With the advent of online travel sites, it's never been easier to book a quick vacation, business trip, or even a spontaneous jaunt for almost anywhere in the world. Though the online travel industry is relatively young, it's still growing quickly, with dozens of viable sites ready to make your trip happen.
The sites with the most loyal customers stand to grab the biggest share of this market as Internet usage increases around the world. But maintaining customer loyalty is even more challenging in markets like the United States, where online travel is becoming second nature as nearly 90% of the population is already online.
This of course begs the question, which travel site are Americans the most loyal to?
Thanks to prominent advertising campaigns, several incorrect names might immediately come to mind. Take the various sites operated by Priceline Group (NASDAQ:BKNG), for example, which notably include priceline.com, KAYAK, booking.com, rentalcars.com, and -- thanks to a $2.6 billion acquisition last year -- even restaurant reservations specialist OpenTable. Since it was founded in 1997, Priceline has enjoyed the charisma of spokesman William Shatner talking up its negotiating skills, while KAYAK earns business by comparing the prices of "hundreds" of travel sites at once.
Collectively, these businesses helped Priceline Group achieve $50.3 billion in total gross bookings last year alone. And with a market capitalization higher than $61 billion as of this writing, it's no surprise Priceline regularly calls itself the "world leader in online accommodation reservations." But "world leader" or not, none of Priceline's sites are tops in customer loyalty.
Or how about Hotwire? Specific financial details are scarce for the privately held site, but Hotwire earns customers by selling off unsold travel inventory at a huge discount, saving people planeloads of cash on all their travel needs from airfare to hotels, rental cars, and comprehensive travel packages.
Unfortunately, though, even Hotwire's approach doesn't translate to the most loyal users. It's not Expedia (NASDAQ:EXPE), either -- though we're getting closer.
Love for the Roaming Gnome
According to the 19th annual Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, American consumers are most loyal to a travel site acquired by Expedia less than two months ago: Travelocity.com. On January 23, 2015, Expedia paid $280 million in cash to buy Travelocity from travel-technology specialist Sabre (NASDAQ:SABR), which itself was a subsidiary of American Airlines until being spun off in 2000.
According to Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff, 2015 was Travelocity's first year atop its category in loyalty. And this year's results were driven by the brands' abilities to "identify customers' expectations and address them via authentic emotional values." So why do Americans specifically love Travelocity so much?
A little focus goes a long way
First, keep in mind that Travelocity signed a strategic marketing agreement with Expedia in mid-2013. Per the terms of that deal, Expedia agreed to take the reins of the technology platform powering Travelocity's U.S. and Canadian websites. In exchange, Expedia received performance-based marketing fees that varied based on the amount of travel booked through those Travelocity-branded sites.
While this meant less revenue for Travelocity at the time, it also greatly improved the site's profitability by drastically lowering operating costs. In its most recently reported quarter as part of Sabre, for instance, Travelocity's adjusted revenue fell nearly 45% year over year, to $89 million, while adjusted EBITDA skyrocketed 116% to $16 million. Without the need to focus on maintaining its technology platform, Travelocity was free to redirect those resources toward promoting its brand -- something it arguably did more effectively than any of its deep-pocketed rivals, anyway.
Take Travelocity's "Roaming Gnome" mascot, for example, whose offbeat TV spots have been at the heart of its viral advertising efforts for more than a decade. But starting in 2013, Travelocity also began using the gnome to engage consumers on a personal level with a wildly successful social media campaign centered around the hashtag #IWannaGo.
By following the @roaminggnome handle on Twitter or Instagram, then using the hashtag to tell Travelocity where you wanted to go, you were automatically entered to win a chance to make your travel dreams come true. Then. last year, Travelocity built on that momentum by combining the hashtag with its new "Go & Smell the Roses" tag line.
According to Travelocity chief marketing officer Bradley Wilson: "'Go & Smell the Roses' is more than a tag line in an advertising campaign, it's a rally cry. [...] We are using our most powerful asset, the iconic Roaming Gnome, to inspire and instigate people to get off the couch, to go and smell the roses."
If Brand Keys' latest Loyalty Index is any indication, Travelocity's efforts to connect to customers on an emotional level are obviously proving effective in its core American market. If it can translate that good work under Expedia's wing to inspire people around the world, something tells me Expedia's $280 million purchase price will look brilliant in the end.
Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Priceline Group and Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Priceline Group and Twitter. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.