After Jason Steele accepted the position of Director eMarketing for LibGO Travel, the corporate marketing division for Liberty Travel and GOGO Worldwide Vacations, 17 months ago, a friend forwarded him an article from a top career site. "It predicted which 10 jobs would not be in existence soon. Travel agent was number nine on the list."
However, Steele vehemently disagreed. He believed that the travel agent community plays a vital role in leisure vacations and that the Internet had the power to quickly and precisely deliver targeted leads for many years to come.
"In order to thrive in this landscape and grow our customer base, we are aggressively pursuing the online channel to diversify," he says. "You have to start the relationship when they are young with their first big spend travel events. You have to try to acquire those customers online and speak to them in their language."
The question was: Although Liberty has been in business for 55 years and operates via 200 retail locations, how could Steele and his team compete effectively on the Web with more famous travel ecommerce sites?
Plus, how could he integrate his real-world agents into the campaign Ö who would not be remotely happy with ecommerce competition from their own camp. CAMPAIGN
The key, Steele decided, lay in focusing on a niche line of business the company really wanted that online-only travel sites couldn't compete with.
He figured that no online ticketing site could do the personal handholding a consumer might want for a really special trip. It would have to be a trip to an exotic destination consumers might have lots of questions about. It would have to be a fairly expensive trip. And, it would need to be a trip that many consumers take when they are just starting out in life as a travel customer, so resulting relationships could lead to more sales for years to come.
The trip Steele chose? Honeymoons.
Next, instead of advertising broadly as a honeymoon specialist, Steele picked one niche site to test that specialized in information for brides. (See link below.)
And, instead of advertising broad offers, Steele focused entirely on lead generation campaigns that would give Liberty's retail agents a pipeline of interested bride's names, wedding dates and email opt-ins. He tested two different types of lead generation:
Test A. Co-registration
Brides registering to become site members or for other site email were asked to check an additional box if they'd like to get information from Liberty Travel about honeymoon planning.
Steele did not consider these names fully active leads worthy of follow-up, because checking a box for information is too easy to qualify consumers. So, he didn't hand those names to the agents. Instead, his team created a series of automated email messages designed to get these potential leads to raise their hands for more help. Then the lead would be geo-routed to the right agent by location.
The autoresponders were focused primarily in educational value -- each containing an interesting article related to honeymoons that a bride might want to keep or forward. The articles also helped establish Liberty as a brand name to trust for handholding and advice (rather than just ticketing and discounts.)
In addition, underneath the articles the team added a choice of three offers the bride could respond to. The autoresponders were triggered based on how far out the bride was from the wedding date (see link to samples below):
#1. Introduction letter "from" the trusted brand name site the bride signed up at. This helped the bride remember where she signed up, and hopefully transferred that brand trust to Liberty Travel.
#2. Sent 11 months out
Article discusses 'Destination Weddings' to prompt pre-wedding travel for brides who want to visit the place for planning and also for the entire wedding party to get there.
#3. Sent eight months out
Article discusses why it's "never too early" to book a honeymoon.
#4. Sent five months out
Article gives tips for pre-wedding trips such as popular destinations for bachelor parties.
#5. Sent two months out
Article lets you know that you're not too late to book (and hopefully instills a sense of urgency in those who havenít booked yet.)
#6. Sent several months after the wedding
Article suggests destinations for a special first anniversary trip.
Test B. Lead generation forms
Steele also ran ads and offers on the site leading to a landing page designed specifically for a bride who was ready to get specific information about booking a honeymoon. The bride was asked to fill out basic information such as preferred destination and date of wedding in order to receive via return email a personalized trip quote and plan.
Because these leads were far more qualified, Steele integrated the incoming leads with his CRM system, sending each agent the leads for brides in their geographic region. Plus, if the bride also registered elsewhere -- such as via co-registration -- the system suppressed her from the other email series so only the designated agent would "own" the account.
The agent then had a brief time to send that bride an email with the planned trip. If the agent wasn't available, the lead was sent to a back-up agent.
Steele provided the agents with two carefully copywritten form letters for their replies. One was for brides with more than six months to go and the other for brides with less than six months until the honeymoon date. (See link to samples below.)
The copy naturally stressed the value of working hand in hand with a human travel agent, and suggested a specific trip for that bride based on her answers on the lead gen form.
However, Steele allowed the agents to change the form letters to suit their own style and preferences. He felt that the agents knew what they were doing when it came to one-on-one relationships with brides. As a result, many agents cut the letter ruthlessly, changing it from a gracious 3-4 paragraph note into 2-3 telegraphic sentences.
The online campaign test that launched last fall has gone so well that Steele has devoted more and more of his budget to it, buying more than 100,000 bride co-registrations and leads in the past eight months.
On the co-registration side, Steele discovered he was right, these leads are less qualified and do need more attention before handing to an agent. The first email, which is sent by the originating trusted brand site, gets a 42% open rate (that's very high).
Further automated emails sent directly from Liberty Travel get open rates in the mid-upper teens. (Note: This falloff is predictable and mainly unrelated to the change of "from" brand because after 30 days email opt-in name responsiveness tends to dwindle for all lists.)
Interestingly, the email sent at five months out "Pre-wedding trips" tends to have the highest open and click rates. Steele isn't sure if that's due to the topic or the timing or a little of both.
On the lead generation side, the emails that were re-written by travel agents -- often alarmingly shortened -- tend to get far higher sales closing rates than the longer, more gracious form letter.
Lesson learned -- sometimes you need to trust your sales rep's instincts instead of your copywriter's.
"We're going to play in the honeymoon arena for years to come," says Steele confidently. Plus, now he's testing additional "life event" travel campaigns to generate more leads online. Useful links related to this article:
Creative samples of Liberty Travel's emails:
TheKnot -- the wedding destination site Liberty worked with:
Quotient Marketing -- the interactive agency that Liberty Travel used to create this campaign: