The art of booking travel and obtaining certain “en route” information has been significantly enhanced since the holiday season last year.
However, when planning travel online is compared with the services of a good human travel consultant, the answer to the question is a resounding “No.” Of course, finding a really great human travel consultant is easier said than done so to some extent the point is moot. Nonetheless, the online environment should strive to emulate such a service level.
An individual who travels a lot for business, but who is not an official travel guru, asked IDC if the traveler`s general experience—especially now in the midst of holiday airport bedlam—had improved in the last year due to the Internet? It`s curious that she couldn`t say whether it had improved! But that`s the point: For the busy executive, using the Internet to plan travel remains difficult.
For this discussion, the traveling public is broken down into two groups: those experienced Internet travelers who do a lot online and those who don`t use the Internet for booking or for much else. Experienced Internet travelers research, book and change their trips, check seat maps, and sign up for flight alerts online. The other group includes individuals who don`t use the Internet for booking or for much else, but who may want to obtain flight status information and the like online. For booking, these travelers use the telephone to speak to a travel agent and/or supplier directly.
Some of the significant strides made in the last year for the experienced Internet user include:
* Personalization. Hotel companies, such as Marriott International, have greatly enhanced the booking process, especially by adding the ability to create a personal profile. (Never mind the fact that a human travel consultant has been doing this for years.) Every time a customer returns to the site, his or her room preferences and credit card information are already on file, saving much time and frustration.
* Booking. In the area of flight searches, ITA Software leapfrogged the leaders Travelocity.com and Expedia Inc. with a much quicker and easier customer experience. Another development by GetThere is the “Rapid Rez” used by Americanexpress.com and other GetThere partners. Although still a little raw, this service is as close to a perfect virtual travel agent as IDC has seen: The system knows the customer`s hometown airport and air, hotel, and car preferences. The traveler just types in the dates of the trip and the destination, and the system does the rest—very impressive. In addition, Choice Hotels recently began to offer the ability to book hotel rooms through a wireless device.
* Better-designed sites. Easily navigable sites, like United.com, permit the traveler to get his or her information quickly. This improvement reduces the “Booking-travel-on-the-Internet-is-a-pain” syndrome.
For travelers who may not use the Internet very much for booking or researching travel, there also have been significant developments to sweeten their travel experience—and the technical expertise required is minimal.
These developments include:
á Flight notification via cellular telephones and handheld devices. Continental and United now can push flight status updates directly to a traveler`s cellular phone or pager. Travel agencies such as BTI World Travel and American Express also offer this service. Other airlines and agencies, such at Trip.com, offer such information on demand via Internet-enabled telephones and handheld devices.
á Flight changes. Travelocity.com recently joined Galileo International and a few other companies that offer the ability to easily rebook a flight for the same city pair using a wireless device. For full-fare tickets, this service is better than what a human travel consultant can supply.
It`s also important to look at the customer experience at the same time that one looks at airline and travel agency productivity—and to understand the correlation between the two. Isn`t one of the Internet`s biggest hopes and promises that it can empower the customer to take certain functions into his or her own hands, not at the hands of the supplier?
When IDC polled airlines and travel agencies, we heard that approximately 1-2% of flight status inquiries to call centers are now handled through their Web sites or via wireless devices. This seems to indicate that consumers are getting the information when and where they want it; at the same time, the suppliers don`t have to commit to more expensive call center resources. However, more resources are still required to improve the overall efficiency of travel suppliers.
Travel Web sites have a long way to go before they can deliver to the consumer information that is the same as - or even similar to - a good human travel consultant.
With the resources devoted to improving the traveler`s experience via better Web sites as well as enhanced—and practical—mobile and wireless offerings, the consumer should come out happier during the 2001 holiday season. But the human travel consultant shouldn`t be discarded just yet.