Report: Net Users Favor Niche Travel Sites

Specialized Web travel sites that offer in-depth information on selected destinations are doing a better job of meeting consumers’ needs than their mega-site counterparts, according to a new survey of 6,580 travel site visitors by cPulse.

The research firm also found that the attention niche sites are attracting could encourage larger travel sites — which are continually looking to improve their competitive position and bottom line — to seek partnerships with the smaller sites and eventually to acquire them.

‘On Its Ear’

According to research by cPulse’s parent company, Gartner Group, over 33 million consumers either investigated a flight or purchased an airline ticket via the Internet during the past year. Additionally, Forrester Research forecasts that online travel sales will climb to US$29 billion by 2003, a four-fold increase from last year’s level.

Such demand is translating into a growing market for travel content sites.

“When you attach travel advice and comprehensive destination information with the actual ticketing and booking process, you’ve got a model that could turn the online travel industry on its ear,” said cPulse executive vice president Jody Dodson.

Travel Sites Satisfy

Overall, travel sites are more likely to satisfy their customers than other categories of e-commerce sites. According to cPulse, 42 percent of visitors to Web travel agencies are “very likely” to return and another 25 percent are “extremely satisfied.” By comparison, only 36 percent of visitors to entertainment Web sites are likely to return and 19 percent reported being extremely satisfied.

The study found that new users to niche travel sites were up 82 percent in the third quarter compared to the same period last year, and that 81 percent of visitors indicated they would continue using the travel sites.

cPulse credits this growth in customer acquisition rates to the niche travel sites’ ability to meet a basic travel need: accurate travel information. By concentrating on delivering useful content, niche sites need not rely on booking as the primary value delivered to users.

Smaller Targets

The New York City-based research firm also concluded that because smaller sites target specific groups of consumers, they have a better chance of providing relevant content to their users than larger companies who focus on mass audiences.

Notably, the study also found that users perceived the information they received through niche travel sites as more accurate than on larger sites.

“One explanation for this phenomenon is the affinity that exists between users and the sites,” said cPulse analyst Joan Lambe, who added that personal advice and recommendations offered on specialized sites have contributed to the increased trust that Net users described.

However, while users may be more inclined to believe information found on smaller sites, cPulse found no empirical support for such claims.

“No hard evidence exists to suggest that the actual information on niche focused travel content sites is more accurate than that of the large travel corporations,” said Lambe.

Looking Not Booking

Despite high levels of consumer satisfaction, when it comes time to purchase tickets, consumers are still more comfortable purchasing from sites operated by the airlines.

Gartner research found that among the nearly 16 million people who have booked travel arrangements online, 47 percent purchased only from airline-run sites. Another 35 percent have purchased from both independent online travel sites and the airlines, while 18 percent have developed a loyalty towards online travel agencies.

Meanwhile, a report issued in April by investment bank Bear Stearns suggests that the tendency of window shopping but not purchasing at niche travel sites may have a significant negative impact in the long run. The study predicted that 80 percent of online travel sites would either fold or be swallowed by competitors over the next five years.

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