© istockphoto/Rubén Hidalgo

With 87 percent of U.S. travellers hooked on the Web, it’s clear that the number of people researching and/or booking their trips online will continue to grow. But while the digital space is more important than ever, many travel marketers have a rigid vision of what online success looks like.

In trying to achieve their preferred end result (a booking on their brand site, a registration in their loyalty program) marketers often lose sight of the fact that the digital space has no singular prescribed path.

Customers relish the freedom and options the Internet gives them as they click their way to their desired outcome. Travel marketers need to respect and plug into this process, not try to dictate it.

Let’s take a step back and consider how the online travel consumer behaves. We know they shop around. Most Transumers visit a variety of sites before they actually book. At the early stages of their planning they likely compare different destinations, different hotels, and different airlines.

But as customers home in on where they want to go, where they want to stay, and how they want to get there, their search becomes focused on isolating the best price for the same product among different vendors.

So our consumer checks out the online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Travelocity, aggregators like Kayak and Sidestep, and the brand sites themselves. And, if they don’t find a better deal in one of those places, our Transumer will most likely return to the site they usually book on.

For some that may be an OTA, regardless of whether it’s for a flight, a hotel, or a car rental. For others it will be the brand site, perhaps for ease, peace of mind or loyalty club incentives.

But here’s the rub. Most travel companies devalue a booking if it occurs anywhere other than their brand site. Mainly because of the fees they pay for those bookings but also because they can’t control the brand experience as much.

Both fair points. But let’s have some perspective, travel brands.

First, the behind-the-scenes business and pricing issues that exist between brands and aggregators mean nothing to the consumer. They couldn’t care less about the complexity of our business except when it makes their experience poor. And none of us are looking to do that.

Second, a booking is a booking. The economy is still pretty rotten. A booking for you is a booking your competitor didn’t get. That’s a win.

Third, what incentive did you give to the customer to book directly with you? None? Then why would you expect them to do you any favours and change their preferred booking behaviour? I go back to my second point – a booking is a booking. Win/win.

If you really want to increase conversion to direct booking, remarket to those who booked you elsewhere. Offer them an incentive to book direct on their next trip. Get them into your loyalty program. Show them why the grass is greener on home field.

But if your campaign and your business goals are predicated on securing direct bookings, the reality is that you will fail unless you offer customers something on your site that they can’t get anywhere else.

Controlling access has worked for some but remember that your paid media budget can be lower with multiple distribution points online. You don’t have to work so hard to ensure that the consumer finds you. This allows you to invest your budgets more wisely – say in more targeted media, a better brand website experience and, critically, in strong, compelling offers.

And, frankly, that’s what you really should be focusing on – making the consumer want to pick you. Regardless of where they opt to do the picking.