Read the headline again... That's right, the UK's official body which represents the interests of travel organisations and consumers has a rather interesting idea.
But first, some background: two key distribution models are emerging in consumer-facing online travel.
Firstly, there is the distributed transaction model - supplier places product, price and availability information into some form of distribution system, consumer buys from an agent (online or off), the transaction details are transmitted to the supplier.
Secondly, media models are coming to the fore. Awareness of the product (including perhaps price/availability) is on a 3rd party website, but ultimately the consumer books with the supplier directly.
Media models are simply a form of advertising with rich data. It is a marketing process, not a sales process.
With flights, hotels and other commodity products distributed transactions work well.
Most leading OTAs sell flights/hotels and consumers are happy enough to book these products via OTAs.
One reason is that collectively we as an industry have worked out what product information the consumer needs in order to make a purchase decision on a 3rd party website.
For flights/hotels the hot news is the media model websites (including meta search, trip planning sites etc).
For escorted tours, activities and some ground arrangements the story is quite the opposite. Take the example of a customer looking to book a white water rafting holiday.
The consumer will want to communicate with the supplier prior to booking. It is the nature of the product. Hence for these products distributed transaction websites have never really taken off and, I argue, are unlikely to.
Instead of automation tour companies focus on efficiency. You know you are going to have human-to-human contact as part of the sales and booking process - how can that be made efficient?
For these kinds of products the media models are king as ultimately it ensures consumer-to-supplier communication takes place directly.
The hot news is where you see distributed transaction models being given a go.
In the UK at least, distributed transactions are a core part of what a travel agent does. In flight/hotel sales the travel agents are competing not only against strong online distributed transaction players but with media model sites that don't need any complex technology nor any consumer protection mechanisms. Is that fair?
Seems the agents don't believe so and they want to even up the playing field.
What we may have here is the start of a proxy war between the smaller agents who want to maintain the distributed transaction model and the media model people.
However the media model people haven't really woken up to it yet (probably because the trade press tend to write from a travel agent perspective!).
The proxy war will be fought within the new Package Travel Directive (a European-wide proposal that is under consultation at the moment).
From an ABTA statement this week:
"The ABTA submission to the European consultation advocates that the scope of customer protection should be extended to include all linked leisure travel arrangements, including "click-through" arrangements bought on the internet."
Now I am not quite sure what this means yet. Does it mean that if you are a travel website and you have an affiliate banner to sell a hotel - and an affiliate banner to sell a flight - you need to be offering consumer protection?
That would be troubling. It would also be troubling to all non-travel websites who have travel advertisers and, if finally incorporated into the new directive, break the media model at least in Europe.
ABTA asked their members the following question:
If a new Package Travel Directive were introduced, indicate which of the following travel-related products or arrangements you think should be within the scope (tick all that apply).
One of the answers was:
- Accommodation, transport andor other tourist services purchased on the internet from different sites which are clearly linked on their web pages.
105 out of the 141 responses (74%) ticked that this should be in scope.
I am somewhat surprised by this position taken by ABTA. Last year when the ABTA chairman was being elected there was a great discussion on the Musings blog about this very topic. John McEwan (now ABTA chairman) stated:
"My view is that ABTA is best placed to represent the industry as a whole and that should include non transactional companies such as Cheapflights, Google etc. The methods of purchasing travel have evolved and ABTA needs to evolve accordingly."
The European Union is still accepting responses to the open consultation (until 7th February 2010). Consultation website.
If you believe that websites should be able to link to travel companies without taking responsibility for consumer protection then make your voice heard!
NB: I am taking part in a debate about these two models in tour distribution as part of Travel Technology Europe (London, February 9th 2010). Seminar A1. I will be debating these two models with Deepak Jha from Isango.