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Gazing into the crystal ball of online travel

If you’ve ever researched a vacation online, you probably know the feeling of having a Web search come back with inappropriate results. columnist Rob Lovitt gazes into his crystal ball to see if that will soon be a thing of the past.

Way back in the Dark Ages (circa 1999), the folks at HotBot ran a very clever ad campaign likening Internet search to a room full of befuddled old men. Regardless of the query at hand, they’d pop up with the most ridiculous results, including, in one memorable case, a bow-tied geezer with a whip who would beckon: “Enter my dungeon of delight.”

“Why is he here?” asks a cohort, to which another replies in exasperation, “He comes up for everything.”

If you’ve ever researched a vacation online, you probably know the feeling. From choosing a destination to finding good deals, the typical search can lead to some wildly inappropriate results.

A few weeks ago, I started asking various analysts and entrepreneurs what the explosion of online travel resources means for the rest of us. ? ? And, perhaps most important, is there any way to take the ever-expanding trove of travel-related data and make it less of a catalog and more of a guide?

That last one speaks directly to the future of online travel, and it turns out plenty of people have ideas on that particular subject. Most of it’s theoretical at this point, but there’s no harm in gazing into the crystal ball at what may lay ahead, be it sooner, later or some time in the distant future.

More features, richer content:
now lets users post videos and pursue one-on-one chats with other users, while has begun offering airfare alerts via a “gadget” in Microsoft’s Vista operating system. Considering that online travel in the U.S. is expected to grow to $86 billion this year, the pressure to innovate will only increase.

Integrated information: Often the domain of individual taggers and bookmarkers, mashups will become increasingly common, says Cathy Schetzina, travel analyst with PhoCusWright. A Honolulu mashup, for example, might include an interactive map that shows local restaurants along with a selection of user reviews — a very useful tool after that surf lesson or outrigger-canoe ride.

Increased convergence: Last summer, began inviting guests to share personal stories and candid photos on the chain’s home page; a few weeks ago, TripAdvisor announced a program that lets hotels receive RSS feeds of current user reviews which can then be posted on site. Part social networking, part self-promotion (for all concerned), it’s all very smart marketing and sure to spread.

Door-to-door travel:
We book flights between airports, suggests Bob Cowen of , but ultimately, we plan trips between our true point of departure (e.g., home) and a final destination (e.g., a business or resort). The solution? A Web site that combines mapping software, ground transportation choices and airport information. “We do those calculations in our head,” he says. “Why can’t a computer?”

Dynamic data: It may look random, but the fact is, all that user content can be pretty darn useful. Amass enough of it, parse it for patterns and, voilà, you’ve got a catalog of experiences that other users may find, well, useful. It’s not that big a leap, says Jasper Malcomson, director of , “to suggest those experiences to others via alerts, e-mails and the Web pages they visit.”

In a perfect world, says Malcolmson, “no plane would ever take off with an empty seat, and every hotel room would be filled every night.” To achieve that goal, he envisions a system that would link unused inventory (airplane seats, hotel rooms, etc.) and traveler interest (and availability) via specialized alerts and priced-to-sell discounts. When everything clicks, he says, “you’d grab your bags and run to the airport.”

Proactive alerts: Companies like currently alert customers when travel problems pop up. The next step, suggests Gene van Grecken, vice president of product development for , would be to send alerts before problems arise. Connecting in Denver with a big storm brewing in the Rockies? The system would automatically reroute you through another city before you left home.

Semantic travel: This one’s the Holy Grail, and it incorporates much of the above, along with what computer theorists call the Semantic Web. In a nutshell, the idea is that the Web is not so much a network of documents, but of data which can be mined, crunched and “repurposed” on demand.

What’s that mean for travel? According to Cathy Schetzina, it means establishing a trip profile and having a so-called software agent find the one (or ones) that best fits the bill. Approve it, and the agent would book flights on your preferred airline, reserve your hotel room and rental car and, perhaps, arrange an activity or two. All you’ll have to do is remember to pack your photo ID and hit the lights on your way out the door.