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SideStep Launches Activity Search

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You've made your travel plans—now what? SideStep's new Activity Search lets you explore destinations and create an itinerary of things to do once you arrive.

SideStep has made a bold move into activity search. I say bold because it's not like other companies haven't thought of this or aren't already involved in the area. In fact, after Rob Solomon walked me through the service I researched the online travel agents' (OTAs) offerings and found very similar services. So I regrouped and talked with the Anthony Rodio, SideStep's VP of Product Management, to find out what I was missing. I also ran side by side comparisons putting SideStep Activity Search Beta up against the established players.

My conclusion is that SideStep's Activity Search is not only more comprehensive (yes, Rob, I should have just listened to you), but also provides a much sleeker user interface with refining options that travel search consumers have grown accustomed to.

In other words, with this beta product, SideStep continues to one-up the OTAs.

So what exactly is Activity Search? From the press release: "With the launch of Local Attractions, Activities and Tickets, SideStep becomes the first and only travel search engine to incorporate local vertical search into travel planning." So it's a vertical search engine incorporating another kind of vertical search into travel planning. I didn't follow that either. Let's just stick with Activity Search, and I'll try to convince SideStep to do the same.

I'm heading to Hawaii on Friday. Seriously! I'll be there through May 6. Typing 'Honolulu' into SideStep's Activity Search with my trip dates returns 39 results in 6 categories. In all, there are 10 different categories: Amusement and Theme Park, Cultural, Dining, Museums, Other, Outdoor and Adventure, Shows and Theater, Sports, Tours and Attractions, and Transportation.

The results are sorted by popularity, but can also be viewed by Price, Duration, and Name. The left hand side of the results page shows a slider bar so I can narrow down the results to a certain price range. Also shown are a number of filtering options: Category (I can pre-select one category from the original search box or narrow down or expand my options on the search results page), Duration (maybe you want an all day tour), City (if you're visiting NYC, you might only want to see Manhattan), and Day (maybe you only want to do activities the third and fifth days of the trip).

Clicking on any of the activities brings you to a more detailed description of the activity with associated pricing. From here, you can click 'buy tickets' and be sent to a partner site (remember... travel search engines don't offer booking services, they just hook you up with the provider). Most of the activities are currently powered by a few large aggregators, but just as SideStep went directly to travel suppliers, expect the same with activity suppliers.

Doing the same search on Travelocity's Activity Section returned 18 results in 3 categories: Tours and Activities, Outdoors, and Dining. Travelocity also has categories for Attractions and Shows and Events. Unfortunately, Travelocity's search results page with its tabbed browsing experience looks like it was created 4 years ago.

Furthermore, there are no filtering options. When talking to Rob and Anthony, I got the sense that they thought these results were 'Editorialized' (my made up word) in that Travelocity had picked just these narrow group of listings as the best or possibly the most profitable. This is very different from SideStep's comprehensive offering which puts the consumer in charge. In other words, Travelocity isn't offering activity search, but rather just activity recommendations.

The same search on Expedia's Activity Section returned a paltry 3 results and a message to change my start date to 4/30/06 (as opposed to 4/28/06) for more results. Odd. When I made the adjustment a whopping 7 results appeared. Obviously not that impressive. The results were organized by category: Events and Shows, Golf Offerings, Water Activities and Cruises, Attraction Passes, Restaurants and Bars, and Coupons. Again, no filtering options.

I did a couple other searches (Perth, NYC) and SideStep still came out on top. For Perth, Travelocity kept on having trouble with my trip dates and Expedia didn't seem to cover the city. As for NYC, SideStep definitely needs to clean up its results: a) the various Broadway shows like Wicked need to be 'normalized' so different seat options are grouped under the same listing and b) pricing needs to be updated as I found numerous listings which said one price on the results page and then a different price on the details page. Just remember this is day 1 of the Beta period. Anyways, I was happy to find Mets tickets available - although I didn't like them listed as less popular than Yankees' tickets.

As I worked my way through more search results, I discovered another smart feature. When I clicked through on any listing that had multiple seats available - think shows, sporting events, etc. - I was able to preview all my seating options and price levels before clicking through to the supplier's site. A small feature, but one that shows SideStep wants to qualify the customer before sending the lead.

This service isn't just for someone planning a vacation, but also for anyone who wants to book an activity in his or her local area. SideStep's Activity Search would actually be a very strong stand alone offering, but has even more potential when integrated into flight and hotel searches ala Yahoo's Trip Planner Beta. This isn't happening now, but I'm sure we'll see upsells down the road.

Bottom line? This is damn cool service. It's one of those things that you think about for a second and assume is already out there. At least that's what I thought. StubHub sells sporting event tickets, right? Broadway sells show tickets, right? Your local golf course has online reservations, right? In other words, you could find all of these events on disparate websites, but only SideStep seems to offer real time searches for local entertainment in a comprehensive manner. The power of the SideStep platform.

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