Search plays a prominent travel planning role, but a dip in usagecould signal opportunity for vertical engines.
The Internet has already been identified as a valuable resource for researching and booking travel. Now, new studies point to opportunities for travel-specific search engines.
The Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) found nearly 45 million U.S. adults booked travel over the Internet in 2004, up nearly 6 percent from 2003. Furthermore, 40 percent of online bookers conduct all their travel reservations online, compared to 29 percent last year.
Search engines play prominently in travel planning, particularly for affluent Internet users. A joint study by Thomas, Townsend & Kent (TTK) and BIGresearch surveyed 967 Americans with household annual incomes of at least $100,000. The study reveals search engine usage for travel planning outweighs other online and more traditional methods.
Over three-quarters of respondents used search engines for travel planning, compared to 47 percent who relied on magazines, 42 percent who solicited referrals, and 35 percent who used travel agents.
E-mail marketing lags considerably behind. Roughly one-quarter of survey participants indicated they used information in these messages to research and book trips.
Despite its popularity among affluent online planners, search engine usage for travel is diminishing. Andrea M. Stokes, director, marketing and international research for the TIA, says their research "shows that search engines are still being used in overall travel planning – likely for many things such as destination information, hotel links, fare searches, restaurant searches, etc."
Stokes continued, "But the number of online travel planners using search engines has declined over time, whereas there has been growth in the use of online agencies and other websites."
For example, said Stokes, "...our 'Travelers' Use of the Internet' tracking study shows that the percent of online travel planners using search engine Web sites for travel planning has declined from 77 percent in 2000 to 59 percent in 2004."
"In the meantime, online agency website usage among online travel planners has grown from 52 percent in 2000 to 70 percent in 2004. The use of travel supplier websites (such as airlines, hotels, etc.) has remained fairly stable over time," Stokes notes.
The shift from heavy search engine usage for travel planning could be opening the door for a vertical industry that's already beginning to infiltrate the search space.
Most recently, Yahoo beta launched its travel search engine, yahoo.farechase.com, allowing users to search 50 travel sites at once. Mobissimo debuted its travel search earlier this year, providing bargain-hunters with results from 62 travel sites.
Similarly, Kayak.com, founded by the former EVP of consumer travel at Orbitz, is in pre-release mode and can be tested by invitation only.
The proof in vertical success will lie in whether users adopt the travel-specific engines as widely as they did with Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. The TTK/BIGresearch study of affluent travelers revealed that 48 percent of those who book their travel plans online are using one of the three popular sites.
"It will be interesting to see if the use of search engines for travel planning changes in our 2005 study because of this [travel-specific search]," said Stokes.
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