The World Wide Web initially spawned the birth of a new breed of retailer, the online travel agent, enabling users to search for a cheap flight, hotel or holiday from the comfort of their own home and see the prices for themselves, often in price order.
Suppliers (airlines, hotels and tour operators) also caught on to the added convenience and savings this new marketing and distribution channel could offer, and developed booking engines to attract the customers to book with them directly. At this early stage both agents and operators were obliged to entice consumers to complete their booking online with web discounts.
In effect, the online travel industry empowered the consumer to go it alone and find the fare that suited them. For selling travel products, not only did the advent of the Internet offer advantages to huge corporations for supplying the mass market, but the low entry costs also opened up the sector to smaller and niche players.
Search was crucial to the success of these smaller sites, enabling them to budget efficiently to drive highly targeted traffic and raise awareness of their unique selling points.
As consumer demands have evolved we have seen a shift away from purely driving a transaction towards providing a fuller travel research experience and driving brand engagement through content.
The key element of this change is the rise of the social travel website, and the integration of user-generated content, giving the user a more active role in influencing the behaviour of other travel shoppers.
Previously, the job of the travel agent was as the expert on where to go and the tour rep was on what to do. However, these roles are now increasingly fulfilled by the online travel community. The first phase of this evolution saw the launch of sites such as TripAdvisor, which introduced user ratings and reviews of a destination, hotel, restaurant or attraction.
Ratings and reviews provided both a useful feedback channel for travel and tourism operators, as well as means for customers to cut through the glossy travel brochure pitch to read about travellers ‘real’ experiences.
The growth of social media offers some exciting advantages for the travel industry: consumers are becoming more willing to share their experiences – both good and bad – and to back them up with photos and even videos.
Of course, capitalising on people’s knowledge has always been vital in deciding where we go on holiday, but now, rather than just asking the immediate community, products such as Yahoo! Answers are beginning to unlock the knowledge held in the human brain of the world’s population.
Users can post questions such as ‘Can you recommend restaurants in New York that welcome children?’ and comment on previous responses before the community selects the best answer.
By commandeering the audience on Yahoo!, you are in theory asking millions of people for the answer to your question.
The web has dramatically changed the travel industry in the way that people research and search for holidays or business trips. It has enabled consumers to be more than just the booker of travel.
They are now the expert opinion holder, publisher and editor of travel content on destinations, hotels, attractions and restaurants – infact, on just about everything. Yet the feeling persists that we haven’t even scratched the surface of how the web will change our industry.
Tim Frankcom is general manager for Yahoo! Travel Europe