Travel Trends: Online booking for travel expected to increase through 2014

Like much of the rest of the travel industry, online travel bookings in 2009 took a hit. Spending by consumers dipped for the first time in recent memory, from $112.9 billion in 2008 to $104.3 billion in 2009 (down 7.6%), according to a report from research firm Forrester.

However, while online bookings for virtually every segment slipped — including air travel by a punishing 7.7% to $61.8 billion (can you say, “Hello, baggage fees“?) — online car rentals fared relatively well, sliding only 2.1%, to $12.1 billion.

By comparison, hotels tumbled a staggering 9.9%, to $28.6 billion. Cruise bookings were down a modest 3.4%, to $1.1 billion. Tours were flat, but at just over $600 million, it remains a tiny sector.

Why did online car rentals hold up?
In large part, online car rentals can thank the fact that gasoline prices moderated somewhat in 2009. Cash-strapped consumers still stricken with wanderlust had good reason to hop back in their car to take trips.Gasoline prices averaged $2.03 per gallon in late March 2009, for instance – significantly down from $3.26 per gallon in late March 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration. Currently, a gallon of gasoline sells for about $2.79 per gallon, on average — still down from those spasming numbers seen on spring of 2008 but helping to explain why online car rentals are not accelerating faster.

Fortunately for each segment of the travel industry, the outlook for online travel bookings is looking good, thanks in part to the (slowly) improving economy. In fact, Forrester is projecting that overall online bookings will trend up an average 8.1% each year from 2009 to 2014, when consumers will spend more than $153 billion booking travel online. Airfare will still be the lion’s share of online bookings, though hotels will take a small bite out of that stranglehold, as evidenced by the pie charts below.

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Europe tells several different online travel stories

The EU may have brought us closer to having one Europe, but there certainly isn’t one European travel market. The latest report from travel industry research firm PhoCusWright sees the French market staying flat through 2011, with strong growth occurring in Germany. In the United Kingdom, the travel business will continue to tighten. Meanwhile, the mouse-clickers are in Scandinavia, which is leading the charge in online bookings.

The UK, France and Germany dominated the online leisure and unmanaged business travel market in 2008, accounting for 67 percent of all bookings. But, the UK’s position has been eroding and will continue to do so for the next two years. In 2008, it accounted for 31 percent of the leisure and unmanaged sector online, but PhoCusWright forecasts a drop to 26 percent by 2011. Blame the value of the pound for that one: devaluation will contribute to an erosion an actual buying activity. France owned 19 percent of this market in 2008 and isn’t likely to change. The real growth story, among the largest markets, is Germany. In 2008, it represented only 17 percent of the leisure and unmanaged business market … but PhoCusWright expects it to hit 20 percent in 2011.

Online penetration is greatest in Scandinavia, which now leads Europe. In 2008, this corner of Europe passed the UK, with 45 percent of travel booked online in Scandinavia compared to 40 percent in the UK. And, it isn’t slowing down. Click-and-buy is expected to break the 50 percent mark in 2010, while it will take longer for the UK travel market to get there. France’s online penetration is only 30 percent, with Germany at 24 percent but growing.

UK online bookings to grow this year

Yes, you read that correctly – online bookings are expected to finish higher in the United Kingdom this year! Even in this dismal economy – which has been particularly brutal for the travel industry – the web guys have something to celebrate. Sure, the forecast is only for 3 percent, but that beats the losses being posted elsewhere.

Travel industry research firm PhoCusWright’s new study puts the amount spent on leisure and unmanaged business travel (i.e., employee picks for himself) at £17.1 billion for 2009, comprising 45 percent of all bookings for the year in the UK. So, a hefty portion of the industry over there is seeing some growth.

Meanwhile, the overall UK travel business is expected to shrink by 8.9 percent this year, with gross bookings dropping to around £37.6 billion. So, the online world is holding its own while the rest of the market gets spanked. For the near-term, PhoCusWright says, the “outlook is bleak.” The UK travel business should reach 2007 levels in 2012 (ouch).

“British travelers have had to cope with currency devaluation on top of the recession, and both have driven significant changes in travel patterns,” says Carroll Rheem, director, research at PhoCusWright.

The situation isn’t as bad at home, though. Rheem continues, “The blow to domestic travel has been relatively soft while the fall-off in U.K. visitors to the Mediterranean has been significant.”

Airline websites beat other suppliers in the digital space, the research firm says, picking up more than half of direct online sales in the UK. Hotel company sites are expected to grow with the market, and tour operators are forecast to have the biggest wins (in terms of growth rate) on the web. They’ve invested heavily in marketing to bring customers online, according to Peter O’Connor, PhoCusWright’s market analyst, U.K. and France. “Selling a combination of pre-packaged, dynamically packaged and decoupled travel components, their share of U.K. online direct travel is expected to increase through 2011,” he says. Even with the jump for tour operators, though, online travel agencies are going to lead growth for all online channels in the UK.

It’s not time yet to celebrate an end to the travel recession; that will only come when the bigger recession has been resolved. Nonetheless, it’s great to see some hope in any part of the travel business. It means that people are getting on planes and heading either to old favorites or new experiences. Let’s hope that next year the stats are higher in the UK and everywhere else.

GADLING’S TAKE FIVE: Week of December 31

With so many interesting stories coming out and into the New Year it made selecting this week’s five a bit difficult, yet I think I’ve gathered a well-rounded batch for you to review.

5. Think Before You Click:

Here is the sad tale of a German tourist who accidentally booked a ticket and flew into Sidney, Montana when he actually wanted to go to Sydney, Australia. The lucky fellow was able to make it to his intended destination with the help of family and friends, but talk about a costly mistake! Ouch.

4. Ask The Pilot:
Looking for the answer to all your flying questions? Why not “Ask the Pilot” or pick up the book to see if your question happens to make the selection of commonly pondered questions.

3. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum:
When a former president is no longer with us it is a big deal to say the least and many feel the need to pay some sort of tribute. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum is just one place to start or perhaps you can think and thank him on your way from the ATM as he was the dude that made it legal to pull money from a machine. Not as grand as a trip to the museum, but its just a thought.

2. Paddling Baja Dispatch: Day 2:

After another great trip, Erik returns to share with us the details of paddling Baja. In this dispatch he talks about his guide Carlos, jagged coastlines, incredible rock formations, Mexican food, and rum and of course he does the favor of including some very cool photos from the affair. There is more to come, but in the meanwhile catch up on this if you already haven’t.

1. Chinese Shish Kabobs:
Death-wish or delicious? I don’t know about the food found in the pictures from Neil’s pal Pete, but I do know they make my skin crawl to the point where these Chinese shish kabob would be staying far from the taste-buds and only close enough for photo ops. Do proceed with caution.