Guest Post: If travel is a social experience, why isn't travel booking social too?

Guest Post: If travel is a social experience, why isn't travel booking social too?

Michael Levinson, co-founder and chief product officer of Joyned, reveals why Friends & Family are the ultimate influencers for the travel industry

As we are well into the second half of 2023, the post-pandemic revival for travel shows no sign of slowing down. With global tourism arrivals set to increase by 30% in 2023, following a growth of 60% in 2022, it is clear that there is no shortage of people wanting to take that long overdue holiday. Booking a trip naturally lends itself to social interaction, be that with friends, family or other ‘influencers’. Yet in many cases, the actual booking process remains a somewhat solitary experience. 

Some forward thinking OTAs are already embracing the core principles of social commerce and seeing a radical impact on both the online travel booking experience and revenue, but for the vast majority, such an approach appears out of reach. 

Social Commerce presents a major opportunity for travel

The idea of social commerce is nothing new - shopping has always been a social decision. People buying a pair of shoes or choosing a car in the 1980s sought the opinions of others including their friends and family. The trouble is that over the years, the term ‘social commerce’ has been pigeonholed as ‘social e-commerce’, and as such has been largely confined to the retail sector. As a result, other sectors, including travel, have been quick to assume it has little relevance to them.

The truth is that social commerce has much to offer a flourishing travel sector, with researchers suggesting that it “represents a major opportunity for a travel industry striving to crack the code of developing direct distribution channels, nurture loyalty, and improve marketing efficiency”.

According to the IMAARC report, the global social commerce market is expected to grow by some 27.9% during 2023-2028. This growth, according to the report, is from 'increasing convenience associated with online shopping websites to facilitate two-way communication.' Whilst we are certainly seeing the grass roots of this within the travel sector, it is lagging behind others in its adoption of social commerce.

Blurred Lines: Social Media and Social Commerce

An understanding of what ‘social’ means in the travel context varies dramatically depending on who you are talking to. There is no denying that social media plays a pivotal role in the modern travel experience. In fact, Phocuswright's 'Under the Influence' report suggests that more than half of all leisure travellers used social media to make travel decisions, with the American Express Global Travel Trends report putting this figure at a staggering 75%.

However, while social media chat-based apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are used to discuss group travel plans, they just don’t go far enough. When considering a group travel booking, people are discussing complex elements and topics along the customer buying journey. These social media apps offer a limited user experience and as a result, create frustration. If you’ve ever been part of a group chat created to organise a trip or event, you've likely experienced this pain for yourself. They cannot facilitate the ‘social decision making’ (and booking) that groups need to be able to make collaboratively and with ease.

True social commerce enables both these things to happen.

Looking beyond the celebrity: the ‘true’ influencers in travel

It is well understood that the real power of social media is its influence. Brands looking to connect with their audiences in a more credible and engaging way turn to influencers. Data from IZEA Research shows that 46% of surveyed consumers claimed they had bought products promoted by influencers. 

But taking the social commerce conversation outside of the realms of the retail sector also means challenging the concept that ‘influencer’ means ‘celebrity’. When looking at the travel booking experience, it turns out that friends and family are the 'real' travel influencers.

When asked which social media accounts travellers browse for inspiration, Phocuswright research found that 55% across all age groups answered their friends and family are, by a significant margin. As they seek unique experiences, they are more willing to trust personal contacts who they know for recommendations, inspiration, or advice.

With friends and family key to driving travel purchases, it is essential for OTAs to provide the optimal conditions for these social interactions to take place.

Creating a ‘Social Booking’ experience

There is no denying that OTAs have a significant role to play in the travel booking process, with Expedia’s Path to Purchase report revealing that OTA websites are the most popular online source used in the 45 days leading up to a travel purchase. 

Over the past 18 months, we have seen first hand how transformative the integration of social commerce can be for early adopters such as OYO Rooms and RIU Hotels. It has helped them to deliver a frictionless experience throughout the entire customer buying journey - from discussion to booking with users benefitting from an enhanced experience. Furthermore, travel sites benefit from conversations taking place on their site, naturally leading to higher conversion rates and the opportunity for sophisticated customer data and sentiment analysis.

This approach not only promotes social travel, but also empowers travel sites in the process, enabling them to utilise secure and encrypted data on sentiment analysis, price perception and mapping of the group booking customer buying journey. This gives them the opportunity to further enrich their offering through making tailored offers and promotions a possibility. By continuing to enhance the social booking experience, OTA’s are able to keep their customers happy, increasing customer loyalty and revenue in the process. 

In summary, it is clear that there is still a blind spot within social commerce conversations, that being the absence of social purchasing decisions. Everyone is talking about social commerce at the top of the funnel, but the need for social interaction only grows as you go down the purchase funnel towards the final booking stage. Purchasing decisions within travel are always going to be social when the biggest influences are friends and family, but if social commerce doesn't embrace the social element at every stage of the booking journey, then the experience will never be as seamless or as enjoyable as it should be.