RealTime IT News

Chasing The Travel-Search Rainbow

Amid Cendant's $1.2 billion Orbitz buy, new entrants are rushing to the intersection of the online industry's hottest sectors: travel booking and search.

"It sure is getting crowded," Kevin Lee, CEO of the search engine marketing firm Did-It (http://www.did-it.com), said, referring to the spate of travel search sites that have launched or re-launched in recent weeks.

The proliferation of so many startups at the same time as blockbuster deals like Cendant's begs the question: Will we see even more travel search players jumping in, or is the space full and consolidation about to pick up?

There are plenty of newcomers. For example, Kayak.com is running an invite-only beta of its site, which scours major travel sites as well as airlines' pages for the cheapest fares. Kayak was started by the founders of Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity.

Also in beta is Mobissimo (http://mobissimo.com), which searches online travel agencies, online consolidators and major and low-cost airlines. One search returned fares from providers as diverse as American Airlines, CheapTickets, Orbitz, Independence Air and Continental.

And if you want to search travel sites side by side, you can download software from sidestep.com to do just that.

Not to be overlooked is Yahoo , which recently launched its own travel-search site dubbed FareChase (http://yahoo.farechase.com).

"A lot of people are trying to chase what may be a huge opportunity," Lee said. But as fares sink lower and lower, the question will soon become whether people will shop on price alone. "There's some opportunity in that," he said. "The question is, which is the stickiest and how do you get somebody to be a loyal user?"

That's the strategy of Site59.com, a last-minute vacation package company owned by Travelocity. It recently unveiled an improved search engine that features more packages. Called the 59th-Minute Dash, the tool offers more expansive search results, as well as a "personal touch" often associated with the advice of an expert.

It works like a personal shopper, said Robert Albert, Site59.com's general manager. "It returns not only requested results, but also relevant alternatives displayed in a new dashboard view. They can see at a glance if staying an extra night will save them money, or if choosing another date or destination will offer them a better value," he said.

The sites are also targeting an increasing number of the online population that now books travel on its own. A recent study by Travel Industry Association of America said nearly 64 million online travelers (which is about 30 percent of the U. S. adult population), used the Internet in the past year to get travel and destination information. Of that group, the study found, 44.6 million actually booked at least one travel service or product online in the past year.

Although the number of Americans who use Web sites and the Internet to plan travel is steady at 6 percent, the number of travelers now booking their own travel online has jumped to 40 percent from 29 percent a year ago. The most frequently purchased item continues to be airline tickets, which represented about 82 percent of all online travel bookers, up from 75 percent last year, the TIAA said. It's a major shift in consumer preferences in regard to planning and booking travel, said Suzanne Cook, senior vice president of research for the TIAA.

Chris Winfield, CEO of 10e20, a search marketing and Web development firm, thinks one reason for the new entrants is that search is so hot, and that online travel has been a strong growth area. "Look at the success of search. Everyday, there's a new search engine coming out. I'm shocked at how many I get [to try out] each day."

For his money, he's keeping an eye on Yahoo's FareChase, especially given the exclusive deal Yahoo's existing travel section had struck with Travelocity for searches. "It reminds me of the same thing we saw with [Yahoo's Google relationship]," he said. "Even though you were searching the Yahoo network, you were using Google's results. The two have since discontinued their travel-search relationship. A spokesman for Yahoo was not immediately available for comment.

"It's not that hard to create a travel site these days," Winfield added. "Right now, it's about being a little different."