The future of travel search lies on a Silicon Beach (not in a Valley)
After more than 15 years of online travel, we are still looking for the perfect travel search engine. But do four Australian startups hold the key to unlocking the future of travel search?
I have written a number of stories on search and travel search (Question and Answer sites post here, future of general search post here). A theme in those posts is that searching for travel in 2012 is very similar to searching for travel in 2002.
On the major online travel agents or metasearch sites you enter a starting point, destination and dates. The results are a list of flights.
On the major/main search engines you type in a closed question (a question with a specific answer such as “cheap flights to bali”) and a list of sites is presented. To get it to work you are required to know where it is you want to go or what it is you want to do.
There are some new wave product emerging such as Google Flight Search, but search continues to struggle to answer the open-ended question such as “where do I go next?”
This is the “fourth phase” of online travel that I have been talking about since 2007.
Four Australian companies are putting a case forward that the future of online travel search will be found on Silicon Beach, rather than Silicon Valley or Alley.
Rome2Rio is a platform for organizing and searching end-to-end travel options. Departure and arrival points are matched by all of the transport options needed to travel from one to the other including land options.
For example I have relatives in Faenza, a small town in Northern Italy. There are a number of ways to get to this town from Sydney.
Each way involves medium levels of land transport. On a typical OTA I would need to search flights from Sydney to Rome, Milan, Bologna, Rimini and other possible locations then build land options from there.
Rome2Rio display all options in an easy to see format including trains to get to Sydney airport.
For destinations that have multiple options outside of air (ie ferry or train) or with multiple land needs before and after a flight, Rome2Rio provide an amazing service and displays of options.
Rome2Rio founder Michael Cameron tells me that in January the company celebrated its one millionth search query. An impressive result for a company with little to no marketing budget.
Cameron admits there is a lot more content to add – recent additions include trains in Japan and Sri Lanka.
Melbourne-based Adioso are also trying to revolutionise flight search. They claim to be the world’s first travel search site focused on flexible and open-ended searches.
Adioso has a not-untypical looking search interface with questions like From, To, When and Under Price. But if you conduct a typical search (say Sydney to Melbourne in April), the results are anything but typical.
Adioso shows a day-by-day index of the lowest fare. Helping guide the flexible flyer on when are the cheapest days.
Options are then provided (Yapta-style) to subscribe to alerts of price changes.
It gets even more interesting when you select different options in the “To” field. For example, a search for Sydney to “overseas” (ie anywhere not in Oz), in October for less than $800 shows results for typical destinations like Bali and Phuket but also places that do not immediately spring to the Australian mind such as Osaka in Japan.
A great way of triggering ideas and inspiration for destinations.
Adioso’s earlier versions were even more focused on natural language with a simple Google like box for search as opposed to the current guided multi-box search.
Adioso founder Tom Howard explains the change as “over time we found that the most powerful feature was broad/open-ended search, so we’re optimising the site for that”.
With the broader, Google style interface it “it wasn’t obvious to people what you could or couldn’t enter into it, and many people found it intimidating or frustrating”.
But they are not giving up on a freer form future.
“In the long-term we still believe natural-language is the best style of interface for the product we’re building, and we definitely want to offer it again in the future, but we just need to take manageable steps to get there, and stay focused on making the product as simple to use along the way.”
Getflight is approaching destination and flight selection from a means of helping customer discover sale fares, regardless of a destination.
From your start location (say Sydney) the map and call out boxes show the sale fares available to scores of domestic and international destinations.
In one glance I can see that there are sales on for fares to Queenstown NZ, Vancouver, CA and Tokyo, Japan – three very different destinations.
Providing the searcher with a dramatically easier to navigate choice of where to go in addition to the typical OTA choice of how to get there.
Crucially Getflight only indexes sale fares. This has the advantage of keeping the prices low and options manageable but it does mean that that there are lots of regular fare options not displayed by GetFlight.
GetFlight Founder Ian Cumming tells me that the challenge with search innovation in the flight area (in Australia and elsewhere) is that “…online distribution of airfares is complex and innovation is in a stale-mate with the conversion rate”.
He believes that OTAs are afraid of innovating for fear of the short-term impact on sales. He is also acutely aware of the costs of marketing versus the declining margins in air sales.
As a result the GetFlight model is adapting from exclusively direct to consumer to “focusing on developing a licensing model which allows OTAs to re-brand and integrate the GetFlight technology platform to increase distribution of their inventory and increase user engagement.”
Flighfox is human powered travel search. In exchange for a finders fee, flight/travel experts compete to provide a customer with the best quote and routing.
The customer enters in the to, from, range of dates (+/- seven days), some refinement options and commits to a finders fee (min $29). Human travel experts then bid back to the customer with the best options, routings, pricings etc.
Flightfox founder Todd Sullivan is claiming that “on our average trip, which visits a few cities internationally, we save customers 27″.
The secret, he says, is that the travel experts they use have “many years of flight ‘hacking’ experience” to enable them to find the best fares. In other words he believes that people can beat machines.
I have seen nothing like Flightfox in travel.
It is a mash up of eBay-style bidding with crowdsourcing quotes and supply like Freelancer.com or Quotify. In many ways he is trying to do with people what Rome2Rio and even Everbread and Vayant are trying to do with technology. Combine routings and fare combinations that are not easily accessed with current GDS/air search technology.
Flightfox is the youngest of the four – having launched in January 2012. A unique idea but a lot of challenges here, especially as it is asking for money upfront from customers.
At the very least it will have to adjust the model to have some sort of “sniff before you buy” teaser so that customers can get a sense of the savings versus agony trade-off in the options available.
Sitting on Silicon Beach
Sites like Hipmunk and Skyscanner introduced the industry to innovative and engaging displays for flight search – with “agony” based ranking and ordering in the case of Hipmunk and easy to digest dateless price tables from Skyscanner.
These four Australian sites are trying to join that innovation battle. All three are still very much in startup mode but they highlight the increasing determination of Silicon Beach Australians to mix it with global competition.
The biggest challenge Australian startups typically face is getting the same attention (and money) of the Valley and European start-ups, and therefore taking ideas from beta products to sustainable businesses.
Take a look at these sites and let me know in the comments if you think they can make in off the Beach and into contention.
NB2: Disclosure – Getflight and Ian Cumming share office space with Getaway Lounge (my day job).
Tim Hughes is an online travel industry executive who has been blogging since June 2006 at the Business of Online Travel (the BOOT).
The BOOT covers analysis of online travel industry trends, consumer and company behaviour and broader online/web activity of interest to online travel companies (with a bias towards Tim’s home markets of Asia and Australasia and with the odd post on consuming and loving travel thrown in).
In late-2010 the BOOT clocked its 1,000th post, 200,000th visitor and 300,000th page view.In his work life he is the CEO of Getaway Lounge - a premium travel deal site based in Australia.
Tim has worked for both Orbtitz and Expedia. Prior to the travel industry Tim was a commercial lawyer and venture capitalist. Tim’s views are his alone and not necessarily the views of Getaway Lounge or any of its investors.