I previously made five predictions for both 2009 and 2010 on what I thought would be the key trends to redefine online travel, trying to keep the focus on airline direct as much as possible. I’ve also just wrapped up my critical review on the success of those 2010 predictions. But to date I’ve given only two official predictions 2011, (repeated as numbers 1 and 2 below), so I’ve come up with three more that I think every airline e-commerce manager needs to understand in order to keep on top of this rapidly evolving industry. Here are my top 5 predictions for 2011.

1. The booking path goes non linear
There are so many different and seemingly unrelated changes happening in the world of online travel, but many of these converge at the point of reinventing the way a person searches for, buys, and then consumes the travel experience. In future, this path moves from linear to seemingly haphazard – steps are skipped whilst others occur in an order that may appear incomprehensible today. Some of the individual impacts feeding into this tectonic trend are campaign management, content management, inspiration, mobile proliferation, personalization, intelligent caching and the merging of pre-shopping and shopping. This prediction will take a number of years to play out fully, but the first real signs will be visible during 2011.

2. Mobile apps and airport kiosks begin their decline
It is always difficult to predict exactly the high water mark during a flood, or the top of the stock market bull run prior to a correction; likewise it is difficult to say that a current hot technology will not get any hotter. This is not to say people won’t be making good money for years to come, but reverting to the old BCG Growth-Share Matrix, 2011 is the start of the cash cow period. App fatigue is rearing its head, ad spend is elsewhere, and HTML 5 is gaining momentum. Games via mobile and other certain segments may still favor native apps, but I remember 10 years ago when I had to download a web app to use online banking – today doing this outside the PC browser would be laughable. Travel will follow the same path, and one impact of everything becoming mobile is that airport kiosks will play a smaller and smaller role over time in the airport as space is freed up for more productive uses.

3. Personalization will be the buzz word of the year, but most airlines will fail to implement.
This is not the first time I’ve said it, but personalization really will be the hot topic for 2011 in online travel, especially for airline websites. And I’m not talking about personalization as solely negotiating ploy, as you just need to look at the really basic personalization I was pushing almost two years ago to see how little tangible change there has been in this area. No use promising the moon if you can’t even look up to see the stars.

By and large, most airlines are paying lip service to personalization, even when small tweaks can deliver such huge results. Now some airlines are claiming huge ideas for what is possible when today they are not even using simple steps like segmenting post booking ancillary sales using simple data already in the face of the PNR. The advent of next generation content management systems combined with smarter use of data from various sources will ensure the personalization topic gets discussed widely within airline e-commerce circles, and one or two airlines might actually genuinely embrace it and begin to obtain a significant lead over their rivals – but they will be the exception.

I’ll consider this prediction a success if by the end of 2011 at least one airline is getting recognition and influencing others into 2012 for the business benefits they have achieved by putting a real focus on personalization across both mobile and web. I live in hope. Any takers?

4. Social commerce becomes both a plus and a minus for airline direct sales
Before I’m accused of taking an each way bet, all the title really means is that there will be new forces to deal with in 2011, and they won’t be univerally good or bad. I’ve been a bit down on the unquestioning automatic praise for anything “social” by the social media lobby, but on the other hand parts of it will have a profound impact on how travel is purchased. It is all about social integration rather than the gimmicky stuff we have seen a lot of to date.

I was surprisingly impressed at Phocuswright with Tripalertz and their model of bringing a group buying dynamic to hotels. No-one can argue with the success of Groupon; how this trend finds its way into online travel will almost certainly be much clearer by the end of 2011 than it is today. Paypal have launched Shoptimist, Facebook have set up a commerce partnerships unit, the rise of sites like RueLaLa during 2010 brought many immitators, and even KLM got into the act with a flight for ravers filled in 5 hours using a social group buying dynamic. Social commerce is only going to get bigger, but this is not a tide that will lift all boats – some airline websites will really struggle, thereby losing power to individuals when those individuals act in a concerted and socially interconnected manner.

There is one impact of social that could have a very positive impact for airlines, but as yet no-one to my knowledge has really worked out how to implement it. At the Amadeus Horizons conference in San Francisco earlier this year Ian Wheeler was asked onstage his prediction for the future and his answer was something like this: social media will be incorporated into shopping results and this could move the basis of decision making away from pure low fare search and onto other features that the purchaser places a value on but which today are not easily incorporated.

From my point of view, this type of thinking is exactly what airlines (and their IT partners) need to be doing in trying to understand how they can really harness the power of social and obtain benefits way beyond all of the gimmicky stuff we have seen so far. It won’t be complete in 2011, but hopefully the gap between vision and reality has narrowed significantly. 

5. The rise of the website analytics guy
In the past I’ve used the great quote from Hal Varian of Google saying the sexy job of the future will be being a statisticion, and then recently I saw BlueKai CEO Omar Tawakol writing, 

The rise of the quants will only intensify in the coming year, as more and more agencies adopt media strategies that rely on in-depth data analysis and audience profiling.

Tie this into recent writing on my previous prediction about rise of data in travel and also tie it into my comments about the non linear booking path and increased personalization above, and you start to realize that just looking at a Google Analytics or Omniture funnel showing drop out rates at each step of the booking flow isn’t going to cut it anymore. Either the importance of you and your job increases, or the importance of the job increases as someone else comes in to do it properly. So before forwarding this post onto your boss asking for a raise, be aware that if you are the guy or girl responsible for website analytics then your job description should be modified and your objectives raised accordingly. 2011 should be a fun year!