The travel affiliate sector has been long dominated by giants like Skyscanner and Tripadvisor, making it almost impossible for any other affiliate to gain a decent share in the market. By aggregating flight and hotel results from numerous providers they offer users an efficient way to quickly compare services, reviews and, most importantly, prices.

However, I believe we are now seeing some potentially disruptive shifts and trends in the way users are searching for and, crucially, selecting travel services. These changes may prove to be a unique opportunity for additional services to be developed or even new affiliate models to emerge. It is of course a race against the clock, as many top meta-searches are already incorporating these services into their main offerings. Here are some of those key trends to look out for:

Happiness factor

The Internet is largely responsible for the commoditisation of travel and the over-reliance on price as a defining factor within the purchase decision. We are however seeing a shift towards other more qualitative aspects of travel, concentrating on travellers’ overall convenience rather than just price.

The hotel industry has been leveraging the power of user reviews for years, but the flights vertical has only recently started to experiment with criteria other than price, such as “convenience”, “agony” and “happiness”. Momondo has implemented a simple version, displaying smiling or frowning faces based on the flight price relative to its duration. Hipmunk’s “agony” filter is also meant to help users find the most convenient flights amongst the clutter. The most innovative solution though comes from Routehappy, a newcomer launched at the end of 2013. The site displays a “happiness score” calculated not only on price and speed, but also on flight amenities such as seats, leg room and wi-fi, as well as traveller ratings.

This I believe is the direction we are moving towards in the booking of flights, as well as accommodation. Curating user reviews, user photos, factoring in the smaller things like the quality of inflight entertainment, the food, the cabin crew etc, will give users a powerful overall understanding of the particular flight and additional reasons to book or avoid. Will this be achieved by the big meta-searches, or is this a chance for an innovative affiliate start up to shine?

Semantic search

Semantic search, i.e. freely worded search queries written in a natural tone, is what we have come to expect of the web. Applications such as Google search, Wolfram Alpha and Siri have allowed users to search for information in the same way they think, and receive reasonably intelligent answers.

The same will also be increasingly expected from the travel industry, although we are still far from achieving it. FACT-Finder’s CEO predicts that semantic search will be standard across the travel industry by 2020, so the question for us is “how can the affiliate industry benefit”?

Adioso was one the first to offer single field search capability, allowing users to search for terms such as “beach 2 weeks couple romantic”, rather than filling in specific destinations and dates. Zaptravel also supports more “human friendly” search queries and produces holiday suggestions based on those queries, as does Amadeus on their new B2C travel site. There are already a number of startups operating in the semantic search space, but will any truly disruptive affiliates arise and gain their fair share of the affiliate market?

Visual Search

Travel is uniquely suited to visual content and the industry has been making the most of this, especially on the brand side, for years. Airlines, hotels and more recently OTAs, are well known for fully playing on the strengths of visuals through their websites, as well as photo sharing social media, such as Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. Google street view is pushing this trend even further, with their latest side project, “Google Street View Travel Guide”.

The affiliate sector does not seem to have picked up on this trend however, as we are still mainly focusing on comparing features, services and prices. An interesting take on the visual way we search for holiday destinations comes from Tripinview, a start up with the pretty challenging goal of photographing the coastlines of all their destinations from above (using helicopters), thereby offering users a real bird’s eye view of the area and allowing them to see how close a hotel actually is to the beach!

I believe there is a real gap in the market for a great visual based travel site, with a well thought out monetisation plan based on online bookings via the affiliate channel.

It Does Not Stop There..

There are quite a few other major trends in the digital travel sector, waiting for insightful affiliates to emerge and capitalize on them. Real time reviews, connecting users to locals, very last minute and same day bookings, mobile bookings, forecasts and intelligent projections, and of course personalisation, are just a few that come to mind. 

 It seems like it is time for the next big disruption after the rise of meta-searches to take place, which in turn means that all of us in the affiliate travel sector should put our thinking caps on and get to work!