Study indicates dissatisfaction among online travel shoppers

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Only 46% of U.S. leisure travelers who shop for or buy travel online enjoy the experience, and a still smaller portion, 34%, believe the sites present choices clearly and meaningfully, according to Forrester Research data released last week.

In addition, Forrester reported, 26% of these online shoppers would consider turning to a good offline travel agency.

That finding suggested brick-and-mortar agencies could be the beneficiaries, but it is important to note this is because the online competition is so poor.

Forrester released its findings in an 18-page document titled "Using Digital Channels to Calm the Angry Traveler." Its author was Henry Harteveldt, vice president of travel research for Forrester Research.

Essentially, travel’s online sellers took a drubbing in the February 2009 online survey, but the dissatisfaction has been growing for a while. In 2008, the results weren’t all that great either, when 49% enjoyed the Web experience, 39% said product choices were well presented and 21% said they would consider using an off-line agency.

Indeed, Harteveldt is one of the dissatisfied customers. He said he uses an agency more often now than he had previously, for both personal and business travel, because "the sites don’t provide the detail and context that travel agents do."

Although he described circumstances that have sent him and could send others to traditional agencies, Harteveldt devoted about half the "Angry Traveler" report to advising online travel sellers about the changes they should implement to avoid losing their customers to a "less convenient channel."

He said agencies were less convenient in the same way any business that requires use of a phone during office hours is less convenient. "But customers are saying, ‘It’s worth it to me to change my behavior.’ People are so annoyed by the inadequacies of the Web. The Web has to fulfill rational and emotional needs, and a good travel agent knows how to do that."

In effect then, he said, e-businesses have to at least match the strengths of offline agencies. To that end, Harteveldt said, e-businesses will have to make adjustments, adjustments that he believes would transform GDSs into global merchandising systems, or GMSs.

Today, he said, sellers use the GDSs to "push their content" to intermediaries such as online and offline agencies, but as travel companies "embrace more retailer-like business strategies," the GDSs will have to evolve.

Like any good point-of-sale system, he continued, "the GMSs will be designed to extend the right offer to the right customer at the right time. Content will be more personalized, whether by the seller pushing targeted content or by the intermediary as it culls" from the content to distill it to be most useful to the intermediary’s business.

This metamorphosis would take three to five years, he predicted.

Harteveldt cited models for the industry. J. Crew’s website, he said, represents "more thoughtful, retail-like merchandising practices." It contains cross-sell and upsell offers based on its data and contains product descriptions that "balance detail and emotion," along with multiple visual content options.

He also cited a number of travel businesses — Fly.com, InsideTrip, Tripkick and Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts — for their skills at providing "useful context" online to help shift the purchase decision "away from price and toward other important criteria that travelers value."

Further, he said, travel companies will have to understand the increasing role social networking sites play in traveler behavior and the growing importance of "smart" mobile phones.

The growth of social networking, he said, means travelers will rely more and more on their peers when making travel decisions. And the rising reliance on mobile devices encompasses a growing desire to use those devices as the tool for online communications. Such devices, he said, represent an opportunity to make relevant offers to consumers while they are at their destinations.

Currently, Harteveldt said, online travel buyers feel they are being taken for granted. Two-thirds said that in today’s economy, they expected travel companies to work at making them feeling valued, but only 29% said they thought most travel companies were doing that.

Nevertheless, Harteveldt said, consumers are not "cold-hearted."

Two-thirds are willing to be loyal to travel companies if those companies treat them like valued customers, and 68% are willing to recommend such companies to others. The data were drawn from Forrester’s North American Technographics Travel Online Study, Q1 2009.

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