Online Travel Firms Out of Synch With Consumers

The $50 billion online travel industry still lags behind consumer expectations across such critical categories as privacy and responsiveness, according to a study conducted by The Customer Respect Group.

The study surveyed a representative sample of the adult Internet population, formulating a comprehensive list of 110 customer experience criteria divided into six major categories: simplicity, responsiveness, privacy, attitude, transparency, and principles. A team of analysts then surveyed over 2,000 corporate Web sites using these criteria, culminating in a “customer respect index” (CRI). The measurement is scaled from 0 to 10. A higher number indicates a more positive user experience.

Overall, the online travel sector, while fairing better than other online industries, performed worst in the responsiveness category. The study found only 25 percent of companies surveyed send any kind of acknowledgement to a customer inquiry that includes a timeframe in which a response can be expected, and deliver on that promise within the specified time.

In addition, 57 percent of online inquiries sent by consumers are answered late or not at all. This figure is partly due to relatively low adoption of auto-responder technology in online travel: approximately 51 percent of all firms in the sector use auto-responder technology, the study found.

The other key topical concern is privacy. According to the findings, 62 percent of firms surveyed either don’t collect data or use collected data for internal purposes only. The remaining 28 percent of online travel companies share or sell personal data; and an additional 10 percent aren’t explicit about how they use it.

“When you are talking about a $50 billion industry that is only going to become more competitive as it grows to an expected $90 billion in four years, for 28 percent of that to be at risk is a staggering statistic,” said Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group. “The measure of who will thrive and who will fail will have largely to do with the ability of these companies to address these consumer concerns.”

Broken down by travel sector, Web-based resellers overall score a CRI of 7.3. Tied in second place are airlines and hotels/resorts, both of which received a 6.6.

“It’s interesting to see how well the Web resellers did,” Golesworthy said. “Part of that is based on the fact that their efforts on the Internet are their entire business, whereas for the other players in the online travel sector, it’s just another sales channel.”

Leading resellers included Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, and Hotwire, all of which received a score of 8 or higher. The frontrunners in the airline sector included US Airways, British Airways, Air Canada, Independence Air, and Northwest Airlines, each of which scored a 7 or better. Leading hotels/resorts, meanwhile, include Marriott International, Mandalay Bay Group, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, all of which were rated at 7.5 or higher.

Other key findings include:

  • Surveyed travel firms receive the best overall rating (7.8) for attitude and the worst (4.9) for responsiveness.

  • 95 percent of all companies surveyed use cookie technology. Of these, 20 percent provide an explanation about what data they relay; 12 percent provide an explanation of how to disable the cookies.
  • After personal data are collected, only 38 percent of sites use an opt-in default, where the customer can choose whether to be included in future marketing programs.
  • 85 percent of sites reviewed provide forms that would be difficult to use for people with disabilities, including every airline reviewed.

Leading Customer Respect Index (CRI) Rankings for Airline, Hotel, and Travel Reseller Sectors, Q1 05
Airline Sector, Top 10
Airline Web Site CRI
US Airways 8.0
British Airways 7.8
Air Canada 7.4
Independence Air 7.1
Northwest Airlines Corp. 7.3
Hawaiian Airlines 6.9
Delta Air Lines 6.8
JetBlue Airways 6.8
Continental Airlines 6.7
Alaska Air Group 6.5
Total sector average 6.6
Hotels & Resorts Sector, Top 10
Hotel and/or Resort Web Site CRI
Marriott International 8.4
Mandalay Bay (Mandalay Resort Group) 7.6
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide 7.5
Harrah’s Entertainment 7.1
Hyatt Hotels & Resorts 7.1
Hilton Hotels 7.0
Wyndham International 7.0
Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority 6.8
Radisson Hotels & Resorts 6.7
Caesars Entertainment 5.9
Total sector average 6.6
Web-Based Resellers Sector
Web-Based Reseller Web Site CRI
Orbitz 8.6
Travelocity 8.2
Expedia 8.1
Hotwire 8.0
Priceline 7.7 7.3
TravelZoo 6.2 6.1 5.5
Total sector average 7.3
Source: The Customer Respect Group, 2005

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