The general media is a buzz with stories about the lack of innovation of the major OTAs. A recent Forrester Report which shows consumers’ frustration with online travel planning and booking is cited. The report stated that many consumers are fed up with the complicated process of planning and booking travel online. Part of this frustration concerns added fees, what we like to label in the travel industry as ancillary revenue. The article points to a resurgence of bookings through traditional travel agents.
From a different angle a recent VentureWire report states that VCs are funding start-up travel sites such as Oyster and LeiusreLink. This article further reinforced the concept that there is a lack of innovation from the four large OTAs (Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and Priceline).
Both media articles site lack of innovation, but both draw different conclusions. The Forrester research is being cast in the light of a return to traditional travel agents while the VentureWire WSJ blog points to an opportunity of new start-ups. So what is happening with online travel? Are the OTAs on a path to their own demise? Is online travel going to die based on the resurgence of traditional travel agencies?
In this era of sensational news reporting, dramatic statements forewarning the death of popular OTAs through renewed competition from traditional travel agents or new travel niche brands help sell papers (or in this day and ag, electronic articles). A key point missing in both these articles is a realization that the online travel market is at a mature level. Traditional, Crossing the Chasm analysis, points to multiple adopter segments.
By definition the late majority are conservatives. This market is naturally skeptical and thus resistant to change. The online travel market has reached the mainstream and thus includes many infrequent travelers who are not comfortable with booking travel online. Even the cliche quote by Henry Harteveldt ” Could your mother-in-law use your Web site without having to call you for help?’ The answer is always no” is somewhat blind to the fact that my mother-in-law is an infrequent traveler, part of the late majority (actually she is more of a laggard) and thus has characteristics that are different from frequent travelers (who are often innovators, early adopters, and early pragmatists) who have grown accustomed to the online travel process.
Despite the generalities of these articles I do believe that greater innovation is needed from the OTAs to maintain their market position. Most of the start-up competition comes from niche plays such as Oyster (hotel reviews) or LeiusreLink (vacation rental). Innovation in travel planning is the focus of sites such as Uptake and Triporati. Whether it is true technology innovation or business innovation, carving out pieces of the all encompassing OTAs is a natural market evolution. OTAs will react to these niche start-ups if and when they see a direct correlation to revenue loss. For example when Expedia, Inc. recognized the importance of user generated hotel reviews it purchased TripAdvisor. Movement to traditional travel agents may be occurring, but it may be limited to specific segments and does not mean the death of OTAs. In various research I have conducted over the past few years interviewing traditional travel agents, all agents recognize that the OTAs are their direct competitors and customers often quote OTA prices during the selling conversation. As a result, agents use tools such as Agentware to search the Web for competitive fares.
I agree that OTAs are not a replacement for human beings (that is why each has deployed a call center for support), but for routine trips they do perform well. Quoting the appropriate ancillary fees is an industry problem that is being worked on by ARC, the GDS and the airlines to simplify the online quote process. No the OTAs are not in danger of extinction by niche players or traditional travel agents as all will co-exist with the consumer making the ultimate decision based on their comfort with technology and experience with the online process.