Twenty years ago, aspiring travelers planned trips with travel agents in person. Ten years ago, they booked with online travel agency sites. Today, they engage directly with brands.

Thanks to the accessibility of travel brands online, travelers are more confident and self-reliant than ever before. Today, they take ownership of their travel, lodging, and activities rather than relying on travel agents to act as middlemen, assisting with booking and recommendations. In fact, only 58 percent of travelers got information from an OTA during the past year, down from 84 percent in 2014. Even among travelers who typically look for travel information on OTA sites, only 13 percent end up booking through them (down from 36 percent).

This significant shift in approach offers a valuable opportunity for travel brands to meet customers where they live, work, and play--on social media. By leveraging user-generated content to elevate their brands, they also influence potential travelers. Peers tend to trust endorsements or reviews from those who are in their networks. But even positive reviews from strangers can work in a brand's favor--and they're wise to capitalize on it.

Above all, be relevant.

Audience relevancy is paramount, and travel brands need to be especially aware of this when marketing to diverse audiences. One size definitely does not fit all when reaching out to multicultural markets. To be effective, it's imperative that brands do demographic deep dives to ensure they have a thorough understanding of cultural relevancies and insights. Investing the time to fully comprehend multicultural audiences goes a long way--these demographics appreciate brands that take the effort to "get" who they really are. This pays off in major dividends of brand loyalty.

Embrace strategic risks.

Brands need to go outside of the norm. To do so appropriately, they must first fully understand multicultural travelers' preferences beyond the typical and overused "winks." Some audiences appreciate subtle nods to their specific cultural preferences--others don't. Brands need to be smart and informed about messaging, proving to those target audiences that their cultural landscapes matter and are understood.

Create immersive experiences.

Immersive marketing is a top trend for advertisers to capitalize on this year, according to Event Magazine. Not only are live brand interactions the epitome of engagement, but they're also easily leveraged for additional promotion. For instance, brands can:

  • Post photos to social platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
  • Set up a hashtag and encourage customers to use it in posts about events. (Hashtag contests are a simple way to amplify interest and engagement, particularly when the prize is branded.)
  • Strategically pitch photos, quotes, and stories to local and trade media that may want to cover the experience.
  • Utilize advocacy programs both pre- and post-stay, offering incentives like reward points or room upgrades to those who recommend the brand to friends and family. Make offers to those who receive the recommendations as well and keep the chain going.

These opportunities to cross-promote and amplify immersive experiences are especially valuable to companies looking to build or expand on current brand perceptions.

A groundswell is in effect as travelers continue to migrate away from catchall OTAs and move toward actual brand platforms. In response, it's vital that brands understand, embrace, and showcase clear comprehensions for what matters most to customers. Brands that proactively put these strategies into action can realize increased share of wallet, translating into a healthy bottom line.

This article is co-authored by Jessica Gatti, VP of client services at Gravity.

Published on: Oct 12, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.