A new Forrester Research study confirms what we've known for some time: Online travel agencies struggle to differentiate themselves.
The study, The Online Travel Brands that Win with U.S. Leisure Travelers, did conclude that U.S. online leisure travelers find that Expedia.com offers the widest array of destinations and the best customer service, Priceline stands out for its pricing and value, and hotels.com gets the highest marks for its hotel content.
But these three OTAs, which bested Travelocity, Orbitz, Kayak and Hotwire in the survey, shouldn't clear space for these honors in their trophy cases because almost half of the survey respondents had no opinion about the respective brands, and the differences, even among the winners, weren't all that dramatic.
Where the report gets interesting is where the authors, Henry Harteveldt and Elizabeth Stark, suggest solutions for what they say consumers view as "a homogenous beige mass" of travel intermediaries.
The study points to InsideTrip, with its quality scores for flights, and Tripkick, which rates hotel rooms, as adept at providing contextual information for online trip-planners. The authors give kudos to Expedia for its integration of Seatguru content, but call it "too little" and "too late in the process."
The study suggests that the OTAs create availability displays with contextual information that gives consumers the option to select and deselect choices, and then dynamically update them for the optimum user experience.
The report also punctuates the theme that mobile apps are mandatory, and it points to the Kayak for Blackberry application and the HotelsByMe.com apps for Android and the iPhone as clear winners.
"Since time and location will both be important, a successful mobile app will not only factor in location using GPS but also allow users to customize it to more closely reflect the way they travel, using criteria like budget or price point, supplier brand or required amenities or services," the study says.
Expanding on their differentiation theme, the authors also call on the OTAs to integrate theme-based trip-planning into their booking applications.