July 23, 2009, 12:00 AM

Rail Europe drives up web sales with new content-heavy travel site

After chugging along for years with a basic web site used only to book rail tickets and passes, Rail Europe is on the fast track to online sales growth after relaunching its site as a travel portal designed with analytics to learn visitors` preferences.

After chugging along for years with a basic web site used only to book rail tickets and passes, Rail Europe is on the fast track to online sales growth after relaunching its site as a content-rich travel portal designed with analytics to learn visitors’ travel preferences. Despite the global economic downturn and a drop in consumer travel, Rail Europe’s online sales in April and May rose 6.5% over the same period last year, says Frederick Buhr, vice president of e-business.

The increase in sales came despite an 11% year-over-year drop in the number of online visitors during Rail Europe’s peak April-to-July season, showing the relaunched site’s strength in a down economy at a time when business at many travel sites is down, Buhr says

“From 1999 until 2008, we were just a train-booking engine at the end of a travel planner’s purchasing cycle,” Buhr says. “Travelers came to RailEurope.com to book with us, and then we wouldn’t see them again for years. So we knew we needed to do something.”

Last November, RailEurope.com relaunched with several hundred pages of new travel-related content tied to the 32 railroads and countries that Rail Europe serves. The content, developed in a content management system from Mineola, NY-based FatWire Corp., presents details and photographs on featured areas and packaged travel deals including offers for hotels, museums and other destinations. Visitors can click into each presentation for additional offers.

The new content has pushed RailEurope.com to the top ranks of listings in Internet searches for terms like “Europe travel,” and begun to engage visitors earlier in their travel planning stages and converting them more often into paying customers, Buhr says.

Among the site’s performance metrics for April and May, compared to the same period last year: visitor-to-buyer conversion rate rose 28%, to 2.03% from 1.59%; the number of completed shopping cart checkouts rose 12%; and the site bounce rate, or the share of visitors who leave the site before completing a task, declined 30%.

Rail Europe also relaunched the site with upgraded web analytics technology implemented by Technology Leaders, a New York-based web analytics and consulting firm, which is helping the travel service better understand and respond to its customers’ interests, Buhr says.

Technology Leaders re-tagged the entire RailEurope.com site, including the more than 500 new content pages, with JavaScript code and WebTrends tags. This supports more granular data for online marketing campaigns, more metrics such as number of online newsletter registrations, and new online dashboards for monitoring key performance indicators, Rail Europe says.

“Now we can do weekly meetings about key performance indicators that are easy to understand,” Buhr says.

Going forward, Rail Europe will continue to grow and improve its online content as it uses analytics to learn more about its customers’ interests, he adds. If Rail Europe notices that many online visitors are clicking information about rail travel among particular groups of cities, for example, it may offer pre-packaged travel deals for those destinations, Buhr says.

It also plans to introduce this summer interactive online maps designed to help customers better understand rail networks and city connections. In turn, Rail Europe will use its analytics data related to the use of these maps to learn more about customers’ interests.

Rail Europe also will continue developing new ways to apply analytics data to better understand which products produce the most revenue and profit margins, Buhr says. “We’ll be hooking up conversion funnel data with numbers from our shopping cart and our accounting system to match up figures on return on investment,” he says.

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