Are travel inspiration and the new travel search the same thing?

With so much being written on the topics of travel inspiration and how travel search is evolving, I’ve come to the conclusion that the differences are really much less than what makes them similar.

Indeed, both are primarily focussed on influencing the undecided purchaser of travel content.

Taking the lead from Dr Suess, my strong belief is that a difference of opinion in nomenclature is immaterial for the purpose understanding what it takes to win in this space.

In the early days of online travel a lot of effort was put into improving the shopping function for travelers who knew exactly when and where they wanted to travel. Displaying availability and price on the one page was a major step forward, but one that today we all take for granted.

Then the calendar display was added, and travelers were also shown the lowest price one or two days either side of their preferred date of travel.

Over time the calendar has grown to a month or more, and therefore the shopping experience has improved for those travelers willing to show some flexibility; but at its heart search has still required a known destination and an approximate known date of travel.

This is now changing, and changing in a major way.

The second thing that is changing is that travel inspiration is not far behind mobile, and maybe even close to social when we are talking 2010 buzz words.

A lot of airlines and other travel suppliers plus intermediaries are spending serious time and money trying to make their websites more appealing to the undecided holiday maker.

At the same time, many independent companies are also trying to carve out a meaningful role for themselves by being the destination site to influence the undecideds – those leisure travelers yet to commit to a destination.

But are these two really that different? Once the calendar gets to a certain size thereby eliminating the need to commence the search by inputting dates of travel, and especially once the requirement to start a search with a fixed destination is removed, then we have moved into a new realm of open ended search that is continually refined by the user. If the old search was iterative (start, stop, go back to start again), the new search is more of a sifting process.

When you think about it, how do we generally reach conclusions in any matter of uncertainty?

We typically start by gathering a set of known facts, asking around to supplement this information, and then we sift through all the information discarding pieces along the way until we reach a decision that we consider appropriate – travel technology is now starting to replicate this process.

If what I have written above is correct, then it stands to reason that reinventing travel search along these lines cannot be separated from the current quest to own travel inspiration.

If search and inspiration as categories are being condensed, where is the big outstanding question? In my opinion, the question yet to be answered is this:

Does the search component of travel inspiration require more technological muscle and grunt, or is it social over science and personal contacts over proprietary cache?

Or to put it another way, is technology in and of itself, the entire answer for inspiration?

To illustrate the point, I’ll use two very different approaches launched recently by major players in travel who have both come at the search part of inspiration from different corners.

The first example, and one that launched in May, is Kayak Explore. Rather than rely on using the TripAdvisor approach (detailed below), they have gone for a more technology driven solution that turns search upside down by obliterating the need to have a destination in mind prior to commencing the shopping.

By loading more data into the browser, and incorporating the use of sliders into the user interface, the intention is to create a kind of playground or sand box where the results are continually narrowed down until seeking inspiration leads to action, hopefully an intent to purchase.

TripAdvisor recently launched Trip Friends using the Social Graph from Facebook. This definitely uses a more social approach to search, as it relies partly on what Bob Offutt from PhoCusWright described to me previously as “the wisdom of crowds”.

If I start my travel search with a totally clean slate and then whittle down the options based on the experiences of my friends, then my inspiration is coming from trusted sources and I am much less reliant on marketing from suppliers or advice from less trusted sources.

I have put Kayak and TripAdvisor in different camps trying to answer the same question – where should I travel to next? But there may be a third option.

More similar to the TripAdvisor approach, but taking the wisdom of crowds one step further, it is the approach that retail sites such as Amazon have been using for years.

The cues to buy are coming not from people I personally know, but from people who the system has determined have similar tastes to me based on past purchase behaviour.

Or my search history on the site. Or any one of the increasing number of data points I have left behind in my history of online activity.

Adding this layer on top of some of the powerful computing platforms being built to support non destination driven search could be a very compelling combination. And if travel inspiration is anything like online retail, then a profitable combination also.

Using the Inspiration Footprint Matrix that was first introduced in a previous Tnooz post, I’ve plotted how the initiatives described above have potentially moved the location of TripAdvisor and Kayak insofar as it pertains to their role in travel inspiration.

inspiration footprint matrix

When this matrix was first published there were a couple of good comments questioning the axis, amongst other things.

Based on this feedback I removed OTAs from the chart as this was way too broad, but I’ve stuck with the original axis.

Price may have merit as one of the axis as you could split inspiration websites offering high priced items versus those at the lower end, but often a trip comprises of a combination of higher priced items (the flight) with some lower priced items (transfers) so I’m not convinced this would hold up as travel search expands to cover a wider range of travel related needs.

I could write a lot more, but at this point a debate amongst readers would be much more interesting; not just on the Travel Inspiration Matrix, but also on the overall question of whether travel inspiration and new travel search are becoming almost synonymous – or are they totally different concepts that should remain separate.

Also, will the travel inspiration site of the future be more technology driven or social, and if the latter, then what will be the relative importance of friends versus strangers with similar tastes and habits when it comes to guiding purchase?

So many questions still to be answered before this topic is put to rest!

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Martin Collings

About the Writer :: Martin Collings

Martin Collings is a contributor to tnooz and is currently employed as Vice President, Innovation Management & Commercialization at MasterCard Labs, based in Sydney. In this position, he manages various mobile payments initiatives with his role covering the region of Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.

Prior to MasterCard, Martin Collings spent six years with Amadeus IT Group, based in both Madrid and Chicago in a variety of airline roles, most recently as head of airline e-commerce sales for the Americas.

During his time at Amadeus he also wrote the Shearwater Blog covering various topics of interest for airline selling via direct channels. The views of Martin Collings are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of MasterCard.



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  1. Are flash sales the sweet spot between travel inspiration and transaction? | Tnooz

    […] divide between inspiration and transaction has plagued the industry for years and theories and diagrams such as the Bow-Tie have been examined and analyzed in an attempt to figure out how to bridge the gap with varying […]

  2. Martin Collings

    Robert, in my view anything pre-booking is “inspiration” as going back to the Bow Tie model, until the booking is made, the customer can still be swayed and therefore inspired to change their plans and book elsewhere. But we are probably splitting hairs over definitions. Your last paragragh about experiences is spot on.

    Joe, I wasn’t familiar with your Travel Muse example, but I’ll take a look.

    • RobertKCole

      Martin, I would characterize your description of inspiration as more closely aligned with “influence” than my definition. I definitely agree that at anytime before booking, the consumer may be susceptible to influence from any number of sources trying to sway the value equation (better “stuff” v. lower price v. simplicity/ convenience.)

      I am sticking with my definition of inspiration of the innate reason for taking a trip – more the why as opposed the where, when, what or how.

      If I read a book or blog post, I may be inspired to visit Patagonia or Tibet or The Galapagos, but there may not be the time, budget or common interest from a partner to do so. Unfulfilled inspiration.

      On the other hand, I need haul my daughter’s belongings to college next month. May require minivan rental and overnight stay in MSP. Very different trip. Very different goals.
      Inspiration of Necessity.

      In either case, if I wound up taking the trip, I would need to research options, plan an itinerary, perhaps validate my choices, make bookings and take the trip. Might even share some experiences or ratings. Covering the 7 steps.

      There may be any number of external influences impacting me during the decision process, but they may or may not change “Why” I am taking the trip.

      If an external influence alters the fundamental reason for taking the trip, then I would certainly characterize it as inspirational. If it simply a less expensive rental car or a more convenient flight connection, even a better located hotel, I would categorize those influences as impacting the research and planning aspects of the trip as opposed to the inspiration phase.

      • Martin Collings

        I’m impressed with the quality of comments overall – a good debate. Regarding Robert’s point about “why” a person is taking the trip, the inspiration I wrote about above is only directed at the “undecideds” whereas the example of driving your daughter to college means the destination is already fixed. There is still innovation happening in travel search in the known/fixed location categratory (eg. improved calendar displays for multi-stop international itineraries across mutiple carriers or improved online search options when rebooking), but the hype at the moment is definitely in the travel search with flexible destination categroy. This is where inspiration and search really become intertwined.

    • Timothy O'Neil-Dunne


      I think this is a great piece. Well done Martin for starting a long term debate.

      I am going to go back to a more basic issue. The difference of Search vs Navigation. Both are valid.

      Inspiration is driving a lot of thought. But much of travel is quite utilitarian in nature. We have to be careful not to let the long tail wag the dog (if I can mix my metaphors here). Inspiration is great. But it is not everything. Indeed I could argue that too much information inspired inspiration may actually be have a downside. It detracts from the pure joy of travel. I love the travel experience. But I also take a heck of a lot of mundane, simple and functional trips.

      Consider that we can now see the rooms, get 360 degree views of the location, get opinions from everyone who has been there. This is beginning to remove for me the value of travel – the great unknown and joy of the experience. And this saddens me. I actually like taking a guide book from someone like Ric Steves and walking round places. Do I trust him more than I trust some nameless person who posted some crappy stuff on TripAdvisor signed YuppyMummy from Peoria?

      For the amount of trips where the inspiration process comes in – this can be very broad and some fun but how much of it is actually useful and how much is needed? How much inspiration do we really want for a 7 night stay in Benidorm?

      So being inspired to go to Patagonia or visit the Golden Temple, I will be happy to get my inspiration in a wide variety of places but I really need to be able to navigate to a reliable place to buy the stuff.

      The continuum that Robert talks about used to be controlled by either a single supplier or a very controlled marketplace such as the GDS. Now those days are almost gone. What we do need is a way to channel the continuum into the right place. Other via pull or via push.

      To me Navigation is a utility and we need to do a good job so we can be useful for those people who are either inspired or know what they want. Somehow I don’t like the idea of Google telling me where to go.


  3. Joe Buhler

    Had a hunch that Bob would chime in on this topic and provide an excellent viewpoint. On the issue of collaborative filtering a la Amazon, my only concern is that based on how they treat this that future recommendations would depend too much on past choice and not reflect the multiple persona aspect enough. All these are technology issues that show how much more complex the whole travel scenario is than other products or services.

    I totally second the comment in the last paragraph about the supplier/destination content integration. I’ve been harping on this point for a long time as there is still too much of a disconnect between the different content providers. The recent cooperation of TravelMuse with Visit Britain is a step in the right direction. I expect more along this model lie ahead and are necessary to present the best possible consumer tools.

    • RobertKCole

      Agreed – Amazon’s challenges with their collaborative filtering recommendations are due to the lack of more detailed profile capabilities that isolate buying personas. If I am shopping for my wife or child, the items I view/select are obviously very different than when I shop for myself. How I rate a product may even be different.

      If those sessions & purchases were better categorized, they could be much better aligned with similar navigation & shopping patterns by individuals with similar tastes and/or interests.

  4. RobertKCole

    Martin, I sit more in Joe’s camp when it comes to the separation of separation Inspiration from Search.

    Here is a link to a presentation I created for the 2009 HITEC Conference on The Seven Step Travel Process: (sorry to those using iPhones or iPads – it’s a Prezi in Flash)

    I see the different aspects as a continuum or multi-phase process, where the various steps may or may not be closely related and that some steps, under certain conditions, may be skipped entirely.

    The phases are:
    Inspiration – The core motivation to travel
    Research – Collecting information required for informed decision
    Planning – Specific itinerary development
    Validation – External verification selecting the best choices
    Booking – Confirming trip availability, pricing & sequence
    Travel – The actual in-destination travel experience
    Sharing – Insights on travel experience to benefit others

    This travel process is both intensely personal and inherently social. The process often varies wildly depending on the specific travel persona an individual assumes for a particular itinerary.

    On the topic of future travel inspiration sites being driven by technology or social, the answer should be both. Technology is only a tool to locate, organize and present content that can inspire travel.

    The collaborative filtering used by Amazon is a great example, especially since they are now integrating that recommendation technology and massive data set with the Facebook social graph.

    People will continue to seek validation from friends, experts and the collective wisdom of strangers, but the technology will help them better refine decisions based on legitimate trusted feedback and avoid spammy promotions that attempt to leverage technology gaps to game the process.

    Finally, I’m also a firm believer that successful sites in the future will embrace both supplier/destination content and the traveler profile to provide “best fit” experiences that are not only inspirational, but also fulfilling of those inherent expectations.

  5. Joe Buhler

    It will be quite a while before this topic will be put to rest! On the contrary, this is where things need to, and are, happening to better serve customers from the initial stage of dreaming about their next trip to actually booking it. All that you describe is part of that very complex and individual process. My answer to your question is that, no, inspiration and search are not the same thing. The first often is the trigger for the latter and both become essential parts of the process. I agree with you regarding the move of Kayak and TripAdvisor into different locations on the inspiration grid. What these moves seem to indicate is that will likely be more merging of functionality by players in that grid. Personally I see the social aspects drive technology as the enabler of a better overall consumer experience in this very complex process. Excellent contribution.

    • Martin Collings

      Joe, Thanks for the comment. I’m still not convinced when you say “no, inspiration and search are not the same thing” as I see them coming closer and closer together all the time. In the past inspiration came from reading (searching) a magazine or searching for opinions from friends at a social gathering – so maybe it has always been a search of some description, but then when the interent came along it divorced the two due to technical limitations and we started to think of travel search being something we do when we know when and where we want to travel. I am becoming more convinced that the end game here is almost like asking for technology to be able to get us back closer to where we were before the internet – just with many many times more processing power to help us sift through a much wider set of options.

      • Joe Buhler

        Martin, In the context you describe, we’re in total agreement about the two becoming very close (again) as well as the fact that early technology limitations seem to have caused the separation. I see the end game in a very similar way. That’s what I meant by the need for an integrated and closed – Dream, Learn, Plan, Go circle.

  6. Ben

    You forgot to include NileGuide, which is similar to TravelMuse but has better content and a great trip planning tool.

    • Martin Collings

      Ben, I’m sure we could find 10 more innovative companies to squeeze into the matrix – it is more of a starting point to provoke a bit of discussion, rather than the definitive mapping of the entire sector.

  7. Claude

    Thanks for this post serie

    Wondering why nobody talk about the end profil of decision maker in the travel process or travel inspiration process

    In lot of cases, it’s women who decide many things and especialy for couples with kids

    And we are not seeing special marketing or special services for them.

    just my 2 cts

    • Martin Collings

      Claude, your comment reminds me of when some travel providers try to use the classification “family” to group destinations. I think that as the technology evolves the classification of destinations and more will be much better done through profiling based on large data sets rather than the arbitrary decisions. The inspiration process for each family is just as different as for each individual.

  8. Tweets that mention Are travel inspiration and the new travel search the same thing? | Tnooz --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by TourRadar and Kevin May, Turisdata. Turisdata said: Are travel inspiration and the new travel search the same thing?: With so much being written on the topics of travel… […]


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