New software aims to deliver personal touch to online booking

By Kate Rice
Until now, a key quality differentiating the traditional travel agent and the online travel agency (OTA) has been high-touch personalization. Traditional agents have it. OTAs not so much. But a new generation of travel software is about to change that equation.

OTAs are beginning to move from the “rational” booking tools on which they were built — those two-dimensional grids of dates, city pairs and fares — to “inspirational” tools that open with maps of the world and evocative images, trip themes and interactive features designed to appeal to the emotions and create a highly personalized purchasing experience.

In short, said Henry Harteveldt, chief research officer and co-founder of the Atmosphere Research Group, OTAs are venturing into a high-touch area where traditional travel agents have excelled by adding value through conversation and personal contact.

It’s not that OTAs or suppliers’ sites have found their inner poet. The issue, Harteveldt said, is strictly dollars and cents: They have maxed out their ability to grow their businesses using rational booking tools.

Now they’re appealing to consumers’ emotions with inspirational tools such as Travel Seeker HD and Featured Results, both offered by Amadeus, and Vayant’s FastSearch.

Even mobile tools aimed at last-minute, budget-minded travelers are building inspiration into their business models. For example, Hotel Tonight uses evocative photos of happening bars and glamorous city scenes.

The concept of inspirational travel search is not new. One of the earliest and best examples was Travelocity’s ExperienceFinder, introduced about five years ago, which enabled the user to shop by categories such as “experience-romance,” “self-indulgence,” “culture” or “history,” to name a few.

Likewise, Hotwire’s Flexible Date Search enables consumers to find affordable dates for flights to a specific destination, while its “Shop by Theme” enables them to filter their searches through categories like “Sunny” or “Family.”

The airfare search site Routehappy can search by the quality of the in-flight experience, giving travelers a way to comparison shop using criteria such as aircraft quality, seat comfort, entertainment and WiFi availability.

But since ExperienceFinder faded away — Harteveldt called it Travelocity’s Rodney Dangerfield because it never got the respect it deserved — no application has been as fully realized as those presented at PhoCusWright 2012 earlier this month.

Since PhoCusWright is a showcase for companies to display their latest and greatest travel technologies, many are still in beta and not yet fully realized. But they show the direction travel search is headed.

Moreover, Harteveldt said, these new solutions can handle large volumes of queries, which could affect travel agencies.

“Let’s not put blinders on,” he said. “This certainly will challenge some of the business agencies traditionally get.”

Tools for agents, too

On the other hand, some are tools that agents can use. Among these is Amadeus Travel Seeker HD, an iPad app available from Apple’s App Store. It opens with a map, with the designated city of origin in the center. A variety of multicolored balloons hover over destinations around the globe.

The colors denote affordability on a “Deal Meter” that ranges from green (for better deal) to orange (not as good) to red.

It integrates with Facebook, so users can see fares to cities where their friends live. They can sort by activities, like museums, beaches, skiing or theme parks, by dTravel Seeker HDestination or even by nonstop flights by touching an icon. Then they can factor in a date by touching a calendar icon and budget by touching a piggy bank icon. They adjust the budget with their fingertip.

Amadeus will white-label the app for travel agencies and airlines, and it is currently looking for sellers to test the app. A spokeswoman said Amadeus will assist in filling out paperwork with Apple so travel sellers can offer a private-label version of Travel Seeker that would deep-link into a mobile website for booking.

Amadeus introduced another new technology, Featured Results, at PhoCusWright. It filters the vast volume of airfare results, which at times overwhelm travelers, to make them more relevant to an individual.

Amadeus is beta testing Featured Results with Vayama, a European OTA that sells about $1 billion of air annually, specializing in international travel outside the U.S. Vayama is using the product to enable travelers to filter search results in four ways: cheapest, fastest, most popular and sponsored fares. Travelers see a fare in each category; if they want to see more, they will find other options farther down the screen.

Amadeus uses the massive information it has compiled as a GDS to show consumers the most popular choices for a given route, using the theory of the wisdom of crowds, said Ted Jansen, executive vice president of the Americas for Vayama.

On a route that has a variety of choices — different cities for layovers, departure times, length of flights, etc. — Vayama can display what the most popular option has been for past travelers and show whether the prices being offered now are high or low compared with earlier bookings.

It displays details such as the fact that most consumers are willing to spend $25 more to cut less than an hour from an 11-hour flight. The cheapest flight might not be popular because it includes a stopover. What’s more, the search produces far faster results than most OTAs: a tenth of a second, as opposed to the three, eight or even 30 seconds that it can take to search for a fare on an OTA.

Vayama is beta testing Featured Results with 100 origin-destination combinations.

Amadeus said the final product will be available worldwide in early 2013. It will license Featured Results to customers at the end of the first quarter of next year, but is still evaluating how to integrate Featured Results into the agency desktop and at what price, said Alix Arguelles, vice president for online account management and consulting services at Amadeus.

Giving Amadeus a run for its money is Vayant Travel Technologies’ FastSearch, which delivers results in milliseconds while providing inspirational destination shopping as well as price-driven shopping. The site opens with a map of routes emanating from a departure city, showing all the places a traveler can get to rather than confining options to the grid.

Significantly, it also displays the fares for all of those routes. Scrolling down the page reveals a calendar that shows how the pricing can change depending on the date of travel. The findings can be adjusted to fit a budget (45% of travelers say budget dictates where they go, according to Harteveldt) by pulling a cursor along a budget bar, causing flights that are too expensive to disappear from the map.

It can also pull all ancillaries that airlines have filed with ATPCo, which is significant. As of late October, 366 carriers had filed their baggage fees with ATPCo and 68 had filed fees for other optional services.

Since Vayant is a B2B operation, it is up to whatever OTA, airline or tour operator uses it to decide what to display, but vast capabilities are there, said Brannon Winn, Vayant’s chief commercial officer.

Vayant is a pure airfares search engine, it does not offer booking like Amadeus does. Its clients plug Vayant’s air search engine into their existing model. The program offers Live Fare Emails, eliminating the problem of having out-of-date fares in email that OTAs and airlines send out, by automatically updating the fares.

Its routes cover the globe. It has been in the market for several months, and its customers include Austrian Airlines, Air Baltic, Airberlin and Hotelplan, a major Swiss operator.

Vayant is a subscription service, and clients pay a startup cost.

To anyone familiar with the Department of Transportation’s concerns about GDSs biasing airfare displays, filtered results can look a lot like bias. But the DOT said last week that, in general, if the passenger chooses the search criteria and the fare is accurately described, the DOT’s aviation enforcement office does not consider it to be biased.

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