In this column, I tend to focus my thoughts on content generation for the online travel industry, and usually bridge that with social media and community. It's just something I can't seem to get away from -- and I attribute that mainly to my SEO roots.
Fundamentally, I'm a copywriter and editorialist, not a site architecture specialist like SEW Expert Mark Jackson or a paid search guru like David Szetela, but I have experience starting and running online communities, and the public relations personality in me identifies most with the Link Love crew.
Above all else, though, my experience as an adventure travel journalist keeps me inspired when it comes to the online travel industry. I relish the opportunity to create inspiration among people who know they want to travel, but might not know where they want to go or what they want to do.
I've talked before to some extent about the travel planning cycle, of Inspiration > Research > Planning > Booking, and the variety of different travel Web sites that try to address various points of the travel process. The online travel industry has the benefit of being one of the most mature verticals in the Web today, and because of that, any new entrant has to seriously consider their value proposition and how they fit into the Travel 2.0 space, and remain laser-focused on their core differentiator.
As the OTA's and the meta travel/comparison engines have become so firmly entrenched, the only thing to do is build upon the experience and create added value around the basic layer of content you have. It's no longer enough to just push rates and dates -- publishers must blend together a variety of information, including maps, user reviews, editorial reviews, images, a community platform, sharing widgets and bookmarking tools for trip planning assistance, and direction on the booking process to top it all off.
Know Thy Travel Audience
In the last two months, two solid examples of startups launched public beta sites that can be best defined as a new hybrid model of travel inspiration and research, with an added layer of shopping and rate comparison to bring the consumer to the decision and booking point. The key element in both is focusing on a particular aspect of the travel planning cycle: inspiration.
At Uptake, they've opted to go with a theme-inspired model. Catering their content to some of the most popular sub-cultures in travel, such as girls' getaways, pet-friendly lodging, romantic trips, and family-friendly activities in every destination, you'll click through their site and quickly figure out which category you fall into. You'll also notice that additional themes are grayed out in their beta site, so results sorted by luxury, adventure, and ecotourism are likely coming soon.
As you dig deeper into the themes, you'll find lodging and attractions sorted with the additional layers of content: ratings, reviews, different commentary from travel sources, including their own editorial team, and then the ability to sort by price of course, and to pick a booking partner. As a startup, it also doesn't hurt that they employed a well-known SEO to help develop the site architecture for optimal exposure in the SERPs for research-based keyword phrases.
Over at TravelMuse, they've taken on a slightly different tact. The primary focus of the site is high quality content, with a blend of traditional travel journalism and articles that work especially well in the online and social media space (e.g., Top 10 lists). In almost "magazine" style, but unquestionably in a 2.0 format, publishing a new "issue" weekly with a healthy dose of high-quality photography, the content side of things is well covered, at least in the featured destinations done to date. On top of the editorial content, User-generated content (UGC) plays an enormous role.
In "User-Generated vs. Professional Content: Let's Call it a Draw," CEO Kevin Fliess writes, "A hybrid approach (is) emerging that embraces both professional and amateur content. Professional content on the Web often has a user-generated component to it, whether it's a complementary blog or a user discussion forum."
At TravelMuse, the editorial team creates the foundational content written by experts and journalists, and fact-checks, just as any traditional publication would. Readers then have the ability to rate, comment on the content, and share travel tips, with more UGC features coming.
What really sets TravelMuse apart, however, is the Inspiration Finder, which is new in the sense that you don't need to know where you're going, but rather, what you may think you want to do, and have a general idea of when you want to travel. In addition to your departure airport, you can set other criteria, such as budget, number of travelers, and level of luxury. Select the activities you want to do, such as scuba diving, mountain biking, or skiing (now that's what I'm talking about!) and ask TravelMuse to inspire you. What you'll get in return is a sample of packages that match from its OTA partner, Travelocity.
If you're still in the research phase, you can add the results you like to your personal Trip Planner, knowing of course the packages may change, but it keeps your choices all in one place. And that's not just limited to content you find on TravelMuse. You can bookmark content from any other travel site on the Web, similar to the Gusto Grabber, which enables you to keep all your travel planning ideas in one area. Helpful for those of us who are a disorganized mess.
Is this the new face of online travel planning? Maybe too soon to tell, but I like the way it's looking! Keep making it easier for travelers to engage online, and this mature industry will find a way to keep growing.