Big Data is fast becoming one of those terms that is overused and applied to all sorts of data projects that are, in fact, not Big Data at all.
However just because the term is misapplied, we shouldn't dismiss what is likely to be one of the big tech themes of the next few years (equal in impact to the concept of social media or the evolution towards mobile).
One of the segments of the industry where it could be played is the rather juicy battle between online travel agencies and metasearch engines.
Indeed, the first to understand and harness the power of it will determine who is likely to become the dominant consumer driving businesses during the second half of this decade.
A quick recap of the OTA vs metasearch power struggle
Firstly, we had the web technology era. Tech was super expensive. I remember in 1999 being ready to spend half a million USD on a content management system for text articles that today you could use the freely available Wordpress for.
Tech created a significant barrier to entry. This was the era that OTAs flourished. They were making the investment and had the economies of scale to make these investments give a reasonable return.
However not all these OTAs had the same level of backing and not all could deliver the product connectivity projects required to keep pace with the leaders.
Therefore the era of the OTAs was followed, gaining momentum by 2005 onwards, with the metasearch era. These websites traded on the connectivity shortfall by helping customers find the best deal for the same product on different OTA sites (as deals really existed back then).
Slowly though, OTAs all caught up to the same level of product connectivity (it's tough being a pathfinder, but easier catching up). Metasearch therefore became a bit pointless as telling a customer that you could buy the same product at the same price from many different OTAs isn't really that interesting...
Faced with this new reality, metasearch companies started sending customers directly to suppliers, where product differentiation was still possible. Hence metasearch companies become supplier-direct cheerleaders, which is where we are today.
(Let's not forget that, in the midst of all this, the big boys of OTA-Land started eyeing eyeing the young upstarts of metasearch-land, thus Priceline buying Kayak and Expedia investing heavily in Trivago.)
Social and mobile
After 2010, social and mobile hit the entrenched OTA and metasearch positions. The impacts on the industry are still filtering through today, and I expect it to play out as follows:
Suppliers should win at social media (vs OTAs) because its easier to get passionate and knowledgeable about product when its your own product. OTAs, stuck with talking about their service levels (the only aspect of their business under their direct control) make pretty dull social media friends.
Hence social media will move us towards a metasearch dominated industry as they are more naturally aligned with supplier direct transactions than OTAs are.
Apart from the "in transport mode" apps (e.g. trip planning, storing your itinerary, dealing with gate changes, checking in) mobile really is going to enable the in destination "I am here" travel industry.
Customers, when wondering how to book a local in destination product, are likely to book supplier direct (as its a supplier direct sector regardless of technology).
Hence metasearch, like for social, should be a winner from the evolution of the industry towards mobile.
Both changes hitting at the same time spells potential trouble for OTAs.
Finally some good news for OTAs. Big data is an innovation where OTAs CAN win vs metasearch.
OTAs know who the customer is as they have a transactional relationship with them. Metasearch just have website and app visitors - a very poor position to do the data analysis required for big data to prosper.
This is why you hear so much drum beating about big data from OTAs.
If I worked for an OTA it would be safe to say that I would be heavily investing in Big Data projects is it could reverse the long term trend towards metasearch described above. It has become a must-win game.
On the other hand, metasearch should be looking to play down Big Data as anything game changing (hoping that this would reduce OTA budgets in this area).
Interestingly, Kayak CEO Steve Hafner did exactly that 18 months ago at the PhoCusWright Conference in the US - "over-hyped", he said.
If I was at a metasearch company I would also be investing heavily on supplier direct mobile and supplier direct social in return for suppliers sharing more customer data back up with the metasearch companies. This would give the metasearch companies the customer data that they are sorely going to need to use to complete with the OTA big data onslaught that is to come soon.
Although everyone appears to be bored of the Big Data debates that are omnipresent at travel industry conferences - I think we shouldn't be. It's perhaps of the most fascinating growth areas and the moves within the industry, in the name of Big Data, will define the travel industry between now 2025.
NB:Chess technology image via Shutterstock.