Travel websites: design and development tips

There seems little doubt online travel is the fastest growing area of travel retail.

According to the Centre for Regional and Tourism Research in Denmark, online travel sales across Europe increased by 24% from 2006 to 2007 – equating to €49.4 billion worth of business across the continent – with the UK accounting for 30% of this total.

“This means if you’re not successful in online travel you won’t be successful in travel full stop,” warned Peter Matthews, managing director of online marketing agency Nucleus.

So what can travel companies do to ensure their website becomes a first port of call for internet users looking to book a holiday? Travel Weekly asked the experts.

First impressions count

Lewis Lenssen, managing director, Netizen Digital

“Visitors form their first impression in seconds and this will have a huge bearing on whether they continue to interact with your site,” warned Lewis Lenssen of specialist online travel agency Netizen Digital.

He said psychologists refer to this as the ‘halo effect’ whereby a user’s initial observations will often determine their general perception of the brand.

Poor design and a lack of attention to detail can easily discourage users before they have even scratched the surface of your site, said Lenssen.

In other words, if that first impression is not positive, you are making your task of converting more users into customers more difficult.

“Likewise, if their first impression is positive people may overlook many of your site’s failings and limitations,” added Lenssen.

Get the right technology and the right people

Peter Matthews, managing director, Nucleus

“If you are serious about selling on the web then you must be prepared to dedicate sufficient resources to your online operation,” said Peter Matthews at Nucleus, an agency that has designed websites for Ocean Village and Orient-Express.

He said: “You must think about investing in the right technology, so you can enable bookings online, and what resources you will put into promoting your brand.

“You also have to have people to manage the website and ensure it is up to date and running correctly.”

Matthews also believes the agencies that will do best online are those that specialise.

He said: “You are up against websites such as Expedia and, so if you are a generalist you are at risk. Can you specialise in a certain area or activity, such as cycling or nature holidays? If you can, clients will come to you for your expertise and knowledge.”

Test and test again

Mark Simpson, managing director, Maxymiser

“No idea is too stupid when developing a site. You should test all ideas, however weird and wacky,” said Mark Simpson at Maxymiser, a website testing company that has worked with P&O Ferries and National Express.

“Sometimes really simple things make a difference. On one site we changed the colour of a payment button from green to red and saw a 30% increase in the number of click-throughs,” he added.

As your approach becomes more sophisticated, Maxymiser’s software allows a site to identify users and serve up pages that reflect their preferences – be they city breaks, or family holidays.

But whatever the layout, Simpson said getting the right headings and straplines on your site is key.

“Our research shows only 30% of people read beyond a heading, so you need to find the right few words to capture their interest straightaway,” he said.

Add user reviews and videos

Dan Caplin, head of marketing and search, Click with Technology

According to Dan Caplin at specialist online travel company Click with Technology only 1% of visits to travel websites result in a sale. So how do you go about retaining some of the other 99%?

“Give visitors the ability to write reviews or upload video of their holidays, so they can share them,” Caplin said. “Videos can be hosted on sites such as YouTube and, with a bit of coding, can be embedded into your site.

“People love to tell others about their holiday and it will make the website much more engaging and attractive,” he added.

This approach will help you to build up unique content, which is good for your search engine ranking. It will also allow you to build a database of clients and their preferences, which you can use for marketing purposes.

“We work with a cruise operator, and we’ve helped them build a massive community of mature holidaymakers by allowing them to upload photos and answer each other’s questions on its site,” Caplin added.

Maintain your speed

David Flower,  managing director, Gomez

Internet users expect websites to load in a matter of seconds, or they will move on. That’s why it is important to ensure your website is working efficiently, said David Flower at Gomez, a ‘web application experience management’ company.

Images that haven’t been compressed properly and delays as third-party data loads are just some of the things that can slow a site down.

“The speed of your website can even be affected by the web browser visitors are using, and websites must ensure they have all the components to deal with all browsers,” said Flower.

Make searching easy

Kenny Picken, chairman and managing director, Traveltek

Help clients break down their search, is the advice of Kenny Picken at travel technology company Traveltek.

He said: “Most people walk into a travel agency and say: ‘I fancy Tenerife,’ and online customers are no different. They know where they want to fly to and from where.”

Picken advises showing the top three key offers in a number of areas to give visitors an idea of holidays available – such as best three-star breaks in Majorca, or best all-inclusives on the Spanish mainland.

Picken said it is also vital that the initial price visitors see for a holiday is the one they end up paying.

Create useful ‘landing pages’

Hedley Aylott, managing director, Summit Media

When users arrive at your site through a search engine, it’s important they arrive at a page that is consistent with the word or phrase they searched for.

Hedley Aylott at internet marketing agency Summit Media said: “If users search for  ‘holidays in France’, they should be directed straight to a page that lists product for holidays in France, not your homepage.”

This, he said, can be achieved using Google’s free web optimiser.

He added: “Continually refresh your campaign based on availability. If you publish product that is sold out, you will have wasted money attracting people to the site and risk alienating your customers.”

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