Thursday, September 6, 2007

Online travel and the trialogue

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Back in 1996, I was standing on a conference platform talking to a room full of travel agents.  I had a laptop in front of me with a dialup connection to the internet, and I decided to take a risk. 

I’d just spent twenty minutes talking to them about how the web might impact on their business, and frankly, they weren’t impressed.  “People”, one delegate said, “will always want the advice only a travel agent could give them”. 

I’d just returned the previous year from a round-the-world tour where every hotel I’d stayed at had been found online, and flushed with confidence, I asked the audience to name anywhere in the world, promising I’d find them a hotel there.

“Easter Island” called out one smartarse at the back.

It took me an admittedly nerve-racking thirty seconds to find one and read out the details.

You could have heard a pin drop.

Now, travel is one of the biggest commercial sectors online.  easyJet sells over 90% of its flights online, around 15% of searches are travel-related, and the European online travel market was worth E38billion last year.

Not bad for ten years’ work.

But although technology gave consumers information about far-away places, access to airline and hotel availability databases and the ability to communicate directly with these organisations (without waiting for the next assistant to be free), it gave them something else - which until recently businesses have not got to grips with.

It gave them access to each other.

Through sites like tripadvisor, holidaywatchdog and myholidayreport, consumers started telling each other about their real experiences, good and bad.

“The manager approached us by the pool, saying the fans we’d bought were using too much electricity… we will never stay at this hotel again”

The second bedroom in the Chateau had a continuous combination smell of mould and rotting flesh."

The sheer granularity of these sites was unachievable before users started creating the content – the daddy of them all, tripadvisor, claims to have over ten million reviews covering 190,000 hotels and 140,000 restaurants. 

Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp, owners of Expedia, saw the potential back in 2004, when he acquired tripadvisor, placing real reviews next to hotel listings.  In the UK, Thomson asks consumers to submit reviews, but and the company reserves the right to edit, refuse and withdraw contributions. The result is a very different feel to tripadvisor - in 15 minutes I wasn’t able to find a single negative review.

The latest addition to these is a familiar face from the dotcom boom, reincarnated as a travel site. is fast, well-designed, packed with useful features that speed up the experience.  It seamlessly merges data, listings and user-generated reviews and packages it well.  It’s honest with its readers – a one-line review read: “situated as it claims on a quiet street, this hotel is also near a noisy one”.

The old-world view would see this as a high-risk strategy.  Placing bad reviews next to hotels you’re offering for sale can’t be in their commercial interest can it?

But the reality is that consumers are using other consumers’ opinions to rationalise purchasing decisions.  There’s nothing a travel site can do about this, so bringing these reviews into the site achieves the double benefit of increasing trust in the agent’s brand, and not losing that consumer when they go off to check out your recommendations.

Boo crashed and burned the first time round, trying to sell a product people weren’t ready to buy online, using technology that users couldn’t access using the slow connections of the time, and failing to control costs. 

This time, it’s in a booming sector, with technology that puts the consumer at the users at the very heart of creating its product – a true trialogue brand.