You won’t be surprised to learn that studies show travelers generally look to the Internet when seeking information about travel. While “offline” advice and recommendations from family, friends and colleagues still play a significant part in travel planning, the majority turns to their PC—or increasingly their smartphone or tablet—when wanting to know more.
The Google-commissioned study “The 2014 Traveler’s Road to Decision,” which surveys 5,000 U.S. consumers aged 21 to 64, finds that 80 percent of travelers use the Internet to search for travel information, and 67 percent do research online before even deciding where or how they want to travel. The same study finds that 83 percent rate social networking, video, and photo sites (YouTube in particular) as a top online source of inspiration for travel, ahead of search engines (61 percent) and travel review sites or smartphone apps (42 percent).
Online travel agencies like Expedia.com and Booking.com have been capturing much of this business. In 2014, MMGY Global’s study “Portrait of American Travelers,” which surveys several thousand adult U.S. residents, found 84 percent of respondents obtained travel information from an online travel agency, with 36 percent eventually making their reservations on such sites.
Yet travel booking trends can change course quickly. The “2015 Portrait of American Travelers,” shows significant shifts in travel preferences in just one year, with those using an online travel agency down to 58 percent and those employing one to make a booking down to only 13 percent. Instead, two-thirds of travelers booked directly through a brand’s website, with those surveyed suggesting that online travel agencies aren’t the most convenient way to book travel.
Significantly, looking at the millennial generation (ages 18 to 35), the latest MMGY study shows a sharp drop in the percentage of travelers using online travel agencies in 2015 compared to just a year ago, while 22 percent say they’ll seek help from a traditional travel agent. Peter Yesawich, a spokesperson for MMGY, says: “This shouldn’t be too surprising […] because millennials often want to book adventure travel or these highly experiential trips involving a lot of parts and they don’t always know how to do that.”
You can enter underwater photo subjects as well as destination keywords into DiveBooker’s powerful search engine, and results are displayed alongside a useful, interactive map
Brave New (Dive Travel) World
These sometimes conflicting findings underline the realities and challenges that face DiveBooker, one of a new crop of companies that have begun gathering information from dive shops and liveaboards into singular, comprehensive travel booking websites—hoping to redefine how divers plan and purchase their trips. The infusion of digital media promises not only to transform how we book our dive trips—it might just be the catalyst to ring in a new generation of divers.
“We know how difficult it is to plan a perfect diving vacation,” laments DiveBooker Project Manager Alex Besha, who previously worked for an independent tour operator. “I think that saving our user’s time is our most valuable feature and the key reason behind the creation of DiveBooker. We just want to spare your time all the way from the idea of the trip to the first day of your vacation.”
The concept of an all-in-one booking website—from research to purchase—is decades old for booking flights, cars, and hotels for a trip. So what’s taken so long for the dive industry to catch up and produce an all-in-one booking system akin to those mega sites? The answer, according to DiveBooker’s Alex Besha, is the sheer complexity of booking a dive trip. Each dive center offers a completely different product; true, a first-class seat may vary slightly from airline to airline, but not as much as a Cenote dive and a shark feeding dive. Add to that the diversity of dive operators, from sprawling fleets of multimillion-dollar liveaboards to mom-and-pop dive centers.
And then there are all the different customization and add-on options for a trip—the number of daily dives, nitrox availability, equipment rental, hiring a photo pro, and so on. So rather than comparing booking a dive trip to booking a flight on one of those Internet booking titans, it’s probably better to describe it as booking the flight, number and size of your bags, pitch of your seat recline, snack choice, and the in-flight movie.
“The dive travel industry is not nearly as big as the market of hotels and flights, so the giants of the online industry aren’t interested in providing solutions for the dive market,” says Besha. “But we are.”
DiveBooker’s “Most Beautiful Dive Sites in Mexico” is sure to inspire you to stay a couple of extra days and photograph all the other sights this amazing destination has to offer
Taking the Plunge
When it comes to priorities, spending hours searching through Internet reviews on dozens of websites isn’t at the top of the list for Dr. Abofazl Rahimi, an ophthalmologist, oculofacial plastic surgeon, and associate professor. So when it came time to plan a dive trip to the Red Sea, he turned to DiveBooker for the first time.
“Sometimes, it is too complicated to search through many different websites and compare them,” explains Dr. Rahimi. “DiveBooker has collected many options from different companies in one place and has categorized them very well, making them easy to compare.”
Dr. Rahimi was also comforted by the site’s price guarantee, matching the lowest price available for any given operator. But what really stood out from the experience was the surprisingly present human assistance for a so-called “automated” system. When questions arose, Dr. Rahimi was able to reach out to live customer support.
The friendly responses on the other end of the chat don’t come from an ultramodern artificial intelligence with knowledge about everything related to diving—although it may seem like it. The DiveBooker customer support team is staffed by experienced tour planners in the dive industry. After all, not even the most advanced bot on a multimillion dollar website could answer the question I tested on one lucky agent: “Where’s the best place to photograph whale sharks during the summer?” But agent “Natalie” answered swiftly: “Mexico.”
Hearing from other scuba divers is a key part of my decision-making process as an underwater photographer
Earning Your Trust
“We have deeply investigated this market and addressed difficulties that the customer might face when trying to arrange a diving trip,” says Valerie Yakubinskaya, the Customer Support Manager at DiveBooker. “[The site] is not only the place where you book diving, but also the place where you learn a lot about dive travel.”
Yakubinskaya points out that underwater photographers might have the most to gain by booking through an all-in-one online travel site like DiveBooker. “You can learn about different diving destinations, weather, seasonality, dive sites and what you can expect to see, as well as what kind of diving experience you can get there,” she explains. “All that with colorful pictures of underwater life, meaning underwater photographers can get an image of what they can take a photo of in a certain place.”
Unsurprisingly, by far the most trusted source of information on travel comes from friends and family. Ironically, while Facebook and other social media platforms offer the vast majority of travel information by pure volume, studies indicate they are also the least trusted. By comparison, surveys suggest that travelers put considerable trust in online travel booking and advisory sites like DiveBooker. The reason behind that is simple: While there is virtually no filter on the Wild West social media scene, booking companies carefully vet all operators before offering them to their customers. “Before a dive center is listed on Divebooker, we make sure it’s reliable, provides genuine information and has a good reputation and recent reviews by real divers,” says Yakubinskaya. “These criteria help us be sure that we introduce good offers to our customers.”
To be sure, DiveBooker isn’t quite the Priceline or Kayak of underwater travel, at least not yet. The diving industry won’t ditch the travel agent for online bookings in a hurry, and there are still some gaps to be filled, most notably in the number of reviews and coverage of destinations.
With DiveBooker’s detailed travel information at your fingertips, it’s easy to add extra dive packages to customize your trip
In spite of its relatively new presence in the dive industry, online travel booking promises to revolutionize much more than just travel. Take, for example, the most common question to reach the ears of DiveBooker’s customer support. It’s not, “Can I do a night dive?” or “Is nitrox available?” or even “Do they rent underwater cameras?” Yakubinskaya says: “The most common question we get asked is about how to start diving with no prior experience and certification.”
Enticing a new generation of divers is a top priority for resorts, dive shops, and the industry as a whole. The simplicity and accessibility of all-in-one online booking sites such as DiveBooker appeals to younger customers, thereby reducing the barrier of entry in terms of time and cost. The all-encompassing network of online travel booking sites might just translate to a local increase in diving—from getting certified to purchasing gear at a neighborhood shop.
“We have big plans,” enthuses Besha. “I am sure that in our dynamic world, the future of all travel services will be closely related with online booking systems.” And quite possibly the future of the dive industry.