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Hug the Reservations

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If you listen to some of the Travel Search competitors, then you might come to this same conclusion too. The prime opportunities are "hugging" or driving demand for travel reservations. It's just passé to be deeply rooted in travel infrastructure, transactions and payment systems. Instead, there's more growth in travel advertising these days.

How do these search specialists approach the travel vertical? They gather comprehensive results, and often mix in a little social functionality and content for good measure. They also produce open and unconstrained results, unburdened by package offerings or other legacy services.

SideStep's priority is "to find the best deal or best reservation to meet your needs,” explains Sam Shank, VP/GM of TravelPost. That translates into expansion from search to itinerary planning, based on its TP acquisition last fall. “Getting people to contribute [reviews] is very, very hard,” says Shank, and apparently worth the effort.

Even the traditional travel agencies are grappling with new upstream offerings. Ashley Randall, Product Manager of TripAdvisor, took pains to distance her company from parent Expedia at last week's SES-Travel gathering. She was asked for advice regarding social networks and reflected on what makes her service strong – empowering her members and remembering what you're good at. My sense is that TA's all about additional traffic, too.

Perhaps the most interesting perspective came from Drew Patterson, who's VP of Marketing at Kayak. When I asked him to compare his company to SideStep, he provided a search metaphor: Kayak is streamlined search, more like Google; SideStep is about social media and community, more like Yahoo. At least their respective offerings are clearly differentiated here.

While it may be a very competitive marketplace, the players seem more genteel and respectful than I expected. They have different priorities, see a vast marketplace, and clearly understand there's no monopoly in travel search. While Kayak, SideStep, Mobissimo, Farecast and others compete directly through their travel search engines, their approaches seem pretty different – and there's some room for all of them.

So beyond the obvious consumer demand and cool search technology, what's motivating all these Travel Search entrants? It's all about the advertising, in an extremely attractive commercial environment. Check out these conversion stats, as ticked off by Patterson: 12-17% for air travel; 8-10% for car rentals; and 4-8% for hotels. So maybe hugging the reservations is more than a friendly gesture!


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