The Travel Agency of Tomorrow

This week I spent time with the industry's top luxury travel agencies at Virtuoso TravelWeek in Las Vegas. Based on these interactions and the increased demand for travel agents, I've been giving some thought to what the travel agency of tomorrow may look like.

Years ago, the local travel agency was a brick-and-mortar office on Main Street with sunny and exotic destination posters adorning the walls.

As the age of online travel grew and travelers adopted a D-I-Y approach, travel agencies disappeared from Main Street in search of lower costs in high-rise buildings or work-from-home arrangements. What will the travel agency of tomorrow look like?

Instead of being simply a transactional office, retail travel agencies will return to Main Street as experiential spaces for luxury consumers.

Given the growing demand for curated travel experiences, I believe the travel agency of tomorrow will look much like the agency of yesteryear. Instead of being simply a transactional office, retail travel agencies will return to Main Street as experiential spaces for luxury consumers. Gone are the destination posters of yesteryear in favor of a refined, relaxed environment to enjoy coffee or wine with friends. Curated presentations – some travel related, some not – hosted at the agency become "nights out" for like-minded neighbors who view the agency as expert not just in travel, but in luxury experiences. The travel agency becomes a familiar hang-out for locals to learn, share stories, and laugh together.  In short, the travel agency of tomorrow is an experiential hybrid: part wine bar, part concierge lounge, and part expert showcase.

For travel agency owners, the upside to this new agency format may include new revenue streams such as wine sales and event space rental… not to mention increased foot traffic and travel sales. Besides, what goes better with travel stories than a great glass of wine?

How Guest Targeting is shifting the OTA landscape

For years, Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity have been entrenched OTA players in a static hospitality landscape. With back-end connectivity to the GDS, these OTA giants represented a simple, at-home entry point for many travelers. Over time, aggressive marketing and rate parity have established OTAs as a reliable retail outlet for hotels, airlines, and rental cars.

But in the past 18 months, a seismic shift has begun to change the landscape for the online travel agencies. Foreshadowed by Google's 2010 acquisition of ITA Software, the rise of "big-data" represents the greatest challenge to OTAs in more than a decade Click to Tweet and is beginning to change the landscape for many of the largest online travel agencies.

Armed with data on preferences, interests and even search histories, big-data providers like Facebook and Google have built platforms by which hoteliers can offer highly targeted packages and promotions to small groups of retail travelers. The result looks to net higher conversions at a lower cost of sale for hoteliers, all while delivering a more satisfying retail experience for guests.

This shifting landscape could bring the eventual downfall of the parity-based model for OTAs. Just this week, Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi confirmed to CNBC's "Squawk Box" show that Expedia is looking for ways to shift its offering to hoteliers away from parity towards a guest-targeting model. (Note: Khosrowshahi's comments about Expedia's future model begin at 2:20 into the video.)

In my opinion, the biggest challenge OTAs face in delivering a targeted guest model is the access to a larger guest dataset. While Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz capture travel search data, the legacy OTAs lack access to broader preferences that are game-changers for the big-data companies. OTAs will likely need to purchase guest data directly from their new competitors, Facebook and Google, Click to Tweet which will drive down profit and make the challenge even more pressing.

I believe that the pressure to build a more profitable, guest-targeted model may drive OTA consolidation. It's also quite possible that we will see the larger OTAs pursue big-data through acquisition of social media properties such as Pinterest or Gogobot.

Does this mean that Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz are about to fold up shop? Not at all. Although consolidation within OTAs is possible, the likely path for OTAs will be less emphasis on non-targeted results through the GDS and more focus on generating guest-targeted offerings at a higher margin.