Technology: Pushing the right buttons

Web technology stands still for no one. Today’s leading travel portals bear little resemblance to those of even four years ago, when static sites inspiring little interactivity were the norm. But what will websites look like in another four years? Technology that is considered cutting edge today quickly becomes standard. Travel Weekly asked the experts what changes travel companies should implement by 2010.

Be dynamic

Dynamic packaging has been around for a while but it’s surprising how many sites still don’t offer users the ability to book separate flights and hotel rooms in one transaction.

Freedom Travel member Planet Travel went live with dynamic packaging last year using a system from Multicom.

“It makes sense for customers to be able to build a holiday themselves. It’s not a mystery anymore and today it’s more unusual if you offer them a package holiday,” said sales director Andy Walters.

“Agents moan about commission cuts but the likes of accommodation-only provider Medhotels aren’t cutting commission.”

The personal touch

Websites will become increasingly personalised according to Cheapflights chief executive David Soskin. Through the use of cookies and special software, companies can build a picture of their users’ habits and offer products that will be of interest to them.

“People are used to the level of personalisation offered by sites such as Amazon and travel is another area where websites can cater for individual tastes,” he said.

This personalisation can also extend to web marketing. Companies could use personal information to send e-cards for clients’ birthdays or tailor e-mails to appeal to specific tastes.

Watch the law

It’s vital companies keep abreast of changes in the law that may affect how websites are operated.

Travel websites must comply with e-commerce regulations, data protection laws and travel-specific legislation around ATOLs, and it would be no surprise to see more regulations coming into force. “It’s important to keep up to date with the latest requirements,” said Sarah Lacey, a partner at law firm MB Law.

One piece of legislation on the horizon concerns the blacklisting of airlines by the European Commission. It means retailers, including online ones, are obliged to name the airline the customer is booking with. This comes into force on June 16 2006.

Get off your RSS

Already used by leading websites such as BBC Online and Guardian Unlimited, Really Simple Syndication technology allows users to request alerts and newsflashes on specific areas of interest as screen pop-ups.

In the travel sector users could request information on, say, ‘holidays in Kenya’ or ‘short breaks to Spain’ and then receive regular updates of the latest offers.

Peter Matthews, managing director at web design agency Nucleus, said the technology is cheap and easy to integrate into websites and will bring an “element of spontaneity to the travel buying process”.

Seal the deal

If you don’t allow online payments you could be losing valuable sales according to Planet Travel’s Walters. “Before we enabled online payment we were getting a lot of hits on the website but few conversions – people now expect to buy online.”

It’s also important the prices shown for flights and holidays are transparent, explained Soskin. People are tired of being given a lead-in price, only to find there are a host of add-ons for fuel or security surcharges, he said.

“There is already a consumer backlash – Internet users are demanding clearer pricing. It is important because it is about trust, and trust is vital if people are to buy online.”

Offer sights and sounds

Companies are increasingly incorporating video streams and podcasts on their websites. Video footage of destinations, hotels and resorts engages customers and gives them a much better idea of what destinations are like.

Podcasts are small sound and video files that can be played through PCs or downloaded onto MP3 players. They could be used as travel guides or to whet the customer’s appetite.

“Imagine the sense of excitement a customer would feel sitting on a flight to New York listening to Alan Whicker describing the city,” said Catriona Campbell, director of web consultancy Foviance.

Speed it up

With the widespread use of broadband, consumers expect websites to upload almost instantly.

Expectation is high and if your website doesn’t appear with a matter of seconds, potential customers will be lost to a speedier rival.

Matthews at Nucleus said companies must ensure their website architecture is correctly configured, the server is big enough and that there aren’t too many bells and whistles on their site slowing it down.

“If companies skimp on this area it could be cost them thousands,” he said.

Talk is cheap

It is common for websites to include a telephone number for visitors to call for more help.

Technology called Voice Over IP is now available to enable consumers to speak to someone via their PC.

According to Soskin companies are starting to integrate VoIP into their websites. Typically people click on an icon on the webpage to dial and speak through a headset plugged into the PC.

What’s more, the cost of a conversation routed through the Internet is far cheaper than a standard telephone call.

Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

The highest official awards for UK businesses since being established by royal warrant in 1965. Read more.