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How online booking has changed the travel agent landscape

The internet has significantly impacted travel—fundamentally transforming the experience itself and upending the way the industry functions. As traditional operators struggled to adapt, new brands began to emerge. The industry’s digital disruption started in the ’90s and has continued steadily.

In 1994, Travelweb.com, the first comprehensive worldwide hotel properties catalog online, appeared. It would soon include a feature allowing customers to make online bookings. Then, in 1995, the Internet Travel Network claimed to oversee the first online airline reservation. ITN was the forerunner of GetThere, the reservation system for corporate travel.

In 2000, it sold to Sabre, which ran an automated airline seat reservation system. Also in 1995, Viator Systems—​​​​now known as Viator—started a travel technology business that helped provide bookings for excursions and destination tours online.

In 1996, a new player entered the online travel bookings world: Expedia. This online platform was Microsoft’s foray into online travel. This attempt has been incredibly successful, given its spot as one of the world’s top online travel agencies. At a time before e-commerece was widely adopted, Expedia gave consumers price comparisons for flights, car, and hotels—and the means to easily and safely book them on the site. The website’s first advertisement touted that everyday people could now use “the same reservation system” as travel agents.

That same year, partly inspired by the U.S. airline Southwest, Ryanair introduced its famously low-cost airline model, transforming Europe’s airline industry by allowing travelers to book directly on airline websites. Bypassing travel agents and online booking platforms cuts out service fees and commissions, and also allows users to pick any flight the airline offered—not just the ones selected by a third party.  

Other players that emerged in the ’90s include Lastminute.com, Travelocity, FareChase, and Priceline. FareChase used metasearch, working as a search engine that gathered fares from booking websites for hotels, airlines, and agencies. This platform laid the groundwork for other online booking solutions like Skyscanner, TravelSupermarket, Kayak, and Sidestep, which operated as one-stop-shops to find deals across different airline and company websites.

In that same decade, information about travel destinations became more accessible to consumers. In 1995, Jeff Greenwald became the first travel blogger when he published a travel article for Global Network Navigator. While travel blogging isn’t the same as making online bookings, it also makes a difference in the travel agent landscape. As information proliferates online about travel how-tos and destinations, more and more people are inspired to plan trips and make travel decisions—including booking and ticketing—rather than relying on the expertise of a travel agent.

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