Online travel agencies – Web adds human touch

OTAs are humanising their sites in an effort to increase results accuracy. But do today’s sophisicated consumers really need such hand-holding? Linda Fox reports


Watch out web! Here comes Judith Chalmers in the shape of the latest attempt by an online travel agent to bring a human face to its website.


Lastminute.com’s new search facility, based on the Wish You Were Here TV presenter, targets families and is designed to help people get a closer match to their holiday requirements.


In the past online agents have thrown search results back at users in the hope that something would stick. But times have changed and the sophisticated, online consumer expects more.


Online agents have been busily developing new technology to make life on the web easier for the consumer: Teletext added a Lingubot – known as Jodie – to its site last September; Expedia recently won Travolution’s Best Travel Agency Website award, in part for its Inspirator tool; and now there is Lastminute’s Judith.


One reason for the interest in the Jodies and Judiths of the web is because innovative features – whatever they might be – tend to cause a rise in conversion rates. Much of the technology seems to replicate what high-street agents do in the offline world, but online agents are divided over whether consumers want that human element.


According to Lastminute.com travel director John Bevan, the Judith booking engine was built on the premise of a discussion the consumer would have with a travel agent.


The system works by gleaning more information from the consumer from the start, such as the number in the party, and then bringing back results that match their original criteria more closely.


“The expectation has changed and people are quite happy to put in more specific information but they want a more refined set of results,” he says.


The Judith booking engine also enables consumers to make advanced searches such as by destination, hotel star-ratings, holiday type, somewhere hot or facilities. Bevan says: “Up to 40% of people never enter the destination so they are looking for ideas.”


The technology also tries to bring users a step forward towards closing the sale rather than having to go back and change criteria.


Intelligent biasing technology is also a feature of Judith, where Lastminute will push a list of 100 holidays according to what is selling well, relationships with tour operators, high-margin holidays and the perceived best price.


Bevan is clear that this is the sort of technology consumers want to see online and says early results show the booking engine is doubling conversion.


“A few years ago we could serve up results and people would happily wade through them – now they expect them to be relevant.”


Expedia, it could be argued, has tapped into consumers’ emotions with intelligent technology with its Inspirator channel, where it tries to give people ideas as opposed to just acting solely as a booking engine. Inspirator caters for anyone who knows exactly or very little about what they want to do.


An updated version of Inspirator is scheduled for later release this month and Expedia is working on technology to further improve the after-sales experience.


According to head of customer communication, Clive Peoples, the online agent goes above and beyond what a traditional agent does because of the level of interactivity it offers both offline and online. He doesn’t believe customers want the high-street experience replicated online because, although many like the feel of a brochure, they don’t necessarily book through the bricks-and-mortar agent.


“You need to be thinking more about user-generated content, not just straight brochure replication, and that’s where we’re investing – in good content.”


Peoples also cites Expedia’s Traveller Opinions hotel reviews, which receive a lot of traffic and push up conversion rates, as well as the site’s destination pages with maps. “You can go into different countries and it tells you when to go, the weather and passport and visa requirements. These are facts you might not get from an agent or forget to ask.”


Meanwhile, Opodo has decided not to differentiate between online and offline clients and feels its approach has a number of advantages over traditional agents.


The first, says commercial director Alex Gisbert, is in the consistency of information it provides because it is digital.


The breadth of information also goes a step further than the high street with elements such as city guides with sound effects and historical information. Opodo is also planning video footage of forthcoming airline service developments for the site later this year.


“We can show videos and pictures of the developments some of the airlines have made. I don’t think the high street has a way to do that as effectively.”


Opodo also feels it improves on the high street in relevancy. “Customer service is about forwarding the right information. Online we are showing what people are looking for. On the high street you can be shown the wrong brochure or your favourite agent could be away,” says Gisbert.


He also feels tools such as Opodo’s weather predictor give online the upper hand over bricks and mortar.


In fact, the only time he believes customers look for the human factor is just prior to a trip. He adds: “Someone taking a flight wants information on getting to the airport, the temperature in the destination and the ability to make changes to the booking but he would not return to the high street to get it.”


At Ebookers the strategy suggests there is already a shift, with consumers not particularly keen on sites pushing the human element.


According to UK managing director Ciaran Lally, two years ago people searched for deals online simply because it was the in-thing to do – and then often picked up the phone to book. Since then confidence has soared and most are now happy to complete the transaction on the web. He believes it is now all about trust and impartiality.


“As the market has become more sophisticated and with the advent of Web 2.0, online travel agents have worked out how to address the impartiality and trust issues,” he says.


Lally also believes online agencies have made significant progress by displaying their breadth of product in a way that mirrors an offline brochure.


As further proof, Ebookers’ call-centre now plays a completely different role to three years ago. Lally claims 70%-80% of call-centre volumes are people who have been online and are ready to book.


Ebookers has also developed a ‘push to talk’ facility on the site and will proactively call customers back if it feels their query has not been answered.


“Our market has moved towards online transaction without any interaction from the sales agent.”


Sales through the call-centre have decreased from 50% a couple of years ago to less than 20% now. Ebookers also creates packages to populate the site based on what people have been searching for, making it more intuitive than the average travel agent.


The next generation of technology will see Ebookers launch technology enabling customers to tell it what they are interested in and the website will compile a list of relevant deals.


All of these developments combined with usability, impartiality and trust have driven the industry’s evolution in a short space of time away from being purely booking engines. “People are confident with the information they see and when you mirror that with ease of booking it is very compelling. We’re moving rapidly away from people wanting the offline experience replicated.”



Technology timeline


Summer 2005: Expedia UK launches The Inspirator. Enhanced version of the search system ready for launch. Also working on post-trip technology to improve customer service


May 2006: Opodo introduces search by budget facility; city guides microsite with sound unveiled in October 2006. The online agent plans to launch rich video content this year


Sept 2006: Teletextholidays.co.uk launches Lingubot, known as Jodie


June 2007: Lastminute.com launches the Judith booking engine


Late-2007: Ebookers.com plans to unveil sophisticated search technology across the site

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