To most, “Travel Agent” means the company on the corner with a couple of big glass windows, lots of fading brochures lying around and inside, a faint whiff of yesterday.
But the term “Travel Agent” also refers to giants like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Thomas Cook, AAA and lots of others, referred to as OTA, or Online Travel Agents.
And while a recent survey by econsultancy, a digital marketing company, confirmed that 85% of travelers use the web or the Internet to research and book vacations, they found that customers are not as satisfied with the on line booking experience as they want to be.
It seems the designs and back end data bases do not support actual, real-life behaviors of the traveler.
Or as Hotelmarketing.com put it web-based travel agents “need to be able to match more real world situations more closely.”
It seems poor online content and inflexible booking engines are the chief complaint of the online-booking traveler, often driving him or her back to the traditional “bricks and mortar” travel agent.
One client in the test tried to book a family trip to Jamaica. Despite changing the budget limits, dates and resort options, he was continually met with “an error message and zero results.”
Econsultancy notes, that If this played out between a traveler and a human travel agent, the exchange would go like this:
Customer: “Do you have any vacations in resort A for Budget X, please?”
Travel Agent: “Sorry, no.“
Customer: “OK, how abut vacations in Resort B for Budget X?”
Travel Agent: “Sorry. No.”
Customer: “How about budget Y on these dates?”
Travel Agent: “Ah, no.”
And so on
For online booking engines and travel agents to be able to serve real world requests and not just data-driven options, they have to learn some part of the following:
• Have the capacity to show a vacation package. For example, how about displaying a vacation choice that may be a hundred bucks or so above the amount entered? A human travel agent can do this.
• Offer travel options. Searching for a Family Travel vacation should provide a range of choices, defining “family”: Parents and teens? Grandparents? Older children?
• Don’t assume “family travel” means two parents and 1.5 kids. Online date bases have to be more flexible. Traditional travel agents are.
• Web-based results need to be more detailed in terms of room descriptions.
• For reasons none of us really understands, flight pricing fluctuates considerably, thanks to complex algorithms. Online travel agencies must be able to be more upfront about this, be more helpfully predictive so travelers don’t have to keep coming back for repeat searches.
Basically, travelers who use the web to make travel plans are asking for more options and a human reality check.
They want more flexibility and want the weight of the data to work for the traveler, not against him or her.
In essence, they want the responsiveness of a real travel agent and, as one reader commented, an Amazon or ebay-like set of alternative and “recently viewed” options.
Not too much to ask, we think.