Orbitz Improves Its Hotel Search – Is It Enough?

The Orbitz press release boldly announced “Orbitz Launches Groundbreaking Hotel Search Experience with Industry-Leading Property Comparison Features.”

It's New and Improved, but What Is It?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Erik Charlton

The Orbitz hotel user interface may be new and improved, but is it enough of a dramatic step forward to catch the attention of travel shoppers?

Wow, sign me up! Nothing grabs my attention better in online travel than a big leap forward for hotel search innovation.

In reality, calling the enhancements “groundbreaking” or “industry-leading” is a stretch. These changes are incremental, mostly derivative and unfortunately not significantly innovative.

Not to denigrate this big step forward for Orbitz, but given the hyperbolic claims of the press release, I was expecting changes that would dramatically surpass the current hotel search paradigms.

Orbitz has definitely provided a more Kayak-like experience, with some improvements like including user ratings when mousing over a property on a map, but in many cases, Kayak still offers better functionality.

What was added?

  • Google Maps, including street-view
  • Location, hotel classification, customer review score, amenity and brand filters

What was removed?

  • Hotel neighborhood / star classification matrix

Orbitz’ attempt to translate the airline carrier/number of stops matrix display to a hotel star rating/neighborhood format never really resonated with users due its inability to categorize and differentiate a hotel product that is much less commoditized than air travel.

Why Orbitz Desperately Needs Better Hotel Search

Orbitz has stated that growing its hotel business is a top priority. Orbitz 2Q 2010 hotel room night growth exceeded the same quarter of 2009 by 9%. Over the same period, Expedia recorded room night growth of 12%, with Priceline leading those reporting quarterly results with 48%. Hotel revenue, which typically generates the highest margins for online travel companies, represents 63% of Expedia’s total revenues versus 27% for Orbitz. Priceline does not report its revenue mix by travel component.

In June 2009, Orbitz ranked second to Expedia for unique visitors as tracked by compete.com. In June 2010, they had fallen to 4th place behind both Priceline and Travelocity. The compete.com statistics only track the main website and do not consolidate any sister sites.

A big challenge for Orbitz appears to be retaining market share of unique visitors relative to the other major travel websites. Both Kayak and Expedia saw greater drops in unique visitors than Orbitz between June 2009 and June 2010, but when comparing June 2010 to May 2010, both sites saw larger month over month visitor growth rates. Travelocity and Priceline both saw increases in visitor market share.

Compete Unique Visitor Comparison – June 2009 – June 2010:
Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline and Kayak

Compete Unique Visitor Comparison: Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline and Kayak - June 2009 to June 2010

Site Unique Visitors Growth Rate Share %
June 2009 June 2010 YOY % Chg v. May 2010 June 2010 Pt Chg v. 09
Orbitz 10,499,528 8,884,833 -15.38% +7.42% 16.9% -1.56
Expedia 20,321,203 15,734,880 -22.57% +8.10% 29.9% -5.80
Travelocity 9,889,860 10,920,973 -10.43% +5.26% 20.8% +3.38
Priceline 8,637,208 11,498,294 +33.13% +7.63% 21.9% +6.68
Kayak 7,563,646 5,574,737 -26.30% +16.39% 10.6% -2.69

With the pending acquisition of ITA Software by Google potentially marginalizing the differentiation of the Orbitz air engine, there will be even more importance for the hotel vertical to produce revenue and profit at levels similar to its primary online competition.

A Closer Look at the New Functionality

Despite the claims of the press release, the following areas appear to fall short of existing Kayak functionality:

  1. Search widget date selection should offer dual months to simplify date selection and reduce clicks
  2. Locations should include landmarks as well as neighborhoods
  3. Locations should include a radius function to adjust distance from the focal point
  4. Search by address and search by hotel name are available in the search widget, but not offered as filtering criteria on the search results page
  5. Price, star rating, distance and hotel name sort orders should toggle between lowest to highest and highest to lowest
  6. Hotel search results tiles have considerable white space highlighting special offers or last minute savings, so only 1 property is fully visible above the fold (Kayak displays 5 properties)
  7. An option should exist to re-populate map based on zoom level (Kayak also offers a cool dynamic radius tool for point of interest searches)
  8. A most popular sort criteria should be added – consumers perceive best values differently than best sellers.
  9. Kayak offers a hotel photo format to compare properties in addition to the traditional list and map displays

There are also a few obvious suggestions for UI enhancements:

  1. A minimum-maximum slider should be used for dynamic price filtering (See Kayak & Priceline)
  2. Location selection for neighborhoods and other points of interest should offer a multi-select option
  3. Sponsored listing tiles that display above the results list should include date-sensitive pricing or customer review scores, making them equal or superior to standard listings (Expedia does the same thing – not good for click-throughs)
  4. Orbitz includes 16 amenity filters. Expedia offers 3 key filters (Internet, pool & air conditioning), plus 13 others and 7 additional accessibility criteria for a total of 23

What I Didn’t Find:

The release highlighted the “Side-by-Side” comparison of hotel details – I was envisioning the functionality originally provided by SideStep, then Hotels.com to select multiple hotels and compare all amenities side by side using vertically oriented tiles. The hotel list tiles are stacked top to bottom, do not feature a select option, and were never oriented side to side.

There is no sign in the interface of true next generation hotel search capabilities including persona-based destination and/or property recommendations, streamlined best-date price search, seamless navigation or rich media presentations supporting travel inspiration.

What I Like About Orbitz

Orbitz has done a great job of positioning itself as customer friendly organization. Orbitz’ prominent display of the total price in the initial search results should be noted as a best practice, not just for online travel agency and meta-search sites, but for hotel brands as well. Consumers buying hotels online are much more sophisticated and want to make decisions quickly based on access to all pertinent information – and that includes the total price, including all taxes and mandatory fees.

Hotels or web sites thinking that they can fool the consumer by sneaking in a few extra dollars of revenue by requiring non-obvious opt-outs, listing fees in small print, or ambiguously bundling fees will run the risk of incorrectly setting guest expectations and be punished either through social media, or the increased operating expenses required for staff to handle complaints, adjust guest folios and handle credit card chargebacks.

The Orbitz Price Assurance is one of the most consumer friendly in the business.

If another Orbitz customer subsequently books the same hotel for the same arrival, room type and length of stay on Orbitz for a lower price, Orbitz will automatically issue a refund for the difference ranging from $5 to $500 per room. The best part is that they continue tracking the booking until the date you arrive at the hotel.

Of course, if Orbitz had the volume of Expedia, the chances are of someone booking the identical hotel stay would be much improved, but the policy addresses a key concern for travelers (wanting to get the best price – especially if they book early and pay in advance) and works without customer intervention.

There is no need for the customer to scour web sites, be aware of time limitations or contact the travel seller. Orbitz proactively and automatically sends the consumer a refund.

Orbitz Price Assurance works in tandem with their Low Price Guarantee

The low price guarantee supports the more industrious travelers (or those having access to superior screen scraping technologies) who find lower prices on competing sites. Again, it must be the same hotel, same dates and same room type.

If one finds a lower price before the date the hotel applies cancellation fees, Orbitz will refund the price difference, plus provide a $50 credit on a future hotel booking.

There are also a few additional caveats – it must be a pre-paid rate labeled with “Low Price Guarantee” or “Price Assurance” and the price must be compared before taxes and fees.

Not sure most people can easily find or take time to read the hotel cancellation policy listed in the hotel policies, or understand the need for a tax & fee exclusion, but it appears that Orbitz is sincere in standing behind it pricing integrity.

It should be noted that this form of price guarantee can legitimately present a challenge for hotel revenue managers trying to drive last minute sales through price discounting. Depending on the terms of the hotel merchant rate agreement and the relative market strength of the online travel company, this policy can be highly dilutive for hotels if the OTA can shift the risk and make the hotel cover the difference, as opposed to accounting for the refund as a marketing cost.

Finally, Orbitz does not assess change or cancellation fees on hotel bookings, BUT that does not waive the traveler’s responsibility to pay change or cancellation fees assessed by the hotel. Perhaps one of the best ancillary benefits of these guarantee programs is that they get the guest to read and understand the terms and conditions related to the hotel stay.

How The Big Five Stack Up

Fundamentally, after a purely subjective evaluation, Orbitz fares pretty well – A win, a loss, but mostly somewhere in the middle. if the enhancements had lived up to the characterization provided by the press release, one would have expected Orbitz to win a majority of these categories.

  • Hotel Portfolio – Winner: Expedia / Loser: None
  • Search Results List – Winner: Expedia / Loser: Orbitz
  • Filtering & Sorting Controls – Winner: Kayak / Loser: None
  • Mapping: Winner – Kayak / Loser: Travelocity
  • Descriptive & Rich Content – Winner: Expedia / Loser: Kayak
  • Price Guarantee – Winner: Orbitz / Loser: Expedia (Kayak varies based on Seller)
  • Design Aesthetics – Winner: Travelocity / Loser: Priceline

Note: if all the major online travel sites provided comparable functionality, the Loser was indicated as “None”

Where Does this Leave Orbitz?

In summary, the superlative fueled Orbitz communications strategy claiming “Orbitz has revolutionized the online travel industry!” would be more accurate to state “Orbitz continues to evolve as a competitive online travel site.” That’s not an inherently bad thing, but it might not be quite good enough to pull Orbitz out of its fourth place position.

To gain market share and surpass its competition, the Orbitz product team needs to provide product that lives up to the hype being generated by the Orbitz communications team.

It is certainly possible – when it comes to hotel functionality, all major travel sites currently appear to be evolving toward a common feature set.

If the major players don’t identify revolutionary process improvements, it would seem that the industry is a prime target for an innovative start-up to come up with a new approach that could best be described as Hotel Search 3.0.

About Robert Cole

Robert Cole is the founder of RockCheetah, a hotel marketing strategy and travel technology consulting practice. He also authors the Views from a Corner Suite Blog and publishes the Travel Quote of the Day. Robert speaks regularly at major travel industry conferences, authors articles for leading travel industry publications, advises travel-related startups and the equity investment community. He is an evangelist for the global travel industry.