Assessing The Future Trends and Technology in Travel.
Travel Distribution Summit Asia 2010
Saturday, 13th February 2010
The online travel industry still has quite a few intriguing puzzles to solve -

Be it for the integration of social search into online travel to Google's algorithms and Google Labs to the progression of technology and innovation in the travel industry, there is still plenty to learn about.

FACE-TO-FACE with Tim Hughes, vice president at Orbitz Worldwide, HotelClub

In order to know more about several of these issues, EyeforTravel's Ritesh Gupta recently spoke to Tim Hughes, vice president at Orbitz Worldwide, HotelClub, and founder of the BOOT. Hughes is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Travel Distribution Summit Asia 2010 (to be held in Singapore, April 28-29). Excerpts:

Predicting user preferences and integration of social search into online travel: I am a strong believer that all companies in online travel should be focusing on understanding users and working on predictive and recommendation engines. But it is a mistake to come at this from just a user preference angle.

The trap that companies are falling into is thinking that consumers are still asking "closed" questions. Questions that can be answered with an easy or direct response. Questions like "How much for a flight to New York?, "Which hotel should I stay in Rome?"...these are the questions consumers asked for the first 15 years of online travel. Now consumers are also asking open ended questions like "Where should I go next?".

Questions that require a more detailed answer and therefore a very detailed understanding of not only the preferences of the user but also the relationship between those preferences and the destinations available and the different versions of the individual that is searching.

Social networking's role in this is the role that word of mouth has always played in marketing and travel purchases. A force that can be instrumental in a consumer's purchase decision which can be influenced, prodded, supported but never controlled. The difference between social networking marketing and word of mouth marketing is just speed. Social network is word of mouth at the speed of light.

On Google's algorithms: Google has won search - game over.

There are countries where they are weaker (Japan, Korea, China for example) and products where they are weaker (local search and business listings for example) but let's not kid ourselves about who has won search. That said, "old search" is about providing a single destination as an answer to a question. Regardless of the search term, Google only presents a list of single answer destinations. If an answer to the search request is found through information from a combination of different websites then Google (or any search site for that matter) do not have the answer.

The other constraint on Google and old search is the limited scope for incorporating and merging the latest up to date with results with older more trusted results. Google has been experimenting with incorporating real time search in their results (example here) but they have not yet figured out how to establish authority in real time search or change the display to be more than a never ending stream of updated information. The semantic web should be part of the solution here but I still feel we are a while away from implementation because we have not figured out new rules for authority and new methods for display. Maybe Google has but they are just not saying yet!

On Google Labs and new features like Google Social Search:

The next big thing in social network marketing are finding ways to adjust word of mouth marketing to a faster/instantaneous medium. The basics of word of mouth market are trust, interest and relevance. For a consumer to be prepared to share a product, idea, story, service etc. with a friend, they have to trust the source, be interested in the item/thing and think that it is relevant to others in their circle.

Social network marketers need to have these three human elements at the centre of each campaign. The mistake that I see so often is jumping to a technological solution to marketing on social networking rather than the human elements. We can see this in the constant screw ups at Facebook with privacy as they launch new privacy crushing rules and products to give marketers access to customer data. My advice is to turn to the technology second and the human elements first. Establish trust then make something relevant and interesting. If you do, consumers will follow.

The final thing to remember as a marketer in social networks - and the 21st century for that matter - is to accept that you have limited control over what your customers will say about your brand. The response to that lack of control is communication and discussion (i. e. engagement) not defamation, litigation and IP laws (i. e. stupidity).

Mobile advertising: Up until recently I have been a mobile denier.

Mainly because every year since 2000 has been the year that mobile would take over PC as the place for online action. Google's purchase of AdMob is the turning point. Not because when Google does something it means we have to take a trend seriously but because it means we now have non-transactional revenue streams for mobile activity. The problem for mobile has been that people stop at the credit card entry point.

For a variety of reasons people that are completely comfortable putting their cc number into a PC or giving it to a bartender covered in tats and piercing in the off-line world have hesitated when asked to give it to a mobile phone. With Google betting on mobile advertising we have a business model outline. It is a means for content and transactional companies to make money in mobile. That is the step that is needed - more that the continued roll out of smart phone technology and more than the expansion of social networks.

Mobile phones vis-a-vis PC: The easy answer is location.

A phone knows so much more about your current location than a PC. This gives mobile a huge advantage over PC search in servicing an immediate requirement. But there are challenges here, too. A mobile can assume too much about a location. Just because I am travelling in Tokyo does not mean that I want the answer to the question to be in Japanese. The other challenge for mobile is that the platforms are still not uniform in display.

Thankfully, we are down to a much smaller list of mobile browsers/operating systems than previously but still there are differences between iPhone, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Palm And Symbian. This is where apps come in as content providers are trying to get around the browser and device compatibility by using apps to control display and information management to consumers.

Progression of technology and innovation: Innovation is always driven by local requirements and demand patterns.

Therefore there are examples across Asia of markets driving product development well ahead of the US or Europe. India leads the world in online bus ticket sales and low cost carrier and traditional carrier display integration. Japan leads the world in online hotel bookings via mobile phones. China leads the world in call centre same day hotel bookings. The mistake many make in planning for innovation is to look to the technology first rather than the business need.

The secret to innovation is as much about timing, social readiness and execution as it is about a great technology idea. Therefore the major development in Asia that is driving innovation is not a technology one, it is an attitudinal shift and market maturity. A display of confidence within the Asian travel industry that dedicated market specific solutions can be put together to target customer needs rather than simply copying what the global OTAs are doing in Europe and America.

On attending TDS Asia, 2010: Conferences are always about people watching and meeting. That is what I am looking forward to. The best person you meet at a good conference is the person you weren't expecting to meet.

For more information about the Travel Distribution Summit Asia 2010 (to be held in Singapore, April 28-29) http://events.eyefortravel.com/tdasia/index.php/distribution-a-sales

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