There are billion dollar sectors on the fringes of the online travel sector that give smaller players plenty to aim at despite the dominance of the big OTAs.
That was the message from Tom Valentine, co-founder and chief operating officer of Secret Escapes, at this week’s Travel Forward conference at World Travel Market.
“When we started even then the big beasts existed and we felt they were really well serving what we referred to as retail travel when a consumer knows exactly where and when they want to go.
“Our view was there were other things going on in the marketplace that gave us a strong indication that retail travel was not the only way to buy and sell travel and it did not appear that there was a big beast that had won that. Our sense is that there is still not.
“Service standards are imported from the big OTAs but at the same time we see very clear brands we can differentiate from. And on the fringes of online travel are still billion dollar markets, so there is a lot to go at there.”
Hari Nair, global senior vice president of Expedia Media Solutions, said: “Travel is a $1.6 trillion business so there is plenty of room for people to not just survive but thrive.”
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnership, which has many traditional offline travel agents among its members, said:
“Consumers are not loyal to one particular brand. We have to be relevant and meet their expectations. Whey they are looking for that special break they are going to come to a travel agent.
“I think there ample business, it’s really about finding our part to play in that whole distribution chain.”
Valentine added: “People are spending a greater proportion of their disposable income on experiences.
“If you want to sell travel online probably you want to be near the top of some list or other as the consumer is searching. If you look back 10 years ago the ones that mattered were Google and the OTAs.
“What’s exciting now, and what’s making searching for travel more exciting for consumers is there are hundreds of different lists. There are many many more paces where a hotel can become famous and get to the point where a marketing channel is really working for them.
Bue-Said said consumers were becoming over-run with choice and were turning to third parties that are able to cut through the noise.
“There’s so much to think about like safety, reviews, etc that what our agents need to do is understand how to make that experience smoother. It’s about the consume and what they want. How do we help them work through all these choices?
“Our role is about making consumer choices easy and making sure their trips are safe and secure. There is so much information out there which we are having to digest and process.”
Valentine pointed to a trend of people wanting to find something different and away from major established brands.
“If you think about travel as a reflection of experiential travel it’s important to sell somebody a great vacation and great components but fundamentally what you are selling is a story during the trip and novelty is the best was to sell the story.
“One of the promises we make to the consumer is we are here for situations where you are not ready to dive straight in an look at hundreds of thousands of alternatives and you want someone to curate to save you time.
“You need to build your brand so they trust you the next time and that become more and more challenging as you need to discover more destinations for your customers.
“The thing we are excited about is as big data and AI get better than humans at looking at a relevant customer set and understand why they loved their last holiday we can work out what the next thing is.”
Nair said Expedia was heavily focussed on the basics with site speed being one of the key factors for driving up conversion.
“Our philosophy has been to test and learn and not be afraid to fail. Eighty per cent of the tests we do on an annual basis actually fail. That tells us our website is getting better every day.
“Embrace change. Test and learn and do not be afraid to fail. Finally, really know who you are chasing. I think at Expedia we lost our way a few years ago because we were trying to be everything to everyone and that puts a lot of strain on your infrastructure and processes.”