they walk into an agency, the operator should be able to access previous search information so that they can continue the process rather than stall and repeat.

By syncing offline and online marketing, you can make sure they experience a process of continuity from start to finish.”

Recently, Thompson carried out a direct mail campaign in which customers receive a personalised calendar showing photographs of the location they visited the year before.

“By targeting these customers Thompson is not only gaining invaluable feedback, but also encouraging loyalty to their brand,” McCall continued. “It is difficult to keep a conversation going over 12 months, so it’s a good idea to take advantage of this period and use offline and online marketing to directly communicate with your consumers.”

Touch and go

Interestingly, both Davies and McCall pointed to airlines and airports as businesses that are leading the way with their on-and-offline efforts due to their detailed tracking of individual customer activities.

One outfit that is doing exactly that is Gatwick Airport, which has recently taken the bricks-and-clicks approach one step further with the launch of a personalised website.

“What consumers are expecting in terms of customer experience is highly evolved in 2014, and that’s especially true in the travel sector where customer experience is so highly valued already,” says David Bowen, Product Manager at EPiServer, one of the firms behind the project.

“Gatwick’s website adapts to each user, identifying where customers are going, whether they are researching before visiting the airport, or there looking for information,” he continues. “It changes according to their departure time and suggests the retail experience in the airport that is particularly relevant; for example last minute sunscreen or scarves.”

Given the predicted rise of near field communication (NFC) – an area that has been covered previously in TNOOZ – the potential for systems like this is enormous. Gatwick’s system already allows travellers to see in real time how much time they have before they need to make it to their departure gate, but soon mobile phones with NFC will bring about drastic changes to the airport process, including the end of the boarding pass and reduced check in times.

With all this in mind, the future of the bricks and clicks approach looks very healthy indeed. After all, better customer service, more useful content and smoother travel processes – what’s there not to like?