The Internet vs Human Touch In The Travel Industry
by Melanie Taljaardand Ramesh Venkat

Can a happy medium exist for retail travel agencies which hope to leverage the advantages of technology and still add value through human touch? A national sample of 223 Canadian travellers was surveyed on their: Internet comfort level and usage, experience and expectations of planning travel online and offline; relationship-proneness; and shopping motivation and orientation; satisfaction and loyalty.

The study showed the Internet comfort level is a significant factor when customers are planning and buying travel. Specifically, the group which was the most comfortable being online placed higher value on online tools than those groups which were less comfortable online. When it comes to working with a travel agent, those respondents, who were least comfortable being online, not surprisingly, associated a higher satisfaction value with the travel agent.

As anticipated, customers engage in cross-channel shopping behavior by using different channels in different stages of the purchase cycle however, the frequency of cross channel planning and buying was stronger than anticipated. The study found that respondents use both channels throughout the purchase cycle for most travel products.

We hypothesized that customers may favour the Internet at the early stage of planning and for simple travel products, but as the customer progressed through the buying cycle or considered more complex travel products the customer would favor the travel agent. The results support the hypothesis. In fact, there is a clear decrease in Internet preferences as the customer progresses through the purchase cycle. As products become more complex, we observed a gradual increase in the usage of travel agents.

The study also looked at the customer experience of planning and buying travel at various stages. We found that customers place significant value on all three stages of the purchase cycle – pre-purchase, purchase, and post-purchase. This was the case for travel purchases both online and with a travel agent. We found that customers do vary in their relationship-proneness and that the degree of relationship-proneness was found to predict satisfaction, which is consistent with past studies. Relationship-proneness was found to be a more significant predictor of online satisfaction.

Satisfaction was shown to be predictable using specific measures as well as by a global evaluation of the experience. The evaluation of the entire experience was a greater predictor of satisfaction, however the specific attribute approach to satisfaction measurement would prove managerial useful for travel providers, allowing them to evaluate and enhance their offering in areas of most value to their customers.

The results also supported the view that the high touch channel is preferred for more complex tasks or decisions. This suggests that travel service marketers need to design multiple channels carefully to cater to the needs of different types of consumers. Individual differences with respect to expertise and relationship-proneness did affect satisfaction judgments as predicted. This makes it imperative that travel service marketers invest resources in understanding their consumers. Simply attempting to migrate all consumers online (because it may be more cost-effective), for instance, is not the best approach. Similarly, investments in retention programs may yield different results for different consumers based on their personal preference for a relationship.

The study was co-authored by Melanie Taljaard, Marketing Consultant with More In Store Marketing Solutions and Ramesh Venkat; Associate Marketing Professor at Saint Mary’s School of Business. For more information on the findings email – Melanie@moreinstore.ca

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