The State of the American Traveler – The Hyper-Informed Traveler

Director of Research and Online Marketing
Published 3/6/15
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The State of the American Traveler Winter Edition 2015 is out – and in the second part of his two-part blog, Chris Adams looks at 6 further conclusions and takeaways from this major bi annual study – focused around how U.S. travelers use media, including user-generated content, social media and mobile platforms.

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 of this blog post here.

The February 2015 State of the American Traveler reinforces a picture of a travel industry awash with more travel information and content – available from more media, than ever before in the history of the industry. It’s a travel consumer who we have dubbed the "Hyper Informed Traveler." In this media and technology landscape six trends stand out:

1. Mobile is Now Well Into the Mainstream and is Heavily Skewed to Younger Travelers. 37% of U.S. travelers use a smartphone in their trip planning – with a significant majority of these travelers using BOTH a smartphone and tablet (all to compliment a laptop/desktop). However, it is heavily skewed to younger travelers – with 70%-plus of Gen Y travelers using mobile phones in trip planning vs. less than one-quarter of Baby Boomers.

Takeaway: Consider the content decisions for your mobile or responsive website – experiences and information that will appeal to a younger audience. Leverage this content through your social media channels (where usage is also heavily skewed younger and to mobile users). Work hard to integrate social media (where use is also focused around mobile devices) tightly into your website with a focus on powerful imagery and authentic UGC (see below). For more tips, check out the "M Moment – online marketing in a mobile centric world."

2. User-Generated Content Grows in Importance. Highlighting the importance of authenticity and connecting with locals and visitors, more than 50% of survey respondents indicated they used User-Generated Content (UGC; e.g. reviews, ratings, blogs) in their leisure trip planning. This is a fresh high for The State of the American Traveler – and is up from 41% of travelers just two years ago. UGC had plateaued in usage between 2009 – 2013, but with the reach and impact of mobile platforms and apps that make it easier to capture and share content, is having a new lease on life.

Takeaway: Review your overall content strategy – make sure you resource it adequately – including your UGC strategy. Consider how you solicit, present and curate UGC in all its forms from reviews and ratings, to photos, video, editorial such as suggested itineraries or top 10 lists and travel blogs from visitors or locals. Plus make this UGC easy to find and experience on mobile platforms. Marriott and their Marriott Innovations Lab has been a leader in developing fresh, new approaches to content – including UGC. They are also researching mobile options and solutions with MIT.

3. Social Media Passes Its Peak (for Now). Conversely, social media usage seems to have plateaued after years of explosive growth between 2008 and 2013. In the February 2015 edition of The State of the American Traveler, only 37% of leisure travelers indicated they used a social media channel (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) in their trip planning in the last 12 months (down slightly from 44% in January 2014).

Takeaway: The drop in the impact of social media may be related to the change at Facebook (the most important social media) channel to more of a “pay to play” platform, where organic reach has been reduced significantly in the last couple of years. Some DMOs (for example, Louisiana) have minimized this impact by focusing on the inspirational, practical and surprising in their social media activity. Destinations and industry partners need to focus on the quality, not quantity, of posts (which engage fans and get them to share or comment) plus boost or promote their posts as part of their advertising budget. Print publications need to tightly integrate with all digital solutions – and increasingly mobile content and features.

4. Print Usage Remains Strong. 44% of U.S. leisure travelers used print publications in their trip planning process – a usage level that has been above 40% of travelers consistently in almost every six-month report over the last nine-plus years of The State of the American Traveler. One startling stat from the February State of the American Traveler is that consumers who used smartphones to plan their trip were 54% more likely to also access print publications in their travel planning than non-mobile travelers.

Takeaway: Print usage remains solid but the need to evolve print publications remains; for example integrating print publications and mobile solutions as print is heavily used by mobile travelers. This includes cross-promoting and integrating content between print and mobile that is sought by the “Mobile Traveler” including UGC, events, family (kids) content and in-market content of interest to younger Gen Y travelers (nightlife, dining options and unique local cuisine including craft beers, etc).

5. Desktop Remains Critical. A majority of all travelers indicated a strong preference to look at all types of travel content on a desktop PC or laptop – regardless of age or their likelihood to use mobile phones in trip planning. Challenges with screen size and that many sites that are not designed for the mobile platform appear to fuel this preference.

Takeaway: While having a mobile friendly, and ideally a responsive, website is a must, having a site that is immersive and engaging on desktop is also key. The use of hero images, intuitive layout and design that take advantage of this extra real estate is an important part of providing a destination website that is aspirational and inspirational.

6. DMO Sites Need to Grow In-Market Use. Destination websites are well used before and after making a decision on where to travel – but not in the destination itself. Of the 30% of U.S. leisure travelers who cited using a DMO website, 63% used it during the destination decision phase and 47% after deciding on where to go – but only 13% used a DMO site in market.

Takeaway: Firstly, DMOs need to ensure their website’s content is relevant to visitors while in market. Focusing on rich, timely event information, restaurant and dining choices and features such as integrated mapping and directions are all areas where many DMO sites are weak. Secondly, a website that provides a great mobile experience is a must – ideally a responsive website but, as an interim solution, a mobile-specific website can also work. In this area, DMOs can also be slow to move. For example, in late 2014 only around half of all state tourism websites and less than 40% of 236 DMO websites worldwide were responsive (Ryerson University’s “Global Mobile Readiness Index for DMOs”).

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