June 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Ticket to success

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Enter the metasearch engines: Kayak, Sidestep, Travelzoo and Mobissimo, to name just a few. These do for travel what comparison shopping sites do for retail products: compile search results from online travel agents, airlines, and other travel supplier sites to offer side-by-side comparisons of prices for a given route or room.

“Online travel agencies provided tremendous value when they came into the market because there wasn’t a lot of information then. But the world has moved on and consumers recognize they need to shop around to get better deals,” says Drew Patterson, vice president of marketing at Kayak.com, which launched in early 2005 and is in the top 20 most-visited travel sites, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Of the larger online travel agencies, only Orbitz has agreed to link directly to Kayak; its other information comes mostly from combing supplier sites. The site pays Kayak for leads-under a dollar for each clickthrough, traffic for which is boasting a conversion rate of 12% to 17%, according to Patterson, compared with 1% or 2% for clickthroughs from general search engines. Kayak also sells keyword ads a la Google.

Another twist on metasearch is recent entrant Farecast, which not only pulls airfares from other travel sites but uses historical data to predict whether they’re on their way up or down so travelers can quickly decide whether to grab a deal or wait for a better one. If Farecast predicts a stable or lower price within seven days and recommends postponing a purchase, travelers can buy Farecast “insurance” for $10. If they buy their ticket within a week and the price has gone up in defiance of predictions, Farecast will pay the difference.

“Farecast can be very empowering for consumers,” says JupiterResearch’s Clarkson. “Not a lot of people know about it, but they will.”

The traveler’s voice

Travelers aren’t shy about sharing their opinions, whether it’s where to find the most awesome waves or exactly how bad their Edinburgh bed-and-breakfast turned out to be. Just as retailers are turning Web 2.0 social developments to their advantage, travel sites are trying to harness this input to their benefit.

Hilton’s “Be Hospitable” ad campaign began in early 2006, and a new web site, built with anecdotes from the public, debuted in March. It’s an outgrowth of company founder Conrad Hilton’s philosophy of business, says Jeff Diskin, senior vice president of brand management. “Our sector has the obligation to spread the light and warmth of hospitality,” he says. “This site is not about the guest experience but about how everyday life is an extension of what happens in our hotel space. The site gives people a reason to look for acts of kindness.” A map tracks the location of the kindly acts, and a “Be Hospitable” streaming-video highlights selected stories.

Sheraton.com is taking a more direct approach by allowing guests to upload photos and stories about their travels, sometimes including nice things that happened to them at a Sheraton hotel. The guest gallery has been up for about a year and has gathered more than 10,000 submissions, says Jeff Mirman, director of interactive marketing. Some Sheratons generate more than their share of contributions, like the property in Asia that keeps an elephant on the premises.

While the company can track some incremental sales resulting from guest gallery viewers who go on to book a room, direct revenue growth isn’t the point, Mirman says. “It’s about creating a brand experience, and making people feel connected and comfortable. What better way to do that than to create a community?”

While he hasn’t yet ventured to put up a site featuring direct guest feedback, Hilton’s Jeff Diskin sees potential in aggregating the opinions of Hilton customers who like to travel to the same places and do the same things. “We can do a lot around creating a community where people can share their experiences,” he says, “not about the hotel necessarily, but about the area-so they can see what people like themselves recommend and what they found valuable.”

User-generated content, JupiterResearch’s Clarkson predicts, will become a key strategic resource for travel sites-as soon as they figure out who should be in charge of it. “No one owns it yet in most companies,” she says. “It’s like search engine optimization was five years ago-is it a tech function or a marketing function?”

However ownership plays out, Sara Stevens of comScore Media Metrix expects more sites to embrace their customers’ impulse to share their experiences. “Many travel companies are discussing how they’ll use all those people,” she says.

Elizabeth Gardner is a Riverside, Ill.-based freelance business writer.

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