Does anyone still make travel arrangements offline? Yes, and their numbers are growing, reports the New York Times.
This according to Forrester Research, which saw a 9 percent decline in the number of folks booking travel online over the last two years, and travel consultancy PhoCusWright, which noted a similar drop -- and a 6 percent inrease in the number of people making travel plans offline during the same period.
While I can count on two hands the times I've spoken to actual human beings while booking flights, hotels or rental vehicles over the past few years, it seems as if a significant number of folks seek out personal assistance when making travel arrangements. Why?
It may be part of a broader slowdown in online spending activity noted earlier by Forrester and other research firms. Many folks venture online for efficiency, convenience or sheer novelty. But those features alone won't be enough to sway some people to modify ingrained habits.
Realizing this, retailers are adding features that blur the line between offline and online experiences. And consumers seem to like them, notes a researcher who helped analyze an American Customer Satisfaction Index survey from earlier this year that found customers preferred shopping online.
Travel sites have lagged behind other businesses in addressing customer experience, however. Search engines on sites like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity still return a list of results based on little more than a user's travel dates and destinations.
Such sites need to do a better job of getting to know their customers and offering personalized experiences tailored to their profiles, says the Forrester analyst in the Times story.
There are signs they are moving in this direction. For instance, Travelocity and other sites are incorporating a search tool from a company called LeisureLogix that utilizes user preferences to design personalized driving itineraries, complete with maps, directions, attractions and accommodations.
Travel sites seem like a logical place for social networking features. Practically everyone has travel stories -- good and bad -- to share. One of my favorite trip planning sites, for example, is TripAdvisor, which is packed with user-generated lists, blogs, forums, reviews and videos.
The president of Expedia North America sounds downright lukewarm about this idea, however. He tells the Times: "I won't say there aren't upsides to understanding more about the person traveling. But we believe knowing about the occasion behind the trip, in many cases, is more important."