Alexandr Bulanov

@alexandrbulanov

5 lessons we’ve learned while building PADI Travel booking

Continue reading this article about building travel booking service on Django Stars blog.

You open Facebook and spot your friend on the beach with a cocktail in hand, and then your colleague in some picturesque settings that are, most certainly, far away from the office. Moreover, the ads with stunning snaps of different resorts are chasing you every time you open the browser. Travelling is no longer about intricate plans, large budgets and “we can afford it twice a year” thing. People want to discover more — and not only millennials, senior travelers are making more and more travels each year. Reflecting the demand, the market graciously responds with the reduced prices and sweet propositions to the increasing needs.

Over 1 in 3 travelers across countries are interested in using digital assistants to research or book travel, according to Google/Phocuswright Research.

People tend to rely on digital solutions while planning their vacations and travel booking giants like Airbnb, Expedia and Booking.com set the bar of customers’ expectations pretty high. Development of a travel app is not a smooth sailing and before building your own solution, there’s a number of things you should know. In this article, I’ll share key lessons our mobile app development team learned after developing an online booking service for PADI Travel, world’s largest diving organization. PADI stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors and has issued over 25 million scuba certifications since 1967, so the word “PADI” is certainly not new in the scuba diving world. We started developing a booking platform for Diviac, a Swiss startup which joined PADI family this year. But one thing at a time, let’s start from the beginning:

1) Unexpected Discovery: Every Booking Service Is Different

Modern market is ready to serve a number of off-the-shelf booking solutions with tried-and-tested algorithms. The solution usually needs a number of tweaks after which the functionality will be sewed in your app. This fast integration has got a flipside: rigid rules, limited functionality that is hard to personalize and sometimes hefty annual payments. If you start small and don’t have a rapid growth in mind — such solutions might cover almost all of your needs. However, if you plan to scale in the future and increase the number of options as well as the list of users, you will need to build a personalized booking app from scratch.

When we started our partnership with Diviac, there were different challenges: building booking engines over the existing logbook, or using ready-to-go solutions as Shopify. But at some point, we realized we had no other option than to reconsider the whole approach and develop something unique. They say, “you reap what you sow”, and back to the beginning, Diviac didn’t even suspect they might be acquired by the world’s largest diving organization, so it was a smart move to develop bespoke software right from the start.

Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” When you start the development of a travel app from scratch, have a sneak peek at top-rated travel booking giants as Booking.com, Expedia, TripAdvisor, Kayak or Airbnb — these shoulders will help you find some cool elements for your app.

So, what do top travel apps have in common to provide the exceptional experience?

  • They are mobile optimized — eMarketer predicts that 49.5% of US digital travel sales in 2021 will be made via mobile, so make sure your app will have a responsive design that shines on all types of devices.
  • They identify location — localization helps create a better experience for users (they will see local office addresses, contact numbers & currency)
  • They offer personalized stuff — by analyzing visitors’ behavioral patterns through cookies and logs, the service will suggest tailored deals.
  • They ask for reviews and ratings — giving the customers an opportunity to leave a review will help build trustworthy relationships with customers (PADI Travel, for example, places reviews right below the first fold):
  • They engage you in a game — interactive elements like quizzes, tests, and calculators will boost customer engagement.
  • They create a sense of Urgency — elements that emphasize the best deals and show real-time dynamics will help users find the best propositions faster
  • They inspire — most visitors spent the lion’s share of their time staring at cool pictures and comparing, considering and weighing the different options. Relevant classy content will inspire and help them on their travel planning journey.

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But first, value. Building an online booking service is not a child’s play — the platform will need to handle filtered searching, geolocation, online payments, communication between users, and review systems. To think through all the business logic and create the architecture and interface, a lot of work and technical skill is required. But at the very beginning, it is vital to understand the core value of your app. Why does it exist? What problems does it solve? How is it different from the existing ones? Understand user’s problems and pains and then think of how you can help solve them providing the best experience at the same time:

A Business Model Canvas is a profound approach and is certainly worth your time as it breaks all the creative mess in the founder’s head to clear elements:

Source: https://www.innovationtactics.com/business-model-canvas-airbnb/

What about the value proposition of PADI Travel booking service?

First Diviac, than PADI Travel, exists to help divers explore more of the underwater world, and inspire and grow the overall diving community for the benefit of everyone in the diving industry. It offers more dive destinations and more dive holidays than any other travel company in the world, and it will continue to expand in the coming months with increased dive resort offerings.

Here’s a tip when your team develops a new product from scratch: make sure everybody on your team understands the value of what you’re doing — understanding the WHY changes the developer’s mindset and inspires everybody to come out with creative solutions.

2) The Decision-Making Journey: Go Along the Serpentine in The Customer’s Head

How can you build an app that will solve the customer’s problem, and at the same time will provide an exciting experience? Understanding how the customers make decisions and what triggers them at each point of the journey will help you build the service that makes people happy. Well, easier said than done, let’s dig deep and find out where everything starts.

Marketing people usually say that everything starts with the need that later transforms into the desire. So what motivates people to go on diving tours? The obvious answer is “They would like to look at fish underwater.” But if you do a bit of research, you’ll get a list of different reasons why people book a diving holiday:

  • Try a completely new type of vacation
  • Try diving as meditation and come into a near-trancelike state
  • Become a certified diver
  • Overcome the fear of the movie “Jaws” that lives in the depths of their soul by meeting sharks
  • Take amazing snaps of the underwater world
  • Challenge themselves by diving through cave labyrinths
  • Swim around shipwrecks and underwater museums
  • Go muck diving (some passionate divers plan to visit certain resort specifically to look at a specific type of fish that was recently discovered by researchers, usually some amusing kinds, like this one ):
Crawlong Fish, source: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/04/080403-fish-photo.html

All the list of the reasons was discovered due to the analysis that the team conducted. Researches are crucial — without them, you wouldn’t be able to crystallize the inner motives why people do something.

Types Of Customers

Diving is a cult, once you’ve tried going underwater, the experience will hold you for a long time, encouraging you to travel more and more. Therefore, we can figure out 2 types of customers that are seeking for a diving tour:

  • Type 1 — People who want to go diving for the first time, they usually need guidance on lessons and certifications
  • Type 2 — Professional divers who literally can not live without scuba diving, they need new experiences and new challenges

Friends? Spouses? Kids? — divers who are not traveling in groups may be accompanied by partners who are very likely non-divers, so it’s important to show that the locations are picturesque and there will be some cool stuff on land that non-divers will enjoy.

As for groups, the conditions usually differ greatly between solo and group travels, so we decided to sort them out from the start:

A classy travel booking service is certainly not jack-of-all-trades that is a service for everybody but actually nobody. To make your travel application come forward, back it by a strong UX/UI: map out your audience and create user personas representing each type of your audience with their needs, wants and pain points. After this, construct a customer journey with the main points users hit on their way of making decisions:

3) People Actually Like To Plan, So Supercharge This Process With Cool Features

On the one hand, people think of a planning their travel as of a cool experience when they can finally relax and plunge into that pleasant anticipation. But on the other, customers understand that they will need to navigate through a variety of options and therefore make a lot of choices.

A sweet spot between “my app will be a Swiss army knife that will give answers to all the questions” and “my app will be super simple and super-intuitive” can be found by implementing the right features. An easy-to-use booking platform is not about adding as many features as possible, it’s more about cutting off the unnecessary features and keeping the service simple yet informative.

Here’s the example from PADI Travel: once the user arrives at the frontpage of the platform, in a couple of clicks he can book his trip, just by choosing a destination and a liveaboard. You might be interested here whether people are ready to book a diving vacation on the spot. Of course, they don’t. However, Expedia Media Solutions research states that, on average, the person goes to a travel website 38 times before booking. So, if during the 39th time something clicks, your platform has to be ready to meet that need right from the first page.

FEATURES THAT INSPIRE

To give the customers feeling they do not back the wrong horse, you have to provide them with the proofs of the options — tell them about top destinations through blogs, make the process of discovery interactive, show them stunning visuals, or, in one word, inspire them and motivate explore more.

Here’s what PADI Travel has in place:

  • A blog with the articles on iconic marine life that is linked to each section of the menu
  • A list of the Top 5 Travel Destinations in the footer
  • A Dive Destination Wizard, which is fun and can help you find the nice option no matter you’ve been staying here for a while or you’ve just come across the website:

FEATURES THAT SIMPLIFY RESEARCH

An inquisitive traveler’s mind needs detailed information but certainly does not need a shower of all the information you’ve compiled. The key is organized information in the right proportions. Descriptions at PADI Travel are designed not to saturate you, and point out what you have to keep in mind. Here customers may find information on time zones, currencies and even the plug types at the planned destination — so you don’t even have to google more. Important feature — informing users on air and water temperature all over the year, so they easily can check average air and water temperature to make the right choice on their wetsuit.

Oftentimes divers are on tiptoes with eagerness to see certain types of creatures, and it was decided to put there a calendar showing the probability of meeting fish or mammals underwater:

As for Liveaboards — all of them have a kind of landing page enabling users to dive into Liveaboard's bio and decide whether it is a nice company for their itinerary.

One more elegant solution for conversions was found after series of A/B testing — all destination booking pages have three CTAs. These three buttons cover the users’ top inquiries:

The devil is in details; small things help build up a whole picture, so take care of all the tiny experiences and make sure the customers feel your helping hand throughout the entire process.

4) Change Of Rules, Or Keeping Your Head Calm Under Any Conditions

Building the travel platform for PADI taught our team at Django Stars that application development is the art: the art of delivering clean code, the art of communication, and the art of keeping your head cool in stressful situations. As I mentioned at the beginning, our team started developing the app for Diviac, a Zurich originated app with stable management and requirements: after years of partnership, we knew what to expect and how we can contribute best. When we found out Diviac would be acquired by PADI, we were in two minds. The first was like “Wow, cool, the largest diving organization — we’re already having goosebumps”, the second was like “Meh, everything will change, we’ll have more stakeholders meaning eternal release cycles and vague feedback”.

Fortunately, our guesswork turned out to be wrong: yes, there were some changes, but at their core, they were more about the mindset and cultural shift. It was important to tweak and make the service more “global” as there intended substantial traffic from the USA and other countries. We needed to ensure the platform will behave as designed, and our QA members created performance tests to check whether the solution will stand with 500+ concurrent users.

KEEPING THE HEAD ABOVE WATER

Or how to deal with shakeups

  1. When the market is extending — reconsider your target audience. Go back to the start and analyze whether you value proposition, user personas and customer journey are still relevant ( and tweak if not)
  2. New users — new devices. Pull out some stats & find out the top used devices to test your app against these gadgets and phones
  3. New market — new rules. Take care of the security & legal compliance side of your service.
  4. Make sure everybody on the team is not stepping on each other’s toes yet understands how to ensure consistency within the UI and data architecture
  5. Make sure that Agile is not only on paper — it is in mind of all the stakeholders and developers, so release cycles are faster and feedback is more frequent

Communication is key though don’t forget that with new changes come new opportunities. Don’t be afraid to spend time on redefining the old concepts — a fresh eye might bring unhackneyed insights.

5) Polish the Must-Have Features

The rich user experience within the features that almost every travel booking app has might already be your competitive advantage. Make sure the following features work like a clock:

  • Calendar

Integration of a calendar like Google Calendar into your booking engine will automatically add all the details into the user’s calendar and voila! Travelers have all the details in place and can keep track of their upcoming vacation.

  • Notifications

To distract your customer is as easy as a pie: there comes the cat, there’s someone calling and the app is already forgotten. This is why your users will be thankful if you send them new offerings, alerts, and reminders of the options they left in the cart.

By tracking users’ travel history, location, behavior and browsing habits, your platform can also provide:

  • Location-based suggestions
  • Navigational notifications
  • Information on deals
  • Weather conditions notifications
Source: https://www.referralsaasquatch.com/push-notification-strategy/

Here’s how Hopper app notifies users on price reduction

Find the balance between “nice to know” notifications and really important ones to keep the users loyal and engaged.

  • Sophisticated Filters

To make user’s search easy and neat, the platform must have the advanced filtering system. With a great range of filters, the user will be able to narrow down all the available choices to that one, perfect option.

PADI Travel has filtering and searches logic based on multiple dynamically changing rules allowing users to search for the objects of various types from a base of 120.000 products.

Here’s how Diviac search evolved from the operator — type based categorization:

.. to a filtered search involving 15 categories:

  • Payment management

When the user has finally arrived at the decision and found the one and only booking, make sure all the payment transactions will be smooth and hassle-free for him. Otherwise, you’ll force him to scrape through the intricate payment jungles after he spent a pretty amount of time on all of the online arrangements. Make sure everything will happen in a quick and easy manner. Take care of the following elements:

  • Clear prices that do not confuse or leave ambiguity
  • Easy switching between currencies
  • Secure payment (credit card, PayPal, Android Pay and Apple Pay)
  • Option to scan credit card details
  • Admin CRM System

A comprehensive CRM for internal processes management of is that part under the tip of the iceberg that makes everything work with no hassle.

PADI Travel developed an internal custom CRM system to empower travel agents with a full-cycle order and payments management tool. In this way agents can manage every step, starting from the creation of the product to feedback and rating tweaks.

While developing the internal-facing side of the platform, keep in mind some features that will be welcomed by the managers:

  • sophisticated analytics that shows not only the obvious data in terms of revenue or number of bookings but also calculate the averages and shows ‘planned vs. actual’ comparisons
  • the option to create interactive dashboards
  • advanced filters that help them quickly navigate through reams of data
  • a lean and neat package that is sharpened to the needs of administrative personnel and doesn’t have unnecessary features.

To sum up all these lessons and findings, I’d like to refer to a French oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau. He didn’t like the hundred-year-old diving technology that limited his range of exploring the sea and partnered with Emile Gagnan to improve it. Together they invented the Aqualung for scuba diving, allowing millions of marine explorers to swim to greater ocean depths. “The future is in the hands of those who explore,” he wrote. When he described his breakthrough, he wrote, “I was playing when I invented the aqualung. I think play is the most serious thing in the world.”

This story discusses what we learned from the best in the diving industry and how together we’ve been building (and continue to build) a unique service. It shows that even when there is a widely-used solution in your industry, but you know you can solve the users’ problem better, go for it. And don’t forget to treat the whole development process like a game, one with rules, control, goals, and fun — only in this case, you will create a new game-changing product.

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