WTM Live: Why Online Search Technologies Are Set to Revolutionize the Travel Industry

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Today's guest post comes to us from Carsten Kraus, chief executive of FACT-Finder Travel, who tackled the topic of semantic travel search at The World Travel Market 2012. While it may have a much more dramatic impact on leisure travel, think about being able to plug all the info on your RFP into a travel site that would be able to understand that the ballroom you require would need to be pillar-free, or that airwalls have to be soundproof, or whatever your requirements are, without all the back-and-forth with a sales rep.

What effect might it have on your site-selection process? Profound, or not much? Do the meeting site-selection sites (or your local CVB) already satisfy some of these needs? Does the rise of the SMMP (in the corporate world, at least), with its preferred suppliers, make this irrelevant for business and meeting travel procurers? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, here's Carsten's perspective:

One of the things that has really struck me as an exhibitor at this year’s World Travel Market exhibition is how big an impact technology is having on the travel sector. We were part of a huge area of the exhibition hall dedicated to technology that is really pushing the industry forward and making it more dynamic than ever before.

For example, I took part in a stimulating panel discussion alongside Nate Bucholz, industry head, travel, at Google, and Andrew Jones, head of search account management at Yahoo/Bing, in which we discussed how quickly the appetite for online travel booking is growing. According to Google’s own statistics, 60 percent of all travel this summer was booked online, and let's face it, this figure is only going to grow.

What’s also interesting is the way in which people now search for travel—in the UK alone, 78 percent of people still search via their desktop, but a growing number now also search via their mobile and tablet devices (13 percent and 9 percent respectively). And although the rise of online search engines has made travel and venue search easier, it is still far from being an exact science. And we’re starting to see the first signs of frustration among those who regularly search and book travel online, because search engine technology cannot match up to the imagination and sophistication of the human mind.

We recently brought 80 people to our usability studio to get deeper insight into how people search for travel and venues. All of those taking part had two things in common; they had all booked travel online and they all agreed it was an incredibly complicated process. One participant made a very telling observation: “Why can’t OTAs be more like Google?” This should be interpreted as, “Why can’t there just be one search box that you type your request into?” The idea of one-field search was very appealing across the group.

If you look at the search function on any OTA’s Web site, it is often incredibly complex with multiple fields to complete. Furthermore, it’s very difficult to search by what are increasingly becoming key venue selection criteria such as free Wi-Fi, business centers, and other added value benefits, which means you’re often forced to wade through large numbers of irrelevant results to get what you want. If you put all these options into a standard search box it would be huge. A one-field search box would eliminate all of these problems.

Until now, this hasn’t been possible in a search function as search has not been semantic—i.e., it has been unable to take inferences from the way in which we, as humans, think (and therefore type into a search box or engine) and produce intelligent answers from that; it simply matches the keywords that we enter. But this is starting to change. We have already implemented this kind of search technology in the travel sector for German travel site weg.de, which resulted in a 12 percent uplift in sales and a 66 percent reduction in search times.

So, how does it change things? Well, imagine, for example, if you were looking for "a venue close to a beach in November." A true semantic search engine would use inference technology to deduce that the destination you were looking for should be warm. This would be a major improvement over the current keyword searches that might produce results of any venue mentioning it proximity to a beach, regardless of the climate. It’s not difficult to imagine, from that very brief example, how much easier semantic search will not only make venue-finding, but also destination-finding and business travel booking once it is being used to power sites across the business-travel sector.

Although semantic search is very much in its infancy at present, a lot of investment is going into developing the technology at search companies like ourselves and Google, and we predict it will be broadly available in the search technology space by 2016, and by 2020 will be standard.

Of course, the invention and adoption of semantic search technology is the first step towards more intelligent computers. And one day, I predict, there may come a point at which computers challenge the intelligence of humans, but I don’t think we’ll be dealing the ramifications of this before 2025. However, for travel and meeting planners, the arrival of more intelligent search functionality that will dramatically reduce search and booking times is a very positive thing.

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