Multi-modal: an existential threat for OTAs and meta-search sites

Published September 24, 2013
​There are good reasons why travel search results are limited solely to air travel, despite the fact there’s generally a variety of  ways to get between the origin and destination you’re enquiring about. Principal among them is that our industry has, since the 1970s, been most interested in selling air travel, and made enormous amounts of money from doing so. And then there’s the fact that air travel has for so long been seen as the premier mode of travel, while rail, bus and ferry were thought of as déclassé unless absolutely necessary. Finally, there were simply no technology solutions that could quickly and reliably serve up a search result showing air, rail and other options alongside each other.

Cognitive dissonance: Only showing flight options when you know your customers prefer the train.

The availability of Rome2rio’s search platform—and presumably the others that will follow—eliminates that final barrier. But that still leaves OTAs and metasearch sites in a quandary, wondering how and when they should embrace multi-modal search. The savviest of them realise that their customers, especially those travelling in or to Europe, want a choice between air and rail; and that they’d also appreciate help figuring out how they travel that final leg to their vacation rental in Tuscany, or their business meeting in some out-of-the-way part of Germany.

Responding to those customer needs, those early adopters are finding ways to adopt multi-modal search into their sites: on property and destination pages, on booking confirmations, SEO pages and elsewhere. What we haven’t seen yet—and we’re not surprised—is an attempt to replace air-only search with multi-modal on a genuinely high volume OTA or metasearch site. So why aren’t we surprised?

The main booking path on a top-ten travel site is a carefully constructed, finely tuned and highly valuable beast. Millions of visitors click through it each day, and the results and options they see represent years of careful analysis, design and development. Changes to the booking path are not made lightly, as so much depends on the customer staying engaged and not bouncing off to some competitive site for some comparison shopping. Put simply, there’s a lot of money invested in air-only booking paths, and we’re not surprised that they’re not being changed overnight.

Waymate allows users to compare, and then book, air & rail journeys in Germany, and beyond.

But therein lies the problem for the market leaders. Smaller players, as usual, have less to lose and everything to gain by experimenting with new models. A startup focused on the Italian market, for example, can afford to experiment with all sorts of approaches and designs until they hit on something that resonates with their audience. Their funding may run out before they gain traction; or, on the other hand, they may find themselves with a wildly successful site, and begin to place real pressure on their more established competitors.

Cleartrip emphasises the many transport options users of their site may choose from.

We’re already starting to see this kind of dynamic. Waymate and GoEuro, both focused on the German market, use their own multi-modal technology to drive their sites; Wanderio, in Italy, uses Rome2rio’s platform; while in India Cleartrip, a more established player, is another Rome2rio client. Each has a different approach, each is interesting, some are gaining real traction. To make matters worse for the air-only players, Google, a perhaps unwelcome entrant, has been rolling out limited multi-modal functionality in its mapping products. How irritating.

Want to travel cheap, green or fast? Wanderio, an Italian startup, gives you options.

This dynamic—annoying startups biting at the ankles of industry giants—has been played out many times before, and this won’t be the last time we see it unfold. What remains uncertain in this case is how long the major sites can hold out before responding to the market, either through acquisitions, internal development projects, or brand new strategies that we can’t yet predict. Interesting times ahead.

Rod Cuthbert

Written by
Executive Chairman of Rome2rio
Rome2rio, based in Melbourne, Australia, is organising the world’s transport information. We offer a multi-modal, door-to-door travel search engine that returns itineraries for air, train, coach, ferry, mass transit and driving options to and from any location. Discover the possibilities at