As a part of our #Outlook14 series, we asked heads of four online travel companies – ixigo, Olacabs, HolidayIQ, Cleartrip and Thrillophilia about their focus areas for 2014, and the challenges that the online travel ecosystem needs to address.

MediaNama: Which according to you were the top developments and roadblocks with respect to the online travel segment in 2013? Why?

Aloke Bajpai, CEO, ixigo

– The growth of travel planning, research and information related queries on search engines has been almost twice as fast as transactional queries.
– OTA market matures, but continues growing with online air bookings now growing at a slower pace, and focus shifting to hotels and packages to drive revenue growth and profitability.
– OTAs also experimented with features that helped in trip planning prior to booking and hand-holding prior to booking.
– All online travel companies have started taking mobile a lot more seriously in 2013, as evidenced by the launch of mobile apps, and growth in mobile transactions.

Bhavish Aggarwal, Co-founder and CEO, Olacabs

– With most people accessing Internet through their mobile phones today, travel as a category presents a big opportunity to companies like ours to offer great travel experience to our customers.
– In the cab rental space, the scale that aggregators have achieved this year is a big development.
– Also, the fact that aggregators have been able to prove that they can offer great quality without owning the cabs is a great endorsement for their credentials.

Subramanya Sharma, Chief Marketing Officer , Cleartrip

– Average domestic air pricing was very high, which impacted demand for the air product
– Mobile really changed trajectory in 2013 with some amazing growth
– Focus on user experience helped increase the efficiency by a few percentage points
– Optimisation of ad spends with the inception of new types of ad products/players
– Hotels starting to show the online adoption that happened on air a few years back

Abhishek Daga, Co-Founder, Thrillophilia

– 2013 saw travel bookings happening on mobile. 33% of the mobile consumers today want to complete the transaction same day.

Hari Nair, Founder & CEO of HolidayIQ.com

– In 2012, this number has grown to 1 billion – the Indian travel market is estimated to be worth Rs 35,000 crores now and is expected to reach to Rs 2 lakh crore in next five years.
– Mobile has become an area of key interest
– Newer formats integrating reviews, photos & videos across social, mobile & micro blogs will evolve.
– There will be demand for more UGC, but in quick & efficient tablet sized bites. The trend of relying on other travellers for more authentic travel experiences will continue.

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MediaNama: What has changed from 2012 to 2013? How?

Aloke Bajpai, CEO, ixigo

– Searching for coupons and deals prior to booking has accelerated – a legacy effect from the crazy growth of couponing sites in 2012. 2013 also saw more people comparing before booking.
– For most online travel companies, more than 25% of their traffic and nearly 10% of their transaction volume is now coming from mobile devices, largely growing on the back of cheap Android based smartphones.
–  Having great content for the query as well as for semantically related topics improves page quality, and long-tail pages that cater to specific queries with specific and relevant content get a better chance to rank with SEO.
– Most online travel companies now have full-fledged presence of Facebook and Twitter including social logins and are leveraging these media for customer service and engagement.

 Bhavish Aggarwal, Co-founder and CEO, Olacabs

– Till now, all large car rental players used to own their cabs.
– Another change is the number of people who are now comfortably using mobile for making travel bookings.

Subramanya Sharma, Chief Marketing Officer , Cleartrip

– Mobile has taken off big time
– Ad spends on social properties has increased (e.g. Facebook, Youtube)
– New types of ad products have helped increase the efficiency on online spends
– New business models being experimented on Hotels (e.g. pay@hotel) to enhance the trust factor with consumers

Abhishek Daga, Co-Founder, Thrillophilia

– Tours and holiday packages witnessed a steep growth in online bookings.
– 2013 witnessed the mobile shift.

Hari Nair, Founder & CEO of HolidayIQ.com

– Brands that understand how big data can enhance the entire travel consumer experience and use it to strengthen their offerings, be it social, mobile or digital.
– Indian holiday-goers are discovering a lot of offbeat destinations

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MediaNama: Which are the consumption patterns (online & mobile) that you observed in 2013?

Aloke Bajpai, CEO, ixigo

– Apps are clearly winning in the native vs. HTML debate.

Bhavish Aggarwal, Co-founder and CEO, Olacabs

– About 30% of our bookings happen through our mobile app.

Subramanya Sharma, Chief Marketing Officer , Cleartrip

– More consumption on mobile (from 10% to 25% of traffic. Even conversion has increased on mobile compared to last year)
– Apps becoming more important, and weaning some of the traffic away from the mobile site

Abhishek Daga, Co-Founder, Thrillophilia

– At Thrillophilia 100% of the B to C transactions happen online.

Hari Nair, Founder & CEO of HolidayIQ.com

– Mobile has become particularly relevant for India where, we have seen for a majority of new internet users, their mobile device is the primary/sole point of internet access.
 The ‘2013 India Digital Future in Focus’ released by ComScore reported that penetration of online travel sites globally is the highest in India. While global reach of travel portals is 36 %, in India it is 38%. India has more than 160 million Internet users now and this figure is estimated to reach 348 million by 2017.
– Travellers from non-metro cities travel & spend more than their counterparts in metros

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MediaNama: What kind of transition have consumers made from offline to online in 2013? Why? What are your observations?

Aloke Bajpai, CEO, ixigo

– Over 50% of domestic flight tickets in the country are booked on an online platform and one-third of all reserved train tickets are purchased online.
– Starting in 2014, we will see continued growth in moving offline customers to online medium since Air Asia built its entire brand on the back of deeply discounted advance-fares that are bookable only online.

Bhavish Aggarwal, Co-founder and CEO, Olacabs

– The transition from booking offline to booking through mobiles is the biggest change that we have witnessed in 2013.

Subramanya Sharma, Chief Marketing Officer , Cleartrip

– We are seeing consumer traction on hotels in terms of online adoption
– Online travel agencies have worked on gaining the trust of consumers on hotels with innovative marketing propositions as well as working with suppliers on the technology side to help them be better enabled for online transactions.

Abhishek Daga, C0-Founder, Thrillophilia

– The consumer is still hesitant to purchase the bulk inventory online such as a corporate booking and would like to meet in person before making such transactions.
– Secondly international travellers are hesitant in transferring money in India due to a few highlighted cases of fraud.
– Consumers no longer go to an offline vendor to book a weekend getaway. They figure out the best deals and book online.

Hari Nair, Founder & CEO of HolidayIQ.com

– Massive increase in online research for vacations & travel in general
– Gradual Rise of online bookings
– Tourists are open to exploring : Strong interest in lesser-known destinations and unique / alternative accommodation in India
– Increasing interest in outbound travel

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MediaNama: What are the likely trends that you expect to see in 2014? Why?

Aloke Bajpai, ixigo

– Expect mobile+tablet traffic to overtake desktop traffic in the travel category by the end of 2014. Mobile travel bookings should also reach 20-25% (if not more!) of total web+mobile bookings for some companies with some dominant players emerging on mobile travel.
– Expect to see entirely new niches being created with innovation at the confluence of content, mobile and social. Some of these niches, albeit small today, have good growth potential for the longer-term.
– More and more small and mid-sized companies – hotels, guest houses travel agencies, tour operators etc. are discovering the power of the online / mobile medium for generating leads and transactions for their businesses.
– Expect accommodation and packages to drive a majority of revenue growth for online travel businesses in 2014, with sustained focus by the big players, and increased attention by niche players too.
– Expect meta-search businesses to continue growing too and also see the emergence of hybrid business models that combine ideas from meta-search and OTAs to offer travelers a better experience.
– The companies playing in the content and UGC space will win if they curate this content well with the help of communities.

Bhavish Aggarwal, Co-founder and CEO, Olacabs

– More and more independent car rental plays will attach their inventory with aggregators.
– We also think this is a year of consolidation where only the fittest will survive.

Subramanya Sharma, Chief Marketing Officer , Cleartrip

– Mobile will continue to turbo charge the channel shift
– Data & Personalisation, both in products & marketing will push the user experience further
– Consumers will experiment more with unique destinations, and also control the buying experience themselves

Abhishek Daga, Thrillophilia

– On-ground service providers won’t have to rely on multiple tour operators and agents in between to get business.
– Technology will just be an enabler, while people having quality products will grow manifolds and thereby reducing the significance of tour agents  who made fortunes for years by reselling inventory multiple times to a less educated customer.

Hari Nair, Founder & CEO of HolidayIQ.com

– Travellers will continue to allocate higher budgets for holidays
– Weekend travel will grow, holiday planning will be quicker
– Better transport & larger interest will make travellers choose destinations outside a 200- 300 km radius
– Mid-week will be the most important time for holiday planning

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MediaNama: What are the challenges in the online travel segment that would need to be addressed in 2014?

Aloke Bajpai, ixigo

– None of the Indian online travel companies have solved specific problems for Indian travelers such as reviews by other Indians, where to get veg food, religious places, dhabas, dharamsalas etc. Schedule based itinerary planners don’t really work for this market.
– Only 5-7% of hotel inventory is being sold online.
– There is an opportunity to aggregate fragmented non-hotel inventory and improve the experience at the below Rs. 2000 per room-night market.
– A large number of packages are still sold after a telephonic or in-person interaction.
–  Time is ripe for a platform to emerge as either an OTA or aggregator of this kind of inventory, whether it is white water rafting, rappelling, or inter-city pilgrimage trips. The space of 1 hour to 1 day long trips is still pretty nascent with the vast complexities of our country.

Bhavish Aggarwal, Co-founder and CEO, Olacabs

– Better technology implementation to ensure a seamless on-ground experience is something that the industry as a whole will have to get right.
– Other challenges to address would include internet availability and speed on mobiles and ensuring data security.

Subramanya Sharma, Chief Marketing Officer , Cleartrip

– Pricing on domestic air will continue to be a challenge, and once supply returns to the market, we hope that it will bring back some of the demand back.

Abhishek Daga, Thrillophilia

– The biggest challenge in online travel lies on the vendor side – where internet does not work at multiple locations in India and the staff in the best of the hotels does not know how to use GDS.

Note: Answers have been edited for brevity