Skip to main content

Seasoned Travelers Rely on Referrals

Word of mouth, television and online travel agents are in demand

This article is a brief abstract of our exclusive study that takes the guesswork 
out of hospitality advertising and marketing.

Download the complete 2019 Southwest Hospitality Marketing Report


Word of mouth is tough to beat—especially when it comes from a trusted source. That’s the bottom line for 70% of study respondents who ranked personal referrals above all other sources of information when considering a stay at a hotel or resort.

“When I made plans for my upcoming trip, I consulted with a friend who had been there,” one respondent explained. “She gave me lots of ideas.”

For the cruise portion of the trip she spoke to her sister-in-law, finding out what her experiences had been. Her son, having visited a city she planned to go to, suggested a site she and her traveling companion needed to visit as well as other locations worth seeing in the same city.

Meanwhile, her partner received advice from a son who had visited the same location a few times.

“To me,” the respondent continued, “these are the best referrals because I know them and they know me. I trust what they have to say.”

Trust was a recurring theme among several respondents whose quotes could be summed up with this succinct entry: “You get a true description from someone you know and trust.”

Seasoned Travelers Rely on Referrals


Here are a few more representative responses:

  • “You know the people and their personal likes and dislikes, how easily they are satisfied or how picky they are, so you know their feelings of a place.”
  • “We have a lot of family members and friends that travel and based on our past experiences, their input has always been very truthful and we value their input.”
  • “People have visited and know what the place actually looks like and how you are being treated, as opposed to pictures that may be very old.”
  • “People don't recommend unless they've had a very positive experience.”
  • “My colleagues understand the needs of my business travel including best location, amenities, and convenience.

Word of mouth isn't literal

Personal referrals in the digital age can take place nearly anywhere. You don’t need to be in the same room or even talk on the phone. Posting a photo album with positive comments on a social media account where family members and friends can see it and interact with comments and questions can also be considered word of mouth.

“Personal referrals are still a major source of information for travelers, and no amount of marketing can replace a glowing review from a family member or close friend,” a 2018 Hotel Management article states.

Reviews from real travelers count, too. A survey published in 2018 by PhocusWire found 54% of business and leisure travelers who had taken a trip within the previous year had written one or more reviews of the places where they stayed—93% of which were positive.

TripAdvisor noted the year prior that 53% of bookers will not commit until they have read reviews, with 80% of them reading between six and 12 reviews before committing to a reservation.

Personal referrals are even more important to mature travelers. Seventy-four percent of respondents aged 55+ chose the tactic as a preferred way to learn about potential accommodations—four percentage points higher than average. In some cases, the age of the reviewer is also important.

“I'm older and my friends are on either side of my 70s, so we're looking for quiet, peaceful beauty and comfortable surroundings,” one mature respondent explained. “We've stayed in a lot of places, and usually already know a lot of reliable places that welcome seniors. Hotels/motels ads which include reviews from seniors over 60 are far more reliable than from some tweeter under 25 years old who would review a place—unless you're 25, of course!”

If your niche caters to women, you’ll want to pay extra attention to this one. Of female respondents, 76% chose personal referrals as a preferred way to learn about hotels or resorts. That’s a full percentage points above average, and definitely worth noting.

Finally, 61% of those respondents under 35 chose social media as a preferred way to learn about hotels or resorts.

“Seventy percent of social-media users share status updates or pictures on vacation, and this provides an opportunity to turn your guests into brand advocates,” according to the same Hotel Management article.

Seeing is believing

Tell me about your experience in the Bahamas and I will listen. Take me into the deep blue seas via my big-screen television in the company of scuba divers and porpoises swimming alongside bright orange coral and leafy green sea ferns. You’ve just made me a believer.

At 63%, more than half of study respondents said such a scenario accurately applies to them.

“I think television is the most effective because I am able to visually see in real-time what I am looking at as far as the travel area and if it is what I am expecting,” one study respondent explained. “Sometimes they also have real customers in their ads and that also helps me make my decision.”

Another respondent noted watching travelogues and looking at other promotional materials before making actual plans.

“I watch television and enjoy the ads that are entertaining,” a third respondent indicated, adding that such ads are “very effective.”

For others, choosing television as a way to learn about hotels and resorts was tied to practicality. “I watch television all of the time and it has helped me find the best deals when traveling,” said one respondent so predisposed.

Being an avid television watcher is a common position to share. Simulmedia’s "Five Reasons Why TV is so Effective" report reveals adults watch 4 hours, 56 minutes of television per day—2.5 times more than they spend with YouTube and all social media channels combined. It’s also twice as much time as adults spend on their mobile devices and five times as long as they spend accessing the internet from desktop computers.

Television is also widely available, with the greatest audience reach. At least one television can be found in 94% of American homes, compared to only 77% of Americans who own a smartphone, Simulmedia reports.

For a few, choosing television had less to do with the visual effectiveness of the medium and more with attitudes about marketing.

“It's the method least invasive to my privacy that will attract my attention,” one study participant said.

Online agents attract bargain shoppers

Travelers who love a deal like to comparison shop. Our study reveals that 60% prefer to do so with the help of online travel agent sites such as Expedia, TripAdvisor or Trivago—and many more.

Here’s a representative sampling of reasons why:  

  • “They are able to search for the lowest rates.”
  • “They have access to more info about all aspects of travel, hotels, flights, car rental, all inclusive, etc.”
  • “They are well informed, they know on a daily basis what is out there for different people from different walks of life. If they don't have an answer for you, they'll find out for you. They are dependable and aim to please. They stay in touch with you after you have used their services.
  • “I can ask all kinds of questions.”
  • “I actually seek them out to make reservations. I do not use any of the other methods.”
  • “They give you multiple choices depending on the criteria you use. They are reliable and have a wealth of information.”
  • “They have a lot of deals on a lot of different kinds of hotels.”

 This aligns with Google Consumer Insights 2018 which reveals that 48% of Americans are comfortable using nothing more than a mobile device to research, book and plan an entire trip to a new destination. In addition, the same study found that 46% of Americans find it easy to research and book hotels using a mobile device.

The same Google study cites “an easy search functionality and simple booking process” as second only to price as the most important factors when booking travel online via mobile.

Meanwhile, voice and digital assistants, although not traditional online travel agents, are increasing in importance. Oliver Heckmann, Google’s VP of engineering for travel and shopping, noted in a Think with Google blog post that “Optimizing for the traveler will be even more important as people start to use more digital assistants across surfaces and speak in natural language.” Already, Heckmann notes, “almost 70% of requests that we see to the Google Assistant are expressed in natural language, meaning that people are getting more comfortable having conversations with computers.”

The Google exec further notes that “more than one in three travelers across countries are interested in using digital assistants to research or book travel, and they’re already searching for everything from hotels to flights, and things to do in-destination.”

Because voice searches pull from the same popular travel sites, it’s all tied together.

Seasoned Travelers Rely on Referrals

Put a stamp on it

Direct mail lagged a single percentage point behind television among survey respondents with 59% of them choosing it as their favorite marketing tactic to learn about hotels or resorts.

Although direct mail slipped from second-most used media type in 2016 to third in 2017, the Data and Marketing Association (DMA), a division of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), reports that “direct mail continues to show strength in many areas.”

The DMA also attributes direct mail with producing the best response rate at 5.1%, compared to .6% email, .6% paid search, .2% online display, and .4% for social media.

The fact that direct mail also has the highest cost per acquisition of any medium, the DMA notes, has not deterred those within the travel/hospitality industry from ponying up to put it to good use. In 2016, for example, 55% of the industry sent direct mail, landing it among the top three industries using the tactic.

It’s easy to see why. The U.S. Postal Service reports that 81% of recipients read or scan their mail daily.

Here are a few responses representative of study participants who said they prefer to learn about hotels or resorts by direct mail:

  • “I want to feel, touch and read the fine print.”
  • “I have something in my hand that I can read and save for a later date to book,” one respondent noted.
  • “I will look at it, add it to my calendar or take the required action and have something in my hand…that reminds me of the event,” another participant said.

One respondent praised direct mail for sending a rate and dates available, eliminating the need to search for such information. “The last vacation I took was a direct result of getting a mail offer,” the respondent said.

Planning ahead was another reason some participants chose direct mail over alternative methods of communication.

“If one is thinking of a vacation in July, a bunch of material can be collected for several months,” a forward-thinking respondent noted. “Then, when the time is more definite, pull everything out to compare and decide.”

For retirees, traditional communication vehicles are preferred with 68% of these respondents choosing direct mail, 41% newspaper, and 38% magazines as the most desired ways to learn about hotels or resorts.

Digital ads resonate with many

Yes, Virginia, it does pay to place digital ads about great places to stay. Internet (web ads) are the preferred method of communication for 56% of study respondents when learning about hotels or resorts.

Reasons stated for the preference vary, but center on convenience and price. Here’s a representative sampling:

  • “Most have chats and I can research anything I want.”
  • “I'm always checking my email daily and find it easier to do research on the computer itself rather than on my phone.”
  • “I am on the computer more than anything else, at work and home.”
  • “I'm on the internet every single day.”
  • “Web ads point out the best prices.”

If your target demographic is millennials, this applies especially to you. At 71%, a significantly higher percentage of respondents under 35 years of age chose internet (web ads) as their preferred method—5 percentage points higher than the average respondent.

2019 Southwest Hospitality Industry Marketing Report

Marketing Report Brochure

This article is a brief abstract of our exclusive and authoritative study that takes the guesswork out of hospitality advertising and marketing. Rather than speculating about what will drive consumers to action, we've asked them.

LAVIDGE Form Title
*all fields are required

Need fresh thinking? Help is a few keystrokes away.