European online market sizzles

The European travel market, in fact a conglomeration of many local markets, and the U.K. market in particular are rapidly approaching online penetration levels of the U.S., according to the latest PhoCusWright report, European Online Travel Marketplace, Focus on the UKAccording to findings, the European online travel market extended the torrid pace it set in 2004 with 49% growth in 2005 to approach 29 billion Euros. The U.K. market grew more slowly, as the most mature element of the multifaceted European space, surpassing 10 billion Euros in 2005.
Tour operators and traditional airlines are beginning to redefine the marketplace as they develop coherent Internet strategies. The U.K. market is leading Europe in terms of the online development that has allowed the U.S. travel industry to focus on the innovative functionality and distribution paths. Such initiatives are only just beginning, in the form of mapping applications, RSS feeds and SMS, but the investment and drive of major players such as British Airways and TUI’s Thomson brand will accelerate these developments. In addition, the profile of search will continue to grow, led by widespread Internet marketing in the U.K., particularly a major push by tour operators in 1Q06.

With European online market share of one third and shrinking, the U.K. online travel market has been growing at a more measured pace than most of the other European markets, increasing 33% in 2005, a slight decline from the 38% growth rate posted in 2004. Many operations felt market pressures in the U.K. as traditional tour operators and supplier-direct initiatives took hold.

Vertically integrated and armed with well-established brands, the offline travel behemoths have, belatedly but effectively, moved substantial sales online. In the U.K., Thomson and Thomas Cook U.K. joined online travel agencies and low-cost carriers (LCCs) as giants in the U.K. Internet travel scene last year. In fact, PhoCusWright projects the share of the online travel market in the U.K. that is controlled by tour operators (not including owned subsidiary supplier companies such as LCCs) will increase from 12% in 2005 to 18% in 2007. Online travel agency share will decrease to 31% from 36% over the same period, and supplier direct channels will remain stable.
Suppliers have joined the LCCs in their Web expansion, particularly traditional carriers seeking lower distribution costs, the huge and relatively easy-to-reach pool of potential customers, and the innovative and loyalty-driving bonuses that Web sites can offer. On the hotels front, the U.K. market is less fragmented than in other European countries, and a large portion of properties and smaller hotel chains have decided to join franchise organizations. The key players are hotel chains and franchisees such as Hilton International, Accor, Whitbread, IHG and Best Western. One result of this dynamic is that hotel Web site direct sales as a percentage of all hotel sales in the U.K. are projected to double from 2004 to 2007, to 12%.