OTAs look beyond price to attract and keep visitors
02/14/2007|3:12:00 PM|Nytimes
2007-02-13:NO longer content with just making it simple to book an affordable flight, rental car or hotel room, Travelocity.com and other online travel agencies are striving to become a bit more like their old-school competition — storefront travel agents.

The idea is to add planning tools that help travelers decide where to venture, where to stay and what to see based on their interests, rather than exclusively on price. And once all the planning is done, online sites still want to make it easy to book the entire vacation with a few clicks of the mouse.

Travelocity is testing a new planning tool, the ExperienceFinder, aimed at travelers who might not know when or exactly where they want to travel but who want to explore their options. The tool has been rolled out as a test site, labs.travelocity.com/experiencefinder, and allows travelers to build a trip based on a particular theme and to view videos, photos and maps to help with the planning.

Let’s say you want to go to Las Vegas. If you visit the test site, you can plan the trip by choosing one of four themes: adventure, indulgence, romance or entertainment. Clicking on adventure brings up details and starting prices for a range of vacation activities, from horseback rides at sunset ($146) to renting a Harley-Davidson motorcycle ($82). Hotels that might appeal to travelers seeking adventure are also listed.

At the site, you can put together an entire vacation by clicking on the different options, then save the trip on an online wish list. When you are ready to book the trip, you go to your wish list, revise it and then follow the steps to reserve every aspect of the trip, from the flight to the hotel to the Harley and whatever else captured your interest.

So far, Las Vegas and Hawaii (Hawaii was scheduled to go up on Feb. 6) are the only two destinations offered on the test site, but there are plans to introduce other cities and perhaps vacation categories like beaches or theme parks.

Troy Whitsett, Travelocity’s vice president for design, got the idea to create the planning tool when he was trying to figure out where to go on his next vacation. “I realized there really wasn’t a consolidated place on the site to dream and plan your trip,” he said.

Other online travel agencies have been trying out similar trip-planning tools. Expedia introduced a planning tool in 2005 that lets travelers shop from its home page by selecting beach, family, ski and other categories. Also, early last year, the company, in partnership with the travel site Homeandabroad.com, rolled out a trip-planning tool at
www.expedia.com/activities called the Personal Activity Planner (on the list at left); it offers tips on things to do at more than 85 popular destinations. Travelers can click on Virtual Concierge for a customized itinerary based on their choice of destination, the number of people traveling in their group and their vacation goals and interests, from golf to going off the beaten path.

Yahoo has its own trip planner feature at
www.travel.yahoo.com/trip that lets travelers create itineraries and share them with other Yahoo users. So far, 690,000 trip plans have been posted, according to Yahoo.

THE new focus on trip planning is part of the evolution of travel Web sites. It’s no longer enough for the sites to compete solely on the basis of price because individual hotel and airline Web sites have become more sophisticated, with some offering best-price guarantees for booking through their own sites instead of third-party affiliates.

So online agencies have had to look for new ways to attract and keep visitors. While online leisure travel sales in the United States, which totaled $74.4 billion last year, continue to increase, the rate of growth is expected to slow to 6.9 percent in 2009 from 11.2 percent last year, according to Forrester Research, a technology and market research company.

Many sites, including Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity, already offer vacation packages that wrap hotel, flight and car rental costs into one neat bundle, including add-ons that range from airport shuttles to tee reservations at golf courses. But such options are still just transactions. In contrast, by tapping into a visitor’s emotions or dreams, trip-planning tools can shift the focus away from buying individual travel components to selling the whole trip.

“It’s about engaging the customer in a way where the focus is more on the experience, and price becomes less important,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Forrester Research. He added, “The more people they can bring to their sites, and the longer they can keep engaged with them, the greater the revenue opportunity for travel agency sites.”

Expedia and Travelocity say the themed activities and hotels featured through their planning tools are selected by experts, and any ads are clearly marked.

Mobissimo.com, a travel search engine, takes a slightly different approach to online travel planning. It introduced a search capability last year that allows travelers to formulate concept-based requests for travel information that mirrors the way consumers tend to think when making vacation plans. Travelers enter their departure city and choose from a list of categories like skiing, beaches or wine tasting. The site delivers a list of related attractions and destinations, which the visitors can browse for price and availability. The results of the search can be refined with keywords like malbec or pinot noir for wine tasting, or surfing for beaches.

Such tools can help inspire travelers to go somewhere new, but results are limited. For example, a search for aquariums on Mobissimo from New York yielded more than a dozen places, from the National Aquarium in Baltimore to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California to the Genoa Aquarium in Italy. But the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which opened to much fanfare a little more than a year ago, was not on the list.