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How to untangle the "Messy Middle" and win direct bookings

Google research shows the path between initial intent and a purchase can be messy. What does this mean for tour and attraction operators looking to capture direct bookings? If done right, it means opportunity.

Simon van Wyk, 26th Aug 2020

Remember shopping? Back when you could leave your house and go to a store to find something you needed? For some of us that feels like a distant memory right now… particularly the leaving the house part. 

But let’s say you needed new socks in the year 1997. 

You’d head to your preferred department store, sniff out the sock section, and proceed to evaluate their selection on look, feel, and price. Satisfied with a few of your options, you’d head to the checkout counter and, voila, new socks! 

Now imagine that that store has infinite aisles of socks. In fact, there are infinite stores with infinite aisles. That’s the internet. And the path between initial intent and the ultimate purchase of something, the one I described above, is what Google researchers call the "Messy Middle" of online shopping. 

In fact, it’s so messy that it’s more like a maze than a path. In the tours and attractions business, that maze — which lasts weeks and takes travelers from inspiration to actually booking a tour or activity — is particularly long and winding. 

A person's level of interest and action dips in and out. They bounce from site to site, exploring and evaluating options, then exploring and evaluating some more before ultimately making a booking. It’s, as Google says, a mess. 

The opportunity in the “Messy Middle”

So, what does this prolonged messy middle of exploring and evaluating mean for tour and attraction operators looking to capture direct bookings? If done right, it means opportunity. 

The tour operators who successfully navigate this maze will transition from a reliance on OTAs to a more profitable, sustainable direct model that captures a travelers’ interest early in the process, and sticks with them as they research and dream until they are ready to book.

It may sound easier said than done. But it's possible, and tour operators are already seeing success from it. Here are three critical areas to start working on now:

Inspire and differentiate

As travelers explore, they’re looking for inspiration and clarity. This is where your ability to tell a compelling brand story comes in. Who is your tour/attraction ideally suited for? What type of experience should they expect? Exciting? Funny? Informative? 

This is your chance to let them know how what you offer will make their trip unique and memorable —  and, most importantly, why they will love your experience.  

It's crucial that story is available to them when (and where) they’re looking for inspiration. This is where smart, targeted digital marketing comes in: Ensure that as they search (which almost always starts on Google) you get into their consideration set by being front and center. 

Engage and inform

Along with exploration comes evaluation, with travelers weighing options and trying to navigate the stress of filling their vacation with the most enjoyable and memorable activities possible. 

To make sure you remain on the list of options you need to capture their initial interest and use that to remarket or reconnect with them throughout their journey. This can take the form of email marketing, social media, or running retargeting ads to those who’ve visited your site. All three do a good job of making sure travelers keep you top of mind throughout their messy middle journey. 

Google calls this the "power of showing up." It’s the most powerful predictor of success. You just need to be present when they make a final decision.

Make it easy to decide and act

Research has shown over and over again that reviews from other travelers are highly influential in peoples’ purchase decisions. So in this final phase, when evaluation begins to outweigh exploration, it’s critical to make sure you’ve built up a strong supply of customer reviews and are making those readily available. 

And, finally, make it as easy as possible to book. If you make your customer go through a lengthy, complicated booking process, you’ll lose about 25% of them. Make sure you answer all their questions and the process is simple. This not only includes getting yourself set up with one of the leading online booking systems, but ensuring that your site is optimized for conversion so that you can smoothly move travelers through the final stages of their booking journey. 

Let’s straighten up this mess

Here's a checklist to think about where you are as a business when it comes to helping a customer untangle that messy middle maze:

  • Are you inspiring them with a differentiated story?
  • Are you capturing their interest and engaging through remarketing?
  • Are you providing a seamless, confidence-building commerce experience? 

If not, we’re here to help you across all three phases. Reach out today to set up a free evaluation and start moving more of your business to direct, profitable bookings. Contact us here, or email us at growdirect@tourismsolved.com.