At Res-Expo in Dallas last week, nearly every presentation, breakout session and panel focused on marketing strategy. Highlights were: marketing to women who have money; marketing to the 111 million Chinese who do not have credit cards and are not allowed to travel outside their own country; and discussing how airlines and hotel chains are lifting global online group pricing strategies above one-property tactics.

Follow the Money: 45-Year-Old-Women Respond to Emotional Content, not Prices

The big news at Res-Expo was that generational change is rapidly reshaping the Internet travel booking process, and iPod-wearing kids with back packs are not driving the transformation. Jim Donnelly, Vice President of Marketing at IgoUgo explained that the Internet is changing the online shopping behavior of 45 to 50-year-old women. This group is the “sweet spot” for many travel companies because they are the ones with the money and do most of the transient travel buying. Women are natural social networkers; when they are happy with something, they communicate their emotion to other travel-buying women. And while women love a bargain, they are not motivated by purely price-driven online content. Amadeus CEO, Kay Urban, said, “Technology should not be the industry’s focus. Technology is an enabler of ‘something’ that drives travel purchases.” That “something” is the reason people travel. Emotion is that something, and many speakers agreed it is missing from most travel sites.

IgoUgo’s Donnelly said, “It is essential for travel sites to have an emotional sales component. A search on ‘Romantic vacation in Paris’ will give you very frustrating results.” EDS Vice President Mike Hulley pointed out that existing GDS providers are burdened by limited legacy systems, and that their creative thinking is often based on those limitations. “Women and young travelers search on activities, not on hotels and carriers. Most existing sites focus on pricing and location because that is how their linking technology works.” The bottom-line from the Global Travel Distribution panel was that travel distribution partners who want to grow with the changing online market must offer a balance of information on their sites. This includes an ‘emotional component,’ which extends beyond pricing, chain and carrier metrics.

No Credit Cards, Please: China’s Travel Learning Curve is Looming

China was another hot topic at Res-Expo 2006 because of the challenges travel providers experience in accessing that country’s much publicized nouveau riche market. The ‘China problem’ has two major components, attendees were told. First, China has a huge inbound, mainstream tour and travel industry, but very few Chinese are allowed to travel outside the mainland. More importantly to non-Chinese travel companies, credit cards are not accepted inside the bamboo credit-curtain. Continental Airlines’ Senior Director of International Distribution, Planning and eCommerce, Mr. Chris Amenechi, said, “Doing business with Chinese online travel companies is difficult because they do not provide credit card fulfillment, and the travel relationship is not bi-lateral. Very few young professional Chinese are allowed to leave the country. They are early adapters, and they want a fuller travel experience. China will face a steep learning curve surrounding travel very soon.”

Optimize Group Rates: Online Event Bookings Jump 43%

Online group rate optimization was also covered at Res-Expo because of that segment’s 43% increase in online event bookings (Passkey statistics). Manugistics Senior Scientist and Consulting Services Director, Jon Higbie, PhD., explained, “The combination of contractual relationships, the desire for future business, forecasting incidental group revenue and Internet booking cancellations has made group forecasting complex.” Higbie noted vendors like Manugistics are building solutions that addresses these factors “so operators can evaluate all aspects of the group revenue picture accurately to avoid leaving money on the table.”

Res-Expo keynote speaker Don Tapscott, author of Digital Capital and The Naked Corporation, pulled everyone away from their Blackberries by announcing that, when it comes to Internet travel sales, technology is only a tool. While the audience of 500 industry tech professionals was still recovering from that blow, he told them the important part is what companies sell and how they sell it. I would agree with Tapscott and urge you to consider: checking your travel booking site for emotional content; readying your China policy for an eventual opening of the gates; and educating your team about technology that can siphon some of the online booking revenue into your bottom line.