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Interview With Harrah’s Entertainment VP Of Advertising


Understanding emerging trends and opportunities in the online travel sector

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By Marco Saio | Jun 23, 2011

Understanding emerging trends and opportunities in the online travel sector
Monica Sullivan / Image via facebook.com

Travel brands are constantly looking for new ways to enable meaningful experiences with their target consumers.

Travel suppliers, including hotels, openly acknowledge the marketing benefits that they gain by being listed on the results page of an online travel agent. While hotel marketing funds are limited, intermediaries - especially top OTAs - have much more at their disposal. At the same time, when it comes to booking, these OTAs can be seen as competitors in terms of distribution. One has to drive a healthy balance and a long-term strategy to deal with this anomaly and eventually come to a balance with both sources of business. In a market where there is a wide choice, the brand players have loyalty, but the retail customer may be driven by priorities other than brand.

target="_blank">Monica Sullivan, VP of Advertising, Harrah’s Entertainment, said ultimately suppliers try to ensure the customer gains more value by engaging with them directly vs. intermediaries.

The situation is even getting more interesting as new intermediaries are emerging.

Also, travel companies plan to continue developing new methods of connecting with customers, with social media, and mobile coming top of the channels targeted for growth.

Monica believes that mobile, social, search, and local are emerging as key areas of consumer transformation.

“Social, local, and mobile are huge areas of innovation and places to win,” said Monica, who is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming target="_blank">Travel Distribution Summit North America 2011, to be held in Las Vegas (September 19-20) this year.

Monica spoke to EyeforTravel’s Marco Saio about the emergence of new intermediaries, the Expedia/Groupon relationship, mobile apps, and a lot more. Excerpts:

Can you elaborate on the emerging trends, challenges, and opportunities that are set to define the next phases in the evolution of online travel?

MONICA SULLIVAN: There are still obvious economic impacts to the industry. While there have been upticks in areas such as business travel, the consumer space is in constant flux. It's clear that technology will continue to shape the future of our industry, both at our properties and within our markets, but also in how consumers plan and book travel. Mobile, social, search, and local are emerging as key areas of consumer transformation and are impacting our business as well.

Google reports so far in 2011, 35% of all travel-related search happens via mobile (in ’10 it was 10%). Mobile search is underutilized, yet rapid growing as customers are replacing standard PCs and laptops with mobile devices at an extraordinary rate. Websites need to be optimized for mobile, and the associated ad buy will eventually be increased to support growth.

New travel intermediaries are emerging, and existing players including travel meta-search engines are adding direct booking options. How do you think the face of online travel industry is changing at this juncture?

MONICA SULLIVAN: We've seen this happening for a while, and it's bringing both challenges and opportunities. Players such as Kayak have turned out to be strong partners in the space as their meta-search engine has leveled the playing field that was owned by Google and the OTAs. Our goal is to continue to target consumers in this evolving environment and to provide compelling reasons why they should pick Caesars. New last-minute players will force us to continue to test and identify new ways to reach both existing and new customers.

It was interesting to see the Expedia/Groupon relationship emerge. Everyone is seeing the growth in popularity of players such as Groupon and Living Social, and expect to see more in this space. While these options provide good outlets for distressed inventory, it also puts more pressure on margins. Online, it will be even more critical for brands to elevate SEO/SEM strength to attract new customers and create clear value propositions and stronger relationships with existing customers.

Of course, we also do a lot with last-minute deals at Caesars Entertainment. Text marketing lets us provide real-time offers and information to guests. These texts can be geo-located by area code so, for example, we can send a last-minute room offer via text to LA area codes but not send this to a guest in Iowa who can’t take advantage of it as easily. We can also push out offers to in-market guests when, for example, a show has ticket availability.

Ultimately, we try to ensure the customer gains more value by engaging with us directly (vs. intermediaries). When consumers join Total Rewards, we can engage in a more meaningful dialogue with our customers over time, as well as offer exclusive deals and rewards for loyalty that are not available through a 3rd party.

What do you recommend when it comes to planning digital marketing spend for the next year or so, be it for social media, mobile delivery of content, video content, multi-lingual sites, etc.?

MONICA SULLIVAN: Social, local, and mobile are huge areas of innovation and places to win. At Caesars, we're constantly testing and trying to see how we can leverage these platforms to reach both in-market and travelers in the planning mind-set. Technology is allowing for faster innovation, but it's also important for us to prioritize where we invest and that's why we study data to determine where we're getting more value. We do see nice engagement with video content, and this will continue to be an area where more investment is desirable.

We have several in-language site experiences, and I anticipate growth here for the travel industry will continue as well. Examples are in Chinese: lasvegas.caesars.com/tzh and lasvegas.caesars.com/szh and Vietnamese: lasvegas.caesars.com/vn .

Mobile apps make trip planning easier for consumers as apps speed up delivery. CP app, my TR app, Total Vegas app, for example, all support reservations booking and let TR customers log in to their accounts. Social media helps us engage with our customers even when they aren't in market by providing them with lots of great content to remind them why they love coming to our casino resorts. Social also provides opportunities for guests to engage with brands from anywhere. For example, for the Celine Dion opening night, we did a live tweet, and guests who were following us and were not in attendance started asking questions in real-time that we were able to respond to, example, "What dress is she wearing for this song?"

Social media allows for engagement with guests in real time while on trip to help enhance their experience/answer questions. This consumer engagement is what social media is all about.

To its credit, Caesars Entertainment has developed a comprehensive lifecycle marketing program that triggers messages as a result of a customer’s most recent brand experience. Considering the number of screens and gadgets consumers have in their lives now, what according to you are the major challenges in terms of the timing, relevance, and even the right medium for sending these messages?

MONICA SULLIVAN: Data is a big piece of the puzzle and a big part of our success. However, managing this data across platforms is no small feat, but it's something that we are constantly working to innovate. Content will also continue to be a focus, ensuring we are relevant to our guests. More attention will continue to be given to mobile platforms. There will continue to be more opportunities with mobile devices to engage with our guests both when they plan travel and while traveling.

We continue to evolve our messaging strategies, including implementing a completely new way for Total Rewards customers to view their offers based on the familiar Web email UI. The approach allows consumers to tell us what is most compelling based on what they have selected, as well as what is driving less interest, so we can continually improve the value we deliver.

Our Total Rewards Message Center gives us the ability to put email marketing on our MyTR page to reach those Total Rewards consumers who haven't given us their email address. We also provide consumers an easy way to share their reservation data on Facebook and Twitter if desired.

On www.caesars.com, we also deliver dynamic content based on consumer's geographic location.

Total Rewards customers can leverage our mobile site to make a reservation or check their accounts. Our new mobile page tells consumers how close they are to one of our casinos (hours/minutes).

Mobile devices are interesting from an advertiser’s perspective as you can reach customers while they are ‘on the go.’ Once a consumer has opted in, the features such as GPS, network supplied IP, and cell tower triangulation will be key qualifiers to deliver location-based ads. A Google executive last year told me: Several Google ad features for mobile, such as location extensions on Maps for Mobile, have been released that could be interesting for the travel industry. What sort of progress do you think has been made in this arena?

MONICA SULLIVAN: We've been avid testers in this space, both in what Google has brought to the market and in other areas, such as the way we leverage SMS in-market. There's no doubt that smart phones, GPS, and products like Google Maps have presented more options consumers and opportunities for marketers to reach them. In our bigger markets, we offer a host of experiences for travelers, and mobile allows us to present those options to consumers within the right context; when they're looking for a show, a place to eat, or somewhere to relax [at] one of our spas.

Hotel companies plan to test and build out more capability related to mobile marketing inclusive of ad serving across networks and within their owned media with a focus on location aware targeting, utilizing of QR codes and SMS for acquisition and potentially some carrier based solutions. What do you make of such moves?

MONICA SULLIVNA: QR codes are still new, and we are testing their use. Right now, we utilize these in print advertising and posters to let guests obtain more info about amenity (example, there is a QR for a Planet Hollywood Holly Madison Peepshow check-in offer, so guests can watch video to learn more about the show, which ideally motivates them to buy a ticket. A QR code on Rio Locals print gets guest to opt into our locals text program).

Overall, how do you assess the maturity level of customer-centric strategies that put the customer at the center of a travel company’s processes and enable them to improve the end-to-end customer experience?

MONICA SULLIVAN: Our company is built on providing outstanding service to our clients. It's one of our key success metrics. We've used online communities and social listening to feedback about our communications and also guests’ on-property experience. But this is a constantly evolving space, and we are always looking for new customer insights to leverage in how we go to market.

Travel Distribution Summit North America 2011
Monica Sullivan is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Travel Distribution Summit North America 2011, to be held in Las Vegas September 19-20) this year.

For information, click target="_blank">here.



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