Thursday, March 12, 2009

Travel Metasearch Frenzy or Finale?

Yahoo has decided to scrap FareChase , effective March 25.

Say what? The decision comes as travel metasearch, or comparative shopping, seems to be kicking into high gear. TripAdvisor, bent on international expansion, recently launched its new metasearch air solution, and a few weeks earlier Travelzoo debuted .

There are a number of things going on that at first glance make it appear that Yahoo’s shuttering of FareChase, acquired by Yahoo in 2004 for $20 million and change, might be a unique situation.

First, Carol Bartz, occupying Yahoo’s CEO position since January, has the company focusing on all-things strategic and FareChase obviously wasn’t in the plans. And, second, Travelocity, which just renewed its agreement to be the air, car and hotel provider on Yahoo Travel, has sparred with Yahoo for years over the prominence that Yahoo gave FareChase on Travelocity turf….meaning Yahoo Travel

The thinking here is that Travelocity, which spurned participating in FareChase but now participates in TripAdvisor’s air metasearch tool alongside Expedia, may have played a key financial role in helping Bartz decide to give FareChase the boot.

However, along comes Yen Lee, the former general manager of Yahoo Travel and the current President of , who tells me that metasearch is “done.”

Say what (again)?

Yen was around when Yahoo bought FareChase and at the helm of the travel unit when the thing was launched. I was one of the people he tapped for the Yahoo Travel Search advisory council when Yahoo was looking for some input and feedback on FareChase’s development.

But, now Yen believes that metasearch is finished, largely because price differentiation for air, and hotel, too, is fairly miniscule. Especially when you consider that Expedia just dropped its booking fee, at least for now. (Expedia, by the way, has been experimenting with varying booking fees in divergent channels, including Hotwire, which doesn’t have one, either, for some time.)

So, if you search for a flight around two weeks from now from Expedia land (Seattle) to Yahoo land (San Francisco) using the TripAdvisor metasearch engine, you come up with a Virgin America fare ($139), an Expedia fare ($139) and a Travelocity fare ($146). Not much differentiation except for Travelocity, which is still charging a booking fee (as of this writing).

Not to mention -- which Yen did -- all of the price guarantees in the hotel industry, which make price diffentiation (metasearch’s bread and butter) a fleeting kind of thing.

So, are Travelzoo and TripAdvisor too late to the game? Is Kayak cooked?

What about a flurry of new metasearch announcements that one vendor tells me are in the pipeline?

I think Yen may be overstating the case. Despite the lack of price differentiation, the various metasearch solutions, including the predictive ones from Farecast and Farecompare, still have a lot of value as aggregators and they are poised to cash in on the burgeoning media biz. Anyone who recently has spent a few hours trying to sort out flight options when trying to book a trip can attest to their worth.

And, the online travel agencies, with their allegedly broken business models, were supposed to be dead by now, too.


Yen said...

Good job Dennis, glad you are back covering travel (full time?)

I think the three biggest drivers for air price metasearch was a big opportunity no longer exist.

The first was that the GDS technology backbone, e.g. Sabre, that supports the airline sector was the first global electronic distribution ever created wayyyyyyyyy back in the 1960s. With this old technology base, the GDS’s weren’t always able to mix and match flight options along different routes or across different airlines to come up with the best price - but the newer technology companies that backed the price air metasearch sites like ITA Software and FareCompare excel at this (and license their software). Second, ‘low cost’ carriers like JetBlue and SWA did not participate in the online agencies (ok SWA still doesn't). The final reason was that because the online travel agencies started to charge booking fees and effectively created price arbitrage between their sites and airline sites (and Expedia just removed the fee).

Dennis Schaal said...

Thanks, Yen, it's good to be back in the fray on a full-time basis.
Anyway, when was the last time you booked an airline ticket and looked for a hotel "deal?" OK, with you, it probably was yesterday:)
But, I recently looked for a bargain flight to St. Thomas to catch a cruise over there. Since my budget was constrained, I needed a deal. I can tell you that even though I was using metasearch tools (Kayak) and bouncing around between airline and OTA sites, it took me DAYS to find a decent fare. Airline bookings, especially now with all the ancillary fees, including paying for a seat assignment on Spirit, are complex as ever, and metasearch still provides value. Also, you and I both now how -- presto -- fares change lickety-split. So, there is price arbitrage out there, still. The metasearch companies assuredly are saying, Mark-Twain-like, that any reports of their demise are (greatly) exaggerated.