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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Shelley Taylor, French cell: 011 33 66 477 1861; email shelley@infofarm.com

NEW STUDY ACCUSES ONLINE TRAVEL SITES OF SPREADING
LATEST CONSUMER DISEASE: BORDER-LESS PERSONALITY DISORDER

London, 29 January 2004 Findings from unprecedented research on the current practices in online travel web sites will be published today by Shelley Taylor & Associates. Click-Here Commerce: Online Travel, an international study of the success factors in the online travel industry, has identified a disturbing new consumer disease, Border-less Personality Disorder. Symptoms of the disease, often contracted by travelers who try to purchase travel services online, are caused by poorly designed travel sites. These symptoms include: repetitive patterns of disorganization, difficulty in trusting policies and pricing, irritability and anxiety. New research says the symptoms of this new ecommerce user interface disease  are linked to Abandoned Shopping Cart Syndrome and Post-Transaction Anxiety Disorder, diseases  which are often blamed for the death of many of the dot.coms.

Click-Here Commerce: Online Travel evaluates 46 online travel sites 22 North American, 17 UK, 6 European and 1 Other representing a cross-industry sample including: 11 travel agencies, 13 airlines, 10 car rentals and 12 hotels. Sites were analyzed between October and December according to more than 800 proprietary evaluation criteria and included: Air France, Alamo, American Airlines, Avis, Best Western, British Airways, British Midland, Budget, Continental, Dollar, Easyjet, Expedia, Fairmont, Hertz, Hyatt, Lastminute, Marriott, Northwest, Orbitz, Qantus, Travelocity , Virgin Atlantic and others.

"This new consumer malady knows no borders. All online travel sites are guilty of failing to deliver satisfying travel experiences. It is not sufficient to simply allow travelers to book and pay for travel services. Travel sites should offer the same level of service and support as their land based equivalents," says Shelley Taylor, the publisher of Click-Here Commerce: Online Travel. "Electronic agents should provide central access to key content that is useful and necessary before, during and after a voyage. The travel industry is one of the largest categories of consumer spending and yet online travel sites are still very much in their infancy. They have yet to adopt the sophistication of their retail ecommerce cousins (e.g., Amazon) and therefore risk losing their share of revenues and profits due to problems in site design, and ultimately user experience."

SOME KEY HIGHLIGHTS

The Best ( and the Rest)

  • US sites are much better than their UK counterparts; all top 5 sites are American (Expedia, Travelocity, Hilton, Orbitz, Continental Airlines, listed from best); bottom 5 are all British (Flybe, Ryan Air, Bridge the World, Holiday Autos, Travel Bag, listed from worst).
  • The best agency site Expedia; the best airline site: Continental; the best car rental: Hertz UK; the best hotel: Hilton.
  • Low cost airline carriers have some of the worst sites (Southwest, 11th out of 13 airlines sites; Ryan Air, 12 out of 13; Flybe 13 out of 13; Easyjet, 9th out of 13) they risk losing customers as other airlines compete on price and already have much richer content and better sites.

The sample of 46 sites represents an industry which is in its earliest stage of development so "best" can always be much, much better. But this is not a beauty contest. Our sample selection process was designed to evaluate sites worth learning from, not sites showing us specifically what to avoid, so it is difficult for us to present "worst offenders." In other words, our sample was drawn from better than average sites. Clear winners do emerge (those with best practices in the industry) when we evaluate each site against its peers. Our ranking was done according to quantitative (our 800 metrics) and qualitative measures and included site navigation, the Home page, pre-sale assistance, travel resources, utilities, the booking engine, product path, checkout, post-transaction communication and account management.

Identity Crisis

The identity of sites and the range of products and services offered are rapidly changing. The web creates opportunities for cross-selling and convergence that may not have existed in the traditional brick and mortar world bounded as it is by physical limitations. Today an airline can also be a travel agency. And a travel agency can be a publisher or content originator. Airlines were always able to offer cars and hotels as add on purchases but today they can take on the entire travel purchase while offering time saving and useful travel resources (maps, currency converters, calendaring functions, expense minders to name a few). And now car rental sites and hotels too can  become more like travel agencies through dynamic packaging, or bundling of travel services, which allows users to configure all combinations of travel products.

  • Dollar Rent a Car provides separate product paths directly in its booking engine for car, air and hotel. America West offers separate paths for air, hotels, cars, vacations and cruises.
  • Only 3 agency sites (Cheap Tickets, Expedia and Travelocity.com) offer dynamic packaging and none of the airlines, car rental agencies or hotels did so.
  • All agencies offer multiple travel products but only 6 of 13 airlines, 2 of 10 car rentals and1 of the 12 hotels did so.

The crisis of identity extends to users as well. They too can wear more than one hat and can be at once both a business traveler and a leisure traveler.

  • In spite of the fact that a large percentage of travel revenue comes from business travelers, most of the sites in the sample have no specific paths for business travelers: only 2 agencies, 2 airlines, 3 car rentals and 5 hotels did so.

A Road Less Traveled

Travelers by their very nature cross borders, often international borders. There are many issues to consider, therefore, when "internationalizing" a site: languages available on the site, the countries in which products and services are offered, the credit cards accepted and whether travelers are able to pay for tickets with credit cards that have billing addresses that are different from the traveler's departure country.

  • Only 13 of 46 sites offer language choices on their Home page (1 agency, 3 airlines, 4 car rental and 5 hotels) and while 18 sites provide international sites in addition to their primary site, only 9 offer users the option of choosing a country (for either country of residence, departure, or other).
  • British Airways requires that travelers have credit card billing addresses that match the country  of departure. A traveler wishing to fly from France to the UK must use a French credit card, making it virtually impossible for an English or American , for example, who wishes to originate travel from France to use BA's online booking engine. Travelers are forced to book through a travel agency, contradicting one of the main, if not principles, of ecommerce disintermediation. Easyjet, on the other hand, allows users to book travel for themselves or others from and to any country in their routes, regardless of the billing address or country of departure.
  • Localized sites, separate user interfaces for particular countries, such as are found with Avis.com and Avis.co.uk or Travelocity.com and Travelocity.co.uk, require users to familiarize themselves with entirely different user interfaces for the same company. In other words, a traveler who at one time is chooses to book flights while visiting the US on the Travelocity.com site and later on the Travelocity.co.uk site would find an entirely different experience. This could serve to dilute brand value while creating the potential for confusion as the content, paths and activities are presented very differently on each site.  A business traveler who frequently books cars through Avis will similarly find different user interfaces depending on whether he visits the site in the US or in the UK. Clearly there are good reasons for having localized content such as pricing and specials but why force business travelers, perhaps as much as 50% of the car rental market, to use more than one site (user experience) for the same company?

Shelley Taylor & Associates is a management consulting and business publishing firm with offices in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The research was conducted between October and December 2003.  The full study, which includes a company-by-company analysis and specific examples of best and worst practices, is available for purchase by phone from the London office (+44 (0)20 7243 3428), or US office (001 650 473 6514) or by email: onlinetravel@infofarm.com. The press release and Executive Summary will be available to staff reporters upon request. Interviews with Shelley Taylor can be scheduled by calling her French mobile (33 66 477 1861).

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