Travel sites court unmanaged business users
CHICAGO (Reuters) - After revolutionizing U.S travel bookings, online agencies now have their eye on a lucrative, but elusive part of the business market.
The so-called unmanaged business travelers have become increasingly valuable to companies like Expedia Inc. and Orbitz Worldwide.
These are people who tend to make their hotel and travel reservations themselves, in contrast to managed travelers, whose companies handle this task for them or contract it out to a travel agency.Online U.S. bookings, which account for more than half of the nation´s total, are split almost evenly between business and leisure. Unmanaged business travel is a fast-growing market for the agencies and one worth fighting for in an industry that may be approaching its saturation point in the United States.
"They are certainly a sweet spot to target," said analyst Lorraine Sileo of travel research company PhocusWright.
Sileo said the market comprised entrepreneurs and employees of small businesses that do not generate enough bookings to command the negotiated rates of their managed corporate counterparts. Travel is on the increase among this group, which is why it is moving online quickly and becoming so lucrative, she said.
According to PhocusWright data, the unmanaged business travel market -- both online and offline --- will be worth $36.8 billion in 2008, up from $30.7 billion in 2005. It expects 82 percent of all unmanaged business bookings to be online in 2008, compared with 68 percent in 2005.
PhocusWright said the percentage of online unmanaged business travel bookings had been rising steadily in recent years, from 9 percent of the total travel market in 2005 to 11 percent in 2006 to a projected 12 percent in 2008.
The company said the growth in unmanaged travel had been driven largely by online booking platforms, which make it easier for travelers to find bargains. Online agencies hope to spur growth in this market even more by catering to its needs.
Expedia.com, the largest U.S. online travel agency, aggressively courts unmanaged travelers with its expedia.com/business Web page, which features tools that may be particularly useful to them.One of its most prominent features allows users to manage their various loyalty programs, such as frequent flier miles.
"Our intent is to continue to add more benefits over time," said Paul Brown, president of Expedia North America.
Brown said that while business travelers were rapidly migrating to online bookings platforms, many of them were using only Expedia´s leisure travel tools. It is important to persuade those users to try the company´s business services, he said.
By catering more specifically to the needs of unmanaged business travelers, Brown hopes to bolster brand loyalty and to lay claim to more bookings per customer.
While unmanaged business travel bookings are a significant percentage of Expedia´s business, Brown said, competition for them is fierce.
Orbitz, which is preparing to go public, also boasts several offerings for the unmanaged segment, such as its Road Warrior Web site, roadwarrior.orbitz.com, which assists users with business travel plans. For example, the site can locate "business-friendly hotels" and wireless Internet access.
Chief Marketing Officer Randy Wagner said such perks encouraged users to book more travel services on Orbitz.com.
"We want a greater share of our business travelers´ travel wallet," she said.
Travelocity said about 30 percent of its bookings were from unmanaged business travelers. The agency says its Farewatcher tool and flexible date search are especially popular with those who must book based on best price.
A Priceline.com spokesman said the company did not have a specific offering for unmanaged business travelers.
PhocusWright´s Sileo said efforts by online travel agencies to lure unmanaged business travelers had been strong, but so far no agency has found an effective way to corral the indistinct and fragmented market.
"It´s a difficult market to target and isolate," she said. "All of them have tried. They´ve all developed it. But the trick is to get people to use it."