OTAs top for US user experience

Traffic and audience share indicate the popularity of a site in terms of hard data but few surveys – until more recently – have revealed the ‘brand perception’ of a travel operation.

Research from California-based performance analyst, Keynote, which examined flight, hotel and cruise providers in the US, is beginning to unravel the intricacies of how consumers feel about travel websites.

The survey found that Expedia, Orbitz and Southwest Airlines offer the best overall user experience on their websites for consumers looking for flights. The study, carried out in March this year, looked at a variety of areas, including customer experience, brand impact, conversion index and ‘future book likelihood’.

For OTAs and airline websites the crucial areas of price satisfaction, design, ease of booking, availability, performance and loyalty systems were also taken into consideration.

Overall, the survey found that 87% considered low price the most influential factor when deciding which airline to book.

But despite the focus on finding the cheapest price, over half (57%) indicated they would pay extra for a direct flight – a critical issue in the domestic market in the US.

Interestingly, users on OTA sites (including Expedia) required three times as long to complete a flight booking than with a direct supplier site, such as Southwest.

A fifth of Expedia users also expressed frustration at being unable to find customer support tools and a quarter complained about inadequate FAQ responses.

Mark Gristock, marketing director at usability specialist Foviance, says Keynote’s benchmarking and research tools are giving the industry the chance to look more closely at the sales cycle, “rather than the blunt tool that is conversion rates”.

“We can look at how effective the site is from preliminary research to after-sales service. It helps us to identify the points at which customers need different support or content in order to progress or commit, and how effective leading travel brands are at communicating their values in a way that produces positive business benefit.”

Similar studies for hotel bookers ranked Expedia and Travelocity highest, while for cruise Expedia came out on top once again, followed by Travelocity and sites for Royal Caribbean and Carnival.

A number of hotel inventory providers have lost ground, Keynote found, in the past 12 months, including Hotels.com, Hyatt and Hilton.

But Expedia’s dominance in many areas overshadows others in the hotel sector, especially in terms of conversion and customer satisfaction, and gaining ground with brand impact.

Gristock says: “By understanding the different sales cycles, we can target key messages much more effectively, and not simply give advice on how functionality should work and how content should be laid out.”

The sites evaluated in the air survey also included AirTran, American, Frontier, Delta, United and Northwest. Hotel sites also featured Priceline, Marriott and Westin.

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