Online travel agents and the growing quest for personalisationNews / OnlineBy Viewpoints | January 24, 2014Share This article was originally published on Over the past couple of years the travel technology industry has seen an explosion of online travel agents (OTAs); the vast majority claiming to be all things to all people.It’s a trend that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.NB: This is a viewpoint by Darren Barker, general manager for Emirates Holidays UK. Many of the market leaders have often very similar websites, in terms of look and feel, whilst also aggregating data and offering end users no discernible point of differentiation, or benefit to choosing one over another. While many companies strive for their competitive advantage or niche within the sector, almost all search forms end up being homogenous asking - where are you going, when, for how long and how many people. Despite it being universally accepted that customers are looking for a personalised offer, very few booking engines yet ask different or more specific questions. Which raises the question, how do you personalise an offer if you don’t ask personal questions? While data and the correct usage of it offers arguably the biggest and best opportunity for OTAs to capture more customers, the vast majority stick with a few straightforward questions and a user’s shopping or browsing history to come up with an offer. This strategy takes a narrow view of a customer and doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty details of whether the potential holiday is with friends, family, children or if it’s a romantic break as opposed to a raucous stag weekend. Currently, most OTAs lack this sophistication and don’t encourage users to get to this level of detail. The counterargument is that the more questions you ask, the harder you make it for someone to progress and book. Despite this viewpoint, the opportunity is ripe for the player who decides to delve deeper into customer preferences – in fact many smaller businesses are beginning to eat into market share through their ability to provide customers with a distinct point of difference. For examples include: YouTravel lets users search by temperatureHolidaysplease allows users to customise flight time, temperature and activity searches all at the same timeTravelmatch is similarly capable at searching across a number of factorsHotel booking engine Hotels.tv provides users with specific video reviews of their chosen hotel room Despite these innovative approaches, given the dominance of the few big OTAs and their reliance on the same inventory at lower margins, it’s harder for these smaller players to penetrate without heavy investment to stand out in a crowded marketplace. While customers continue to list their most important considerations for buying travel as price, weather, accommodation and good traveller reviews; there is seemingly no OTA that has cracked this Holy Grail allowing users to search all criteria within a given budget. While the ease and ability to book a holiday has shifted increasingly into the hand of the consumers, the strange irony of it all is that with the proliferation of OTAs, travel agents are needed now more than ever for their knowledge, to navigate options and locate the best deals. This is one of the major reasons why offline high street agents are still strong. The offline world still caters for demands such as: "I’d like to fly for no more than 10 hours, somewhere about 30 degrees with great beaches and scuba diving."Share this quote The online world has yet to find a way to cope with this level of detail. The savvy operator that figures out a way to do so will inevitably propel a shake-up within the crowded OTA field. NB: This is a viewpoint by Darren Barker, general manager for Emirates Holidays UK and an advisory board member for Travel Technology Europe. NB 2:Identity image via Shutterstock.