Thursday, January 29, 2009

701 not out

This last 100 posts has flown by. It is time for my regular "not out series" where I recap the last 100 posts and remind you of the themes that have been dominating the blog. I started almost three years ago with 101 not out and continued with 201, 301, 401, 501. and 601 not out.

I spent a lot of the last 100 posts attending and covering the big online travel conferences of Oceania, Asia and the US. A couple of highlights:

From TRAVELtech in Sydney
From Eyefortravel in Sydney

From WebInTravel in Singapore

From PhoCusWright in LA

While I was busy at Gabfests the world went into an economic death spiral:
I touched on some (in my view) interesting themes including
And in BOOT news
I'm having a blast writing, I hope you are enjoying the reading.

PS - in case you happen to be counting this is actually post 703

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Leaving your passport at home stories over at Travel Rants

My collection of passport stamps by hjl.
Darren Cronian over at Travel Rants has run a post asking for stories on times people have gone to the airport without a passport. Some very funny stories over there. Here is my "left behind" story

I moved to the UK (from Oz) in 1999. The very first time I went to a day trip meeting to the Continent (Brussels) I raced to Heathrow without my passport like a dumb rookie Australian traveller - not thinking that a flight for 1.5 hours would require a passport. I realised as soon as I joined the check-in queue at Virgin-Express. First response - panic. Second response - turn and run for the Heathrow express. I lived near Paddington station so as I was running for the Heathrow Express I quickly did the numbers in my head - 5 mins to run to the train, 15 mins on the train to Paddington, 15 mins return cab ride from Paddington to house and back again, 15 mins to get back to Heathrow and 20 mins for waiting for trains and taxis. Therefore I needed one and quarter to one and a half hours to get back to the airport. But my flight is due to leave in 30 mins. So I call Virgin-Express to see if the flight is running late.

Me to Virgin Express - Is this flight on time?

Virgin Express to me - Yes sir, right on time.

Me to Virgin Express - I know you are supposed to say that but I actually need the flight to be delayed as I am running late. So tell me, is the flight on time?

Virgin Express to me - OK sir, the flight is running about 20 mins late.

Me to Virgin Express - Are you sure. I need the flight to be about an hour late for me to make it.

Virgin Express to me - OK sir, I am tracking the flight at about an hour and a half late.

Me to Virgin Express - great. Thanks. I'll make it.

And I did... Who knew that departure times were so negotiable. True story.

Photo from hjl on flickr

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Alfonso Castellano Interview - current TripSay Board member, ex Travelocity and Lastminute (part 1)

Last week travel social network and planning site TripSay put out a press release announcing that former Travelocity Senior Vice President Alfonso Castellano (pictured) was joining the TripSay Board. Castellano spent nine years with lastminute/Travelocity and before than ten years with TUI. An impressive online travel resume.

I had a great chance to speak Alfonso last week about this new venture. This is the first in two posts from that discussion. In this post I will share with you the discussion we had around the online travel industry in general. In a later post will go through our discussions on TripSay and the travel content model.

Firstly to the OTAs

We started our conversation around the challenges facing the major online travel companies (OTAs). As Castellano said “Most [of the OTAs] are losing money in air” Castellano identified three themes/scenarios confronting OTAs today:

1. Complexity

The world is complex, the law, technology, fragmentation, environment, globalisation etc all ad complexity and with it costs to the big four OTAs (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and Priceline).

According to Castellano, this globalisation investment bu the OTAs is not showing the benefits and gains in scale and volume and efficiency that were hoped. Instead this globalisation effort is bringing so much complexity that it is becoming a drag for the big four, placing increasing pressure on margins. Leading to theme 2…

2. Pressure on margin

Even in this economic demolition derby the OTAs are still under pressure from suppliers on margin. Castellano concedes that this pressure “might move a little now but underlying dynamic will remain. Car, air and even tour operators are becoming more and more discriminating in the on online channel.” This margin pressure is made worse due to the third theme…

3. Increasing cost of marketing

The global demand pressure will put pressure on margins but marketing costs will sill be there.

And….in a frightening prediction. Castellano is not surprised by the CEO changes recently “and am expecting more and more traumatic announcements out of the big four.”

Then to the Meta-search companies

He does not spare the bad news for other, newer players. Castellano also expressed views on the meta-search model. If we had talked months ago he would have said that the meta-search future was secured because meta-search supported the direct push by the suppliers.

Prior to this eco-madness (my words), the suppliers were able to be “discriminating about distribution”. Meta-search could play to this as “a marketing tool for supplier direct distribution rather than a complementary distribution” (ie unlike an agent). This meant suppliers could hold back from intermediaries. Today however, the “suppliers are running back to any player with distribution”. Castellano is expecting a shift “like the post 9/11 world”. Suppliers will be “desperate to pay for an extra bed to get back to profitability.” I found the discussion around the impacts on the industry of 9/11 versus this downturn very interesting. It was after the tragedy of 9/11 and resulting decimation in demand that the online merchant hotel business was born.

Finally to suppliers

I asked Castellano what advice he would give suppliers during this crisis to not repeat some of the mistakes of 2001 and 2002 where too much power was given to the intermediaries. He had even more grim news. This time for the suppliers (hoteliers). He sees a “fantastic future for hotel distribution for OTAs.” He goes on “If a hotel does not control big chunk of distribution today and is still dependent on high yield and hight cost distribution models [like agents]. It is too late, they have no room to maneuver. If they have not been building up distribution for the last 3 or 4 years, then the only option they [hoteliers] have is to keep ­ feeding the beast [online agents] then to come back and fight the bigger beast subsequently…Only a handful of hotel companies can get out of this.” Grim words indeed.

More from our discussion soon.

He said, she said using Google ads part II

Yesterday I posted about the fight between online hotel seller Asiativ and meta-search player Hotelscombined being played out on through paid search war of words. Via a comment on that post I looked at the Google results for the search Asiativ. Check out the results in this screenshot

In case you can't read it, the top paid search result says
Please Read Clarification on Negative Ad Done By Hotels Combined
and the second one says
Do not book with AsiaTiv Fraud alert : Read customer reviews first
Again I am just passing on their words. I have none of the background here so cannot comment on either of the views from the Asiativ or HotelsCombined. But what the hell is Google doing allowing these things to go on in their search results!

UPDATE - Google have stepped in (or a truce has been called). See shot below. Though there is now a good SEO battle as you can see from the seventh organic link on the search term Asiativ. If this is Google action then they have moved quicklyThe below shot is only fours hours after this post went live

Monday, January 26, 2009

Buying brand terms of Google as part of litigation

I received some traffic today from the someone that searched in Google "hotelscombined wego". This often happens to me that combinations of competitor names results in traffic to the BOOT as I am one of the few places that regularly talks about competitors in the same post. I followed the referring link to see how high a ranked. Below is a screenshot of the Google page I came to. Have a look at the top sponsored link

In case you can't see, it says
"Warning Hotelscombined: Read legal procedures running Currently against Hotelscombined"
I have never seen anything like this. I know that Google has loosened the restrictions on bidding for brand terms. But I have never heard of a company buying a brand term so they can put up a link accusing another company of "defamation, fraud and falsification" (their words not mine). Here is the full text of the Asiativ accusation against Hotelscombined. I don't know Asiativ (do you?) so can't give any background on them. I do know Hotelscombined. They are an Australian based meta-search company headed by some guys that made their start in online travel working for HotelClub.

I also know Google and I am very surprised to see that they are allowing this ad to stay on the site. Anyone out there ever seen anything like this?

UPDATE - here is a later post with more on this including how Hotelscombined is bidding for Asiativ's brand.

Friday, January 23, 2009

2009 "Opportunities in Online Travel" over at the WebInTravel website

Siew Hoon of WebInTravel has been asking people their views Opportunities in Online Travel in 2009. I sent her my top three - which are:

1. Become the Deal Hunter - consumers will still travel they just need deals. Does not mean just price discounts but consumers will need suppliers and intermediaries to be prepared to offer unique specials and deals.

2. Focus on the Product - expectations will be lower so now is the time to invest in your product. Innovation in a down turn is critical, as is fixing all those bugs that have been ignored in times of growth

3. Steal market share from less resilient/prepared competitors - no explanation needed!

If you'd like to see more, including what Ram Badrinathan of PhoCusWright said, then head over to the WebInTravel newsroom.

World Nomads on Social Media

I blogged during the last TRAVELtech conference about the inspiring footprints network launched by insurance provider World Nomads. It was an interesting story because of how World Nomads could meet its desire to be a good corporate citizen with the need to grow brand, market presence and conversion. World Nomads General Manager Chris Noble gives even more background to this program and their approach to marketing in social media over at the World Nomads blog in a blog post called Social Media : Wake Up and Smell The Engagement!. I found it an interesting read. You might also.

Tripwolf Raises another $2.5 million from MairDumont and others

Yesterday TechCrunch noted that Austrian based online travel guide/planning site TripWolf raised another $2.5mm in funding. Leads (according to TechCrunch) are their current investor and media partner MairDzumont and Dieter von Holtzbrinck. My profile of TripWolf and their relationship with MairDumont is here. Congrats to CEO Sebastian Heinze and team.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009 launches 90 days of inventory on January 27

As I mentioned back in May, Wotif is planning to extend the window for booking of inventory from the current 28 days out to 365 days. An email is going round to hotels today announcing that as of January 27 the first step in that plan will be launched with the Wotif extranet beting extended to take inventory up to 90 days out. No word on what that will mean for changes to the search display. Currently consumers do not enter in dates to get search results. Instead they are present with a grid format showing inventory availability over a 14 day period with an option to click to the "next seven days". I assume that to cover 90 days worth of inventory Wotif will have to change this interface and add date search.

If I am right then there are some challenges ahead for Wotif during the roll out of this new functionality. It is one thing to change the back end and have to train hoteliers on an updated system. This is a painful but relatively manageable task. It is another to manage the impact on consumer behaviour of a dramatic change in the consumer booking process. As they say on CNN - only time will tell.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Can a plane land on water and have survivors? Of course it can!

Photo from grego! over at Flickr
I never ever truly believed, even after thousands of safety briefings on aeroplanes, that a 800,000 pound structure of metal, glass and human passengers could actually land on water, in tact and with people (somewhat) calmly swimming away with the aid of life jackets and slides that turn into life rafts. Now I believe! The pilot of US Airways flight 1549 La Guardia to Charlotte is an absolute genius and legend. More here care of the NY Times.

Another photo of the Hudson River crash is below.
This one I found at the alleyinsider. Attributed to jkrums who was on a ferry that rescued people

Update - here is another photo. This time of the flight tracker from showing flight 1549 stopping in the middle of the Hudson River. Found it on Crunchgear.
Update - want another angle. Check on this interactive map of the route and crash in the Hudson. Hat tip to Kevin at Travolution.

Update - much watch animation video including voice exchange between the tower and plan (and flying geese)!!! (thanks to TechCrunch)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Last minute travel is coming back - research report from Co-op Travel

The sixth of my five predictions for 2009 was that the economic conditions would mean that the last minute model would return in online travel distribution. This is where suppliers provide intermediaries (and direct channels) with heavily discounted inventory very close to the day of travel. I called this model as being "on hiatus" but not dead back in May 2008 because suppliers were doing so well they had no reason to risk future sales by discounting.

I do not like to fall for PR spin dressed up as research but I am starting to see more and more evidence of the likely return of last minute discounts. The most recent PR spun research piece comes from The Co-Operative Travel as picked up by Travelmole and e-tid in the UK (registration required for both). In short the survey of 850 customers found that more than half (57%) were waiting until between March and June to book their "traditional" UK summer holiday. 89% had not finalised their summer plans, with 65% still intending to go on holidays. In other words waiting until the last minute to book.

I am sure this is more driven by the economic circumstances of the traveller rather than some cunning plan to wait for suppliers to drop their prices. But the consequence will be to force suppliers to cut capacity (if they can) and drop rates. I expect to see more of this across different countries and distribution channels. We are now officially in last minute model rebirth watch here at BOOT central. Are you seeing any earlier evidence of the return?

thanks to lounger over at flickr for the great photo

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Have you seen how bad things are in car rental? Avis, Hertz, Dollar all down 80%+

The crash test dummy in this photo maybe smiling but the car rental industry has smashed into the recession/global financial crisis wall with such force that dramatic industry changes are inevitable. I usually spend my time ranting about airlines, hotels and online agents such that I often forget to watch other sectors like cruise and car.

I received an enormous shock yesterday when I was surfing around Yahoo! finance and decided to see how the Avis/Budget stock price was doing. I have soft spot for the Avis Budget Group Inc (CAR) stock ticker (to the extent you can ever have feelings for a stock ticker) for two reasons. Firstly because CAR is such as great ticker for a car rental company. Mainly though because it is the successor to the once public and once amalgamated Cendant Corporation. Back in Sept 2006 CAR took over from CD and Cendant was no more.

Anyway what I found was that Avis stock is now trading at less than $1, has a market cap of less than $85million and is on notice to be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange unless it can find a way to trade above a $1 per share. This is a company that has some 28,000 employees (after a cut of 2,200 in Dec last year) and at the time of the spin off in Sept 2006 had a stock value of nearly $20. The stock reached highs of $30 in mid 07. That said back in 2006 analysts were already saying that the company was in trouble. I have not been tracking enough to speak definitively but clearly the crash to a US recession straight after all of the pain and suffering of high gas prices and credit being squeezed has just been too much for this company.

It may not give the Avis execs much comfort but their competitors in car rental are also in terrible trouble. Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group (DTG) stocks are trading at less than $1.50 off a 52 week high of $27 and a two year high of $50 - only just staving off breaches of debt covenants. Unimaginable drops. Hertz (HTZ) - the market boss - seem to be holding steady at $6 off a 52 week high of $15.32. Standard & Poor's are expecting at least one of these players to disappear into bankruptcy - with Dollar Thirty their lead tip. The other big player is Enterprise - but they are private so I can't find word on how they are coping. [tips welcome]

The other side of the industry is the intermediaries and car dedicated meta-search players. The biggest global online car rental broker is the owned HolidayAutos. Travelocity has been a private company for a year and a half now so it has been very difficult to get any news on how parts of their business is performing. There was word last Sept on the turnover at Lastminute being in the region of Euro 2 billion per year but September was an age away in this crisis and there was not split out in the announcement for HolidayAutos. [tips welcome]. My thumb in the air guess is that intermediaries should be able to take advantage of this industry pain and secure fantastic rates and deals. Down here in Australia you would think that this could be good news for two of main car intermediaries, the meta-search provider and consolidator Vroomvroomvroom. More info on Oodles is here including a bio on long time BOOT commentator and Oodles MD Steve Sherlock. Smart Company have a profile on Vroom inc Founder/CEO Peter Thorton here.

If you thought the air and hotel industry was in trouble, then spare a moment of industry reflection and concern for our brothers and sisters in the car industry.

Thanks to anthena1970 for the photo over at flickr

Friday, January 09, 2009

New US entry rules and registration. First confusion, now ripoff merchants. Recombobulation time?

The new US rules on registration prior to entry are coming into force next week (January 12). Called the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, the process is a four step process to apply for the right to enter the US under the Visa Waiver Program. It seems completely strange and contradictory to me that qualification for the Visa Waiver Program (ie a program that means you can enter without a visa) requires an online registration and approval and then completion of a detailed form (the green one) on the airline before entry into the US is permitted. Not surprisingly a articles are appearing with stories of confused travellers, airlines and bureaucrats (Sydney Morning Herald). Frighteningly stories are emerging of companies offering to complete this (free and supposedly easy) process for a fee ( story about Holiday Home Direct).

My advice - don't wait until you are planning a US trip. If you are a regular traveller go straight to the ESTA registration page and complete the process. You do not have to have a specific travel date in mind and (if I read this right) only have to do it once.

I hope this public service announcement has been useful. Of course I am only writing this post so I have another excuse to use the Recombobulation photograph and tag the word again :)

Update - I made a mistake above in saving that the green form also has to be completed in this new ESTA world. The form (officially called an I-94W form) does not have to be completed for ESTA approved travellers. See ESTA FAQ pdf for more (page 12)

Update 2 - there is some real confusion here. Despite what I found above in the ESTA FAQ I was still required to fill in the green I-94W form on arrival in the US.

(thank you lark is already taken from Flickr for the fantastic photo)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Airline Industry - IATA style - Times Interview with CEO Giovanni Bisignani

I have come across an interview in the TimesOnline by Suzy Jagger with IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani. The article is a great piece of PR for Bisignani but if you can read through the "talking points", the text contains some interesting predictions and comments from him about the year ahead for airlines. Here are a couple of them:
  • Bisignani believes that the current environment is significantly worse that anything he has seen in the last 60 years including 9/11 which "had a very limited impact";
  • While the US has already cut capacity by 10% (he expects this to rise to 12%) there have been limited cuts so far in Europe. This will hurt the Euro carriers significantly as they are carrying too much capacity and have been for too long. Bisignani is predicting that Euro carries will lose €1billion in 2009. He singles out Alitalia and BMI as being the airlines most likely to be worst-hit;
  • Airlines are going to be working hard to wiggle out of orders with Boeing and Airbus as the capacity cuts have resulted in more tha 760 airlines being parked somewhere gathering dust.
Backs up my predictions from yesterday including that I expect to see another big airline fail this year (other than Alitalia).

Monday, January 05, 2009

The BOOT is back for 2009 with 5 predictions for the online travel industry

The BOOT is back for 2009. Tanned (a little burnt), rested (though could do with another big sleep in) and ready for action (kind of). Inspired by the Travolution article "Predictions for 2009" I am going to open up the 2009 edition of the BOOT with my predictions for the travel industry. Here are my five predictions for 2009:

  1. There are more airlines to go bust. In fact before the end of 2009 a big carrier will go bust or be taken over as a saving measure. Alitalia is a gimme so I wont count the impending Alitalia failure/restructure as a successful prediction. Another big carrier (or two) will fail or be bought in 2009. Update - if you want a list of all of the 21 airlines that died in 2008 check out this post over at cranky flyer;
  2. Domestic travel growth will surprise us all. I am a noted optimist when it comes to the travel industry surviving shocks and set backs. People will still travel in 2009 - they will just go short. Consumers will look for domestic deals and shorter trips to enable them to enjoy the travel and breaks they want without the long-haul price tag;
  3. Consolidation is not yet finished: In 2008 TripAdvisor bought everything in sight, Venere first bought Worldby then joined the extended TripAdvisor family by being acquired by Expedia, Microsoft bought Farecast, Priceline bought Agoda, Wotif bought AsiaWebDirect and and more. The consolidation in the online travel industry will continue through 2009. There are too many bargains out there;
  4. 2009 will not be the year of mobile for the travel industry: Every year since 2000 we have been talking about the mobile revolution in online travel. This year I rejoined that chorus of mobile revolution fan boys while at PhoCusWright in LA. With the Global Financial Crisis (I am told there is even an acronym for this - GFC) in full swing I think the larger players will pull back from their mobile plans and focus on core products, costs control and customer loyalty. Mobile will have to wait until 2010; and
  5. The dinosaurs will screw up and come out of the GFC even weaker: The big offline players have been screwing up online for a long time now. The good ones have managed to avoid destruction due to the booming economy and the sale of complementary products (land, car, package and especially cruise). The boom is over and the pain is hitting. Just recently Flight Centre announced a likely 33% drop in profits for 2009. In the past I have given advice on how you would know that offline players like Flight Centre "get it" and are ready to execute online. The GFC actually provides a fantastic opportunity to "get it" and join the online travel revolution. Expectations for performance are low during a bust giving offline players time to shift focus and make investments in areas they have previously ignored online. But I think the offline players will miss this chance. Instead of emerging from the GFC with a stronger online focus they will dig even deeper into the offline hole and emerge even further behind the online industry leaders. As evidence of this see the recent interview from new Stella Travel (Australia's number 2 offline player) CEO Peter Lacaze where he confessed to being an online sceptic. [Disclosure - in the past I have consulted to Stella on their online strategy].
UPDATE - Prediction number 6 - the last minute model will come back. I called the last minute model as being on hiatus in May 2008. It will come back as hotels start to hurt during the GFC.

Stay tuned to see what I get wrong and right here. The BOOT is back for 2009.

thanks to Tokyo Boy on flickr for the photo