Carving Niche As A Global Player In The Travel Meta-Search Category
By Ritesh Gupta
IN-DEPTH: At a time when web search giants are getting deeper into the travel meta-search category, Singapore-based Wego is set to expand its business globally with the launch of 34 new country sites in 20 different languages. The company"s newly appointed CEO Ross Veitch spoke to EyeforTravel about his company"s plans, and Google"s travel search offerings in detail.
By Ritesh Gupta
The travel meta-search space has witnessed the entry of several new players over the last couple of years. With Google making its foray into the category last year, it is believed that some of these new entrants will crumble, and the relatively mature players will consolidate and improve upon their offerings.
The spate of developments in this category, be it for new ventures or new features, has resulted in intuitive search solutions and tools that promise to change the way consumers search for travel online. Efforts to revolutionise travel search aren"t new but online offerings are just getting better now. Overall, customer expectations are driving changes in the online travel business. Travellers want fast shopping whenever and wherever they feel like shopping, better selection and attractive prices/ deals to go with it.
As far as competition is concerned, a section of the industry believes that Google will represent a bigger threat to OTAs than to current meta-search companies. However, for meta-search players, the danger of losing traffic to their websites and mobile applications, too, can"t be ruled out.
On their part, meta-search companies acknowledge Google"s prowess. Google changed from being gatekeeper to many to becoming a formidable competitor.
"I think the web search giants getting deeper into the travel search vertical was probably the most significant development of 2011 - Google with the launch of their Flights and Hotel search products and Baidu with their investment in Qunar," Singapore-based travel meta-search site Wego"s newly appointed CEO Ross Veitch told EyeforTravel"s Ritesh Gupta in an interview.
Veitch, who is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Travel Distribution Summit Asia 2012, to be held in Singapore (May 9 -10) this year, added that given the value of the travel search vertical, the industry can expect similar developments in 2012 and beyond.
Wego is set to expand its business globally with the launch of 34 new country sites in 20 different languages, targeting almost all developed or emerging travel markets worldwide.
Veitch mentioned that the company, in its analysis of its user data, found that a significant number of travellers from other parts of the world, in addition to the Asia Pacific region, have also discovered Wego and are relying on it to search for flights and hotels. "This is why we"ve decided to localise our product fully, to better service the needs of these users," said Veitch.
Wego"s primary focus is on Flights and Hotels meta-search with a secondary focus on Packages and Deals aggregation.
The company is currently focusing on filling the content caps in some of the newer markets where there are new airlines and OTAs to add. Also, it is currently in the middle of a design overhaul. "Where we do have some catching up to do is with regards to our mobile site and apps. We"re hiring mobile product managers and developers (at this juncture," shared Veitch.
From the travel meta-search category"s perspective, Veitch says the main focus is in doing the core stuff better (i.e. more partners, accuracy, more 3rd party data, being faster). "Beyond that the main areas of cumulative focus seems to be on mobile site development, app development, UI innovation, social graph integration..." added Veitch.
Wego has been incorporating several new features that had been in development for many months. For instance, from its data-mining exercise the company found that users from different countries had clearly differentiated preferences for hotels in a given city. Using the results of this exercise, Wego now sorts hotels in a given location based on how popular they are with local users. Another new feature is pertaining to demand for a tool that will help travellers who have flexible schedules identify the cheapest dates to fly.
Wego has also developed a tool that shows schedules for all direct flights worldwide, optionally including code-sharing details and importantly listing the aircraft type for each flight. Once the user has picked a flight, he/she is only one click away from checking fares and seat availability.
Existing players highlight that finding and presenting accurate and comprehensive flights information is what this business is all about.
Even though Google is expected to deliver, it is being pointed out that the problem of obtaining that data hasn"t, and won"t be, completely solved by any one single player in the future (e.g. unbundling, merchandising, country-based pricing, direct connect trends etc). The industry is looking at their own technologies, rather than being reliant on "traditional" data-acquisition routes.
Google"s travel search offerings
Veitch also spoke about Google"s offerings in this space in detail:
Google Hotel Finder - This has quite a few interesting features. I quite like the keyboard shortcuts and the 3-panel layout. The "price compared to usual" is a nice idea borrowed from the old Farecast but I think it could be significantly improved. Polygon based filtering is cool but I don"t see many people actually using it. These things are all relatively superficial though.
The really innovative thing about with Google"s Hotel Finder (and the closely related Hotel Price Ads project) is that booking partners are required to provide Google frequent data dumps that allows Google to maintain a mirror of each partners' inventory in a similar manner to what ITA Software does with airline inventory. The advantage to this is that Google is able to provide lightning fast responses to queries because the query doesn"t go beyond their own data centres.
The disadvantage is that I suspect many partners just aren"t able to produce the required data sets. I think this partly explains why only a handful of the biggest hotel sites are currently present in Hotel Finder. The other disadvantage is that non-common queries can"t be accommodated because there"s no ability to query the partners in real-time beyond the data they"ve pre-provided to stock the cache. Try searching for a hotel in San Francisco around Christmas 2012.
Google Flights - This will be very interesting to watch evolve. I have a lot of respect for the ITA Software team and the innovation they"ve brought to the space, both in terms of the search backends but also from a design perspective. I actually prefer the UX of the old ITA Matrix vs the new Google Flights. There"s an unheralded designer at ITA responsible for creating some very clever designs including the "Time bars" view on their Matrix product which later became the much talked about Hipmunk UI. I find the way Google leads with maps for its flight search results a strange choice. The scatter plot of time vs price I suspect is too complicated for most users. I don"t doubt however that the team will continue to iterate the UX. The thing I do love is the speed. What will be interesting to watch is how and when they expand flight search beyond North American origins. ITA has always been a brilliant solution for searching from U.S. POS but from most Asia-Pacific markets they are missing nett fares, paper fares and web only fares as well as the all important LCC fares. This is true for a lot of Europe also.