by John Bray, PhoCusWright

While realizing that search has been a great vehicle for increasing travel planning (seven in ten trips begin with search), most travel providers would agree that search has done little to instill consumer loyalty. Sensing that consumers are perhaps a bit too easily distracted in all their shopping and browsing, travel providers have invented numerous ways to get between the consumer and their browser in hopes of opening a more direct channel of communication, stimulating more demand and hopefully encouraging more loyalty.

Online travel started by leveraging the power of the Web browser to enable travel booking. However, if you look closely at today's leading travel sites (e.g., Expedia, Southwest, Hilton) you see that most of the emphasis is on the so-called "booking button" – the little window that allows consumers to price a travel product – and further, you see that there's not a really a fundamental difference, in the user experience for the booking portion of these sites.

Essentially, consumers have launched their browsers expecting inspiring travel planning, only to be disappointed by seeing largely the same thing that they've had online for four or five years now. Given this remarkable sameness (i.e., the lack of originality in this travel planning process), a convenient circumstance for the emergence of search and metasearch occurred.

Certainly, search is a great thing, simplifying the travel planning experience in many respects. However, the side effect of all this searching is a lot of churn. Of course, consumers shop intermediaries like agencies and then ultimately buy from suppliers. But what is not as often known is that they also shop suppliers in great numbers and then end up going to intermediaries.

In fact, there's little loyalty in online travel buying, even though the online travel industry is now over seven years young. Three in ten online travelers don't even have a single site that they prefer for travel purchase, and a vast majority, 68%, have numerous preferred sites.

Sensing this and eager to create loyalty, suppliers and travel distributors have gotten smart. Realizing that the browser may not be the ideal medium to derive consumer loyalty, they've built tools to go beyond it.

Several examples of this movement have occurred across the industry. The first one, probably the 'poster child' for this movement is a product called "Ding" from Southwest Airlines. In the first three years since launch, Southwest now has over one million users that actively have the product open and are using it on their desktop everyday. They have over five million downloads. And what the Ding product provides is a pervasive way for Southwest to advertise to their loyal customers, those who would download a piece of software and put it on their desktop, when their best fares are available. Through Ding, they open up this channel and offer fares that are not available anywhere else to this selected group in the local market where they reside or where they choose their preferences.

In my case I live in Denver, Colorado. With Ding, I can only see the special fares that they want to promote to me in this market on an irregular basis. How do I know those fares are there? I don't even have to go and look for them. I don't have to open up a browser and search for them. I am literally dinged – ding, doorbell sound – whenever these fares are promoted or available in the market. And they're only available for a very limited amount of time. So like Pavlov's dog, if you will, the consumer is being trained – ding, ding, ding – come to this special fare.

Ding belongs to a category known as branded desktop applications (BDAs), and there are others from folks like Travel Alberta, Vail Resorts, and most recently Expedia. But there are other examples of going beyond the browser. One is AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). With AIM, by selecting "kayakbuddy" (provided by Kayak) as a chat buddy, you can search for flight and hotel prices, right from your IM window without even opening the browser.

The Google Earth product is truly a great mapping application, but one of the ways to enhance it is for distributors and suppliers to provide "skins" for Google Earth that consumers can overlay on top of the mapping for preferred hotels, properties and travel destinations. With a skin provide by Earth Booker, I can fly in, choose the hotel that I want, and very quickly buy that hotel directly.

The next example will be very familiar to those who used so-called push-technology tools like Point Cast when the Internet was just becoming popular. With the forthcoming launch of Microsoft's new operating system (Vista), the desktop will be transformed from a static canvas, where the most you can do is place a picture, to a dynamic workspace where rich fidelity applications that act like purpose-built travel planning tools will reside. One can gain a glimpse of this by visiting start.com (requires Windows Internet Explorer 7.0). What start.com allows you to do is select numerous snippets of travel shopping applications (in Microsoft parlance they're called "Gadgets"), there is one from Kayak as well as one from Orbitz already. I can keep any number of these Gadgets local, essentially taking all the extraneous stuff out of the travel site and say "just give me that booking window", if that's all I want to have. Similar to Gadgets, is a product from Yahoo! called Widgets, including travel-specific tools from Octopus Travel, and Flight Compare as well as several other metasearch engines.

In addition to these tools, very soon you'll see where you can buy travel from your car. In the United States, General Motors now has the OnStar dashboard in over 1.5 million cars with a portal for GPS two-way communication installed in it. Very soon we'll see travel applications brought locally, the ability to buy hotel rooms on the road, make hotel and dinner reservations, and make this travel buying, if you will, from a map and a browser. In fact, not even a browser, but rather from a dashboard – the dashboard of your car.

Through these new applications, travel providers have seen that they can get between the browser and the consumer; because in the browser, consumers can get lost or misled or just lose attention. By trying to get between the browser and consumers, suppliers and distributors seek to get closer, get more personal, and become more intimate.

PhoCusWright Inc. is an independent travel, tourism and hospitality research firm specializing in consumer, business and competitive intelligence. www.phocuswright.com