Revealed: first details of Kayak booking assistant
Kayak searches online travel agency and supplier websites and doesn’t handle bookings — but in a couple of weeks it will begin to take your flight “orders” for Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines and Frontier Airlines via Kayak’s free iPhone app.
Frustrated with the lack of click-throughs to supplier websites through its mobile apps, the travel metasearch company has added a UI layer, branded Kayak Connect, to its iPhone app in the hope that it will make it easier for consumers to complete supplier bookings.
While Kayak.com gets about a 15% click-through rate to airline websites, the mobile apps attract only about a 5% click-through rate, officials say.
Kayak is currently testing the new booking assistance service, Kayak Connect, internally and will roll it out to consumers in a beta test on the iPhone in a couple of weeks, says Chief Marketing Officer Robert Birge. Actually, four domestic airlines are signed up for the launch, but Kayak didn’t have permission to identify the fourth.
Birge showed me a demo of Kayak Connect this morning at the company’s Norwalk, Conn., headquarters while Chief Architect Bill O’Donnell and Director of Technology Partnerships Jinane Abounadi walked me through the finer points via phone from Kayak’s Concord, Mass., offices.
Describing the impetus for developing Kayak Connect, O’Donnell [right] says the booking experience on mobile airline websites is inconsistent with some carriers “having done a really great job of creating a mobile booking path” while “some don’t work at all.”
Birge describes the hand-off from Kayak’s mobile apps to many supplier websites as “a roadblock.”
“We wanted to create the thinnest, lightest layer that enables you to buy something on the site of your choice,” Birge says.
So Kayak has entered into a partnership with TRX for pseudo booking and call center services from one of TRX’s facilities, in Florida, to help with the new booking assistance.
Here’s how it all works:
Using Kayak’s iPhone app, consumers search for flights, as they normally would. When it comes time to book, consumers currently are presented with two booking options — phone the supplier or make a bookiing on supplier or intermediary websites outside of the app.
With Kayak Connect, consumers using Kayak’s iPhone app — and it soon will be migrated to Android and other platforms — get a Book now Kayak Connect option, which looks like this in this Virgin America example:
After logging-in and entering or importing traveler information, credit card details and other data, consumers select Place Order and see the message that their order is being processed and is pending.
All of this is taking place within the Kayak app and it looks like this:
This is where TRX comes in.
Kayak transmits the booking details to TRX, which is PCI compliant. [Kayak itself is working on PCI compliance and hopes to be by the time Kayak Connect enters into its consumer beta test in a couple of weeks.]
TRX doesn’t actually make bookings and is not the merchant of record. Instead, TRX provides the airline with the booking details and a TRX call center agent essentially enters the consumers’ booking details into an airline website booking — much in the same way a consumer would if booking directly on the airline website.
This essentially remains a “direct” booking on the website of the airline, which is the merchant of record, with an assist from Kayak and TRX.
The airline itself handles the credit card transaction and is the merchant of record.
In theory, within about two minutes, according to Kayak, consumers will receive a notification from Kayak when — and if — the airline successfully approves the booking.
Consumers receive the following notification from Kayak through the app, and separately receive a routine confirmation from the airline.
The notification looks like this.
If consumers make a mistake in placing their “orders” through Kayak Connect, they contact Kayak — in this case, it’s actually a TRX call center agent.
For routine airline customer service problems such as seat assignments, consumers are urged to contact the airline directly.
Kayak advises consumers about it thusly:
Herein are some challenges for Kayak.
Unlike booking directly on an airline website, consumers have to wait a couple of minutes to find out if their booking went through.
Will consumers be frustrated by the delay or if their flight turns out to be unavailable?
And, there is bound to be much consumer confusion about the fact that Kayak isn’t actually processing the booking.
Hence, Kayak’s language about taking “orders” rather than processing bookings.
About Kayak Connect’s lag time in notifying consumers that the booking was completed — subject to availability and a valid credit card — Kayak officials say they are working to make the mobile booking process as fast — or faster — than consumer bookings through airline websites.
In addition, officials say they are optimizing the process — as they do with search — to ensure that the inventory displayed in search results actually is available.
On that front, the proof will be in the proverbial pudding.
So, if Kayak Connect seems like a major change — which it is — Kayak downplays certain aspects of it.
Birge points out that the airline-Kayak business model — based on transaction fees and advertising — is entirely unchanged.
Kayak says it merely is enhancing the mobile booking experience for consumers and suppliers — and in the process it increases its value proposition.
So far, the publicly articulated plan is to introduce Kayak Connect in beta for participating U.S.-based airlines — and there is no public timetable to expand the service to international airlines, hotels, cars — or to online travel agency offerings.
Some muse that online travel agencies — including Kayak clients such as Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline and Travelocity — won’t be crazy about Kayak competing with partners as a one-stop shop for travel search and bookings — a.k.a. “orders.”
There also has been much speculation that Kayak may decide to migrate Kayak Connect beyond mobile to Kayak.com, as well.
Kayak officials say they first want to evaluate how Kayak Connect works on the iPhone for domestic airlines before making additional expansion decisions.
“We’ll evaluate channel-selling options for consumers where appropriate,” Birge says.
Meanwhile, while O’Donnell and Birge downplay the structural changes, they also view the initiative strategically.
“This is very important for us,” O’Donnell says. “We think this is a huge differentiator for us versus other metasearch sites.”
“We are taking what we think is a great experience for searching and planning, and extending it to the purchase process,” O’Donnell adds. “We think it will make booking much less painful.”
Mobile has become very important for Kayak, too.
About 10% of Kayak’s search traffic globally comes from its mobile app, Birge says, adding that its recently acquired Swoodoo unit in Germany is attracting nearly 30% of its traffic from mobile.
In addition, about a quarter of Kayak’s development team now focuses on mobile.
So, will Kayak Connect be a game-changer for travel metasearch?
Says O’Donnell: “I think if we are successful, people will copy it.”
Dennis Schaal was North American editor for Tnooz.