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Sorry Forrester & NY Times, The Worst Part of the Trip Is Not Booking It

The NY Times (and several other publications) have picked up on a recent Forrester report that suggests people are becoming increasingly frustrated with booking travel online.  This assertion comes from a survey data point that says (according to Travel Weekly) “33% of U.S. travelers who book online feel travel sites do a good job presenting travel choices; that is down from 39% in 2008.”

First of all, that 6% drop is likely within the margin of error of the survey, so it’s possible there’s actually no drop whatsoever.  Secondly, if travel companies were OK with only 39% customer satisfaction last year, I would not think that the sky is falling when it (supposedly) hits 33%.

The report (see more detail here) also finds that 26% of consumers say they would “use a good offline travel agency if I could find one” – up from 23% last year.  This margin is statistically insignificant.  Plus, what does that mean?  Is anyone actually searching for an offline travel agent?

Another question asked if people “enjoy using the Internet to plan and buy travel.”  The number has decreased a bit year over year.  But really – why do people have to enjoy booking travel?  Vacuum cleaner companies aren’t shutting down because people don’t enjoy vacuuming.  Booking travel is a task, and as the novelty has worn off, people “enjoy” it less.  But it doesn’t mean they’re not going to do it.

There is a completely asinine suggestion in the Times piece that, according to the Forrester analyst, “the fact that there are more people now who would consider using a good offline travel agent is telling me people are saying, ‘Enough already.’” Except that people are not flocking to offline travel agents.  People have flocked away from travel agents since online booking started.  And they are not flocking back.  And anyone who has had a thought to go book an airline ticket with a travel agent will not be happy to know that 89% of them (according to a recent ASTA survey) charge a service fee.  This is while exactly none of the major online travel agencies charge a fee.

So is the article saying that people are unhappy with the free service that online agencies provide?  One that allows them to compare a multitude of options at once?  And that people are so unhappy they’d be willing to pay $50 on top of a $200 flight to have a travel agent do the legwork for them?  I don’t think so.

I would agree with Forrester’s point that retail, banking and other websites have gotten easier to use while travel websites have been pretty stagnant for the past 5 or 6 years.  Perhaps on some level people are frustrated with that.  But:

a) It’s still about 100,000 times better to book a trip yourself online than it was to try to book a trip 15 years ago; and

b) who cares?

Really, what difference does this make if people are supposedly frustrated?  And why did the Times write an article about it?  The article tries to tie together this report citing customer frustration with a different survey that found “that more than a quarter of travelers had avoided at least one trip in the previous year because of the air travel system.”

Wait – that has absolutely nothing to do with people booking online.  Is this article supposed to be about a general level of traveler frustration?  Well that’s damn groundbreaking – people aren’t happy with the air travel system.  Shocker!

The point is this:  be careful what you read about travel in mainstream press.  Despite what either the Forrester report suggests (or perhaps the NY Times inferred), travelers are not abandoning online travel for any other means of booking travel.  And we already saw that Priceline grew market share by eliminating service fees – consumers are not going to head over to offline travel agents to pay an additional fee.  Yes, offline leisure agents serve a great purpose booking specialty trips that require an expert.  The Internet isn’t particularly good at that.  But that is a minute percentage of total travel booked online.

Everyone needs to take a deep breath and remember that in terms of booking travel, we’ve got it very, very, very good right now.

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  1. Jared: Great piece. I concur with the thrust of what you are saying. I small number of people may abandon online booking out of frustration and go down to their local travel agent, but this will not be happening in droves. One minor quibble: Although the major online travel companies eliminated their air-booking fees, they do indeed still charge fees for hotel bookings, although they have largely been lowered in recent months.

    So, where does this lead us? Booking travel online is becoming more complex all the time. I love what Orbitz did in showing the total price of a hotel booking, including taxes and fees, in initial display results. But the online travel companies still need to work their tails off to make the process simpler.

    Alas, it’s no easy task.

  2. Hi Dennis,

    First off, Dennis’ blog is a must-read for anyone who cares about online travel distribution. Go read it at http://dennisschaal.blogspot.com/.

    Second – Dennis is correct, the online agencies are still charging fees for hotels. My bad.

    I agree with your last point — the OTAs can definitely improve, and the Forrester report sort of gets at that, but the headline (that people are going to start booking again offline) totally misses the boat.

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