It’s 2006. Your site address is not where you live, the word blackberry does not refer to fruit and “the Web” has
absolutely nothing to do with spiders. At least, not in most cases.
Let’s face it. Being tech-savvy is critical to the marketing focus of any modern business, even one in which old-fashioned family values are esteemed and where word of mouth is the traditional norm of customer communication. The tour and charter business is no exception, and even staunchly conservative operators are finding that building a significant online presence can offer rewards, at little upfront investment.
“The majority of travelers use the Internet to plan and even book their travel nowadays, so a Website is critical for anyone involved in the travel industry,” says Joel Litwin, marketing representative for Washington-based Airporter Shuttles.
Websites and their respective features have changed, however, as technology rapidly begets new bells and whistles.
Here we provide 10 invaluable ideas for your Website to boost traffic, and by extension, increase Web-based commerce, referrals and revenue. Not all of our 10 steps are right for every operator, but all can have a positive effect when applied shrewdly. And best of all, once you configure your Website according to your business’ preferences, the site itself does most of the work.
1. Updateable content
The first requirement of any potent Website, a step that encapsulates nearly all ensuing steps on this list, is placing a substantial focus on original information that, at the very least, can be updated or changed on a semi-frequent basis. Obviously, a busy five-bus operation cannot be expected to spend hours creating lengthy news stories or writing online copy for its Website every morning. But a little commitment to maintenance goes a long way.
According to Litwin, visitors are much more likely to return to www.airporter.com if they expect that something new will greet them when they load the page. This should come as no surprise. But there is another side of the equation. Websites with erroneous or outdated information are held by online marketing experts to be one of the biggest deterrents to healthy site traffic. With recent METRO motorcoach surveys estimating that up to 10% of coach business is now generated online, neglecting to keep content fresh and, if possible, informative is a faux-pas that no business can afford to make.
The trick is to start small and focus on updates that don’t require an extensive amount of labor. After all, time is money. Ideas include 50- or 100-word industry news blurbs, hyperlinks and seasonal or promotional updates. Many sites post occasional company press releases or, when applicable, customer feedback in the form of testimonials.
Additionally, updates can be controlled by a content management system (CMS). “A CMS helps keep the site consistent looking, and makes it easier for more staff to interact with it, even without knowledge of HTML,” says Litwin.
2. Online booking capability
This feature is much more common these days, as a typical Google search may lead to a multitude of sleek tour and charter Websites with extensive information on how to book trips, and in many cases, an actual reservation form that can be completed online. Some of the larger, corporate-based operators have even begun using trip-finding technologies, allowing site visitors to explore different travel options and get ballpark figures on costs, availability and best times to book.
“We have about 15% of our requests coming from our Website,” says Melinda Ladd, office manager for Daniel’s Charters in Gainsville, Ga. “We find that it is very cost-effective for us because if we sell just one charter from our Website it will cover the cost of Website updates.”
A visitor on your site is akin to a customer walking into your office. If they’ve come this far, chances are good that they are ready to purchase. Having a medium for closing the deal is crucial.
3. E-mail newsletters
The e-mail newsletter is a simple but often wildly effective tool for generating business through your Website. It is both an excellent means of communicating with customers, and a great resource for learning and storing information about who is riding your motorcoaches.
The concept involves a sign-up sheet on your homepage promoting a mailing list or e-newsletter. When visitors sign up, they provide their e-mail address and any other demographic information you ask for. Afterwards, their info goes into a database of people who begin weekly, monthly or seasonal e-mail updates. The newsletter reaches a wide audience and can offer news bits, discounts and special offers. It’s a great way to keep repeat customers in the loop, and the stored demographic information can be used in a range of other marketing efforts.
The biggest downfalls are the time and effort it takes to compose the newsletter content, and the amount of server space available for reaching a large audience by e-mail. But any Website programmer can answer these types of technical questions with ease.
4. Feedback outlets
Most motorcoach sites probably already have this, but it’s a feature that should not be underestimated. Every site should have various implements allowing for customer comments, feedback and questions. Most pages have a basic “Contact us” link, but there are other efficient methods as well. Consider using banners asking for customer comments, or publishing lists of phone numbers or individual employee e-mail addresses. Online customer satisfaction surveys are also helpful. Be proactive. You may find your customers’ comments to be thought-provoking.
“I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of comments we have had from our Website,” says Tom Weeks of Grand Tours in Lockport, N.Y. “It also appears that a number of potential customers refer to [our Website] to learn more about us before making a decision.” Grand Tours’ site can be found at www.grsbuses.com.
5. Limited or seasonal offers
The rise of the Internet has been described by some as signaling a “golden age” of media. The basic thinking is that reaching a large audience in the past required a hefty sum of money. But today, a Website is theoretically accessible by anyone in the world with a computer and modem. Don’t waste this platform for promotion.
If you have special offers, seasonal rates, discounts, featured trips, contests, coupons or other customer-drawing gimmicks, feature them online. If nothing else, this will give you an easy excuse to provide new online information from time to time (see No. 1).
6. Your personal stamp
Your coaches have your company logo, and probably some fancy designs. You’ve tailored the interior of each bus to reflect your business style. You’ve offered customized services, onboard amenities, technology and entertainment. You probably have a company tagline, or a mission statement. All of these reflect originality, innovation and a desire to stand apart from the competition.
Your Website should be no different. Don’t be afraid to get creative with the content on your site, and be sure to keep a focus on aesthetic. “We have found that if customers see pictures of the coaches and drivers they are more comfortable booking with us,” says Ladd of Daniel’s Charters. “It gives them a better idea of who they are traveling with and the equipment that they are traveling on.”
Customizing your site is easier than you might think. There is a wide assortment of free add-ons for Websites available on the Internet. Most services only ask in exchange that their company be attributed or acknowledged somewhere on your page. Examples include weather forecasts for trip destinations, maps, moving graphics in TIF files, clip art, banners and other design fodder. The savvier you are with your choices, the closer your add-on features will be to your unique company calling card.
7. ‘Flash’ and flair
Websites have traditionally been composed with a mixture of HTML coding, graphics and features fueled by a few other popular programming languages such as Java and C++. The trends are changing, however, and the freshest features tend to use a lot more Flash capabilities.
Designed by Q, Flash is a programming language allowing for complex graphics, streaming video and audio and fluid animation. It is generally one of the priciest programming technologies around, but after viewing a few Flash-based sites, it’s easy to see why.
Flash is certainly not for everyone, as the technology tends to lengthen download times and use up exorbitant amounts of server space. Furthermore, when applied with the wrong kind of business message, it offers little more than confusion. But for some operators, such as Hemphill Brothers Coach Co. in Nashville, Tenn., trendiness and a hip image can go a long way. The slickness of www.hemphillbrothers.com reflects perfectly an operator whose clientele includes pop-stars Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson.
8. The online store
This is another feature that may not fit for every operation, but it clearly has a niche in tour and charter business. Many operators produce pens, t-shirts, hats, towels and other small items with their company logo on them. Typically for promotional purposes, these products help spread brand awareness about your operation. Consider selling them online through a store or virtual gift shop. Even a small fraction of revenue will more than pay for the time it takes to set up your online marketplace.
A good example of the online store is the one used by Greyhound Bus Lines at www.greyhoundlogoshop.stores. yahoo.net. Miniature buses, apparel and even special rider passes for Greyhound buses can be purchased online. While sites like these are still a rarity in the coach business, other similar industries like public transportation and aviation have more than taken advantage of the concept.
9. Crossover appeal
One of the most common ways to boost Website traffic is to be referred from another Website. Essentially, you need a link to your site on a more heavily-frequented site. While it may require some salesmanship, the motorcoach industry already has many natural bedfellows through which to pursue online partnerships, or link exchanges.
The most obvious candidates are hotels, resorts and other destination businesses that your charters service. Go to www.vipchartercoaches.com to see an example of how this can be done. VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co. in Portland, Ore., uses a “Partnerships” link on its homepage to promote some of its destinations. Those sites, in turn, feature links to VIP on their pages. All in all, traffic crossover with friendly businesses can be an excellent marketing tool.
We left this step for last, as it is the most challenging and probably the biggest reach for a motorcoach operator. But it is not an impossibility. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, an online research firm, Internet ad revenue increased more than 40% in 2004, and more than 30% in 2005. There is more money being spent on this ad medium than ever before.
Even small businesses can generate online ad income through simple pay-per-click programs like Google Adsense, Affiliate Sensor and PPCProfitMachine. The only challenge is to build traffic, and hence increase the number of lucrative ad clicks you receive.
Another idea is to consult a professional such as Media in Motion, which counts New Jersey-based Lakeland Bus Lines and Coach USA among its clients.