The metasearch model, part 3: The complexity of multimodal

Metasearch dates back to 1999, when both SideStep and FareChase launched as search engines that aggregated prices from other online sites.

The following years saw many additional entrants into the metasearch arena – some created with that specific purpose, such as Skyscanner (2001), Kayak (2004) and Wego and Trivago (both 2005), and others that have added price comparison to their existing offerings, most notably TripAdvisor and Google. (Yahoo purchased FareChase in 2004 and then shuttered it five years later, and Kayak acquired SideStep in 2007.)

In a November 2017 report, Phocuswright found nearly half (43%) of travelers in the United States use metasearch sites to shop for flights and hotels. That’s up from 28% in 2010.

In recent years, with the rise of mobile, metasearch sites have been shifting from strictly providing price comparison and referrals to getting into the business of booking as well.

Newer entrants have also entered the field in the complex arena of ground transportation, including GoEuro, Rome2rio, Trainline, Wanderio and others.

This sector, what is known as multimodal metasearch, is the topic of this third piece in our series on metasearch.

We take a look at some of the unique challenges facing multimodal platforms and the future outlook for the sector.


There’s a bit of an ebb and flow to what subjects dominate the conversation in the world of travel technology.

The tours and activities sector has been the hot topic in travel this year, but – if past trends hold true – the buzz will gradually subside in coming years as the digitization of suppliers and distributors becomes more widespread.

Waiting in the wings? Some say it will certainly be multimodal search and booking systems – a sector with untapped potential to make the shift from offline to online.

“The industry only has so much fire power to focus on things. For a long time, it was just focused on flights, and then it realized there’s not a lot of money in flights, hotels are where the money is.

So for 10 years, the industry was all about and all those companies in the business of selling hotels – until that became more of a mature marketplace and the focus shifted over to tours and activities, because the industry realized there’s real money to be made there,” says Rod Cuthbert, founder and former CEO of Viator and former CEO of Rome2Rio.

“I think the same dynamic applies for multimodal. Right now the industry doesn’t have much time to focus its interest on it. The technology is patchy, the commissions are low and in many geographies the systems aren’t there. It’s still an emerging market.”

In short, there is still much work to be done.

In a June 2018 Phocuswright report, Door-to-Door Trip Planning: Why so Difficult?, analyst Michael Gerra writes, “Technically, a key hurdle to successful D2D [door-to-door] trip planning is the engineering complexity of integrating a vast number of fragmented and dynamic data sources.

“On the business side, key challenges include the need for local expertise and partnerships with local transportation providers. Importantly, local culture and conditions play a role too: the level of pervasiveness and maturity of transportation infrastructure and public/private service providers varies considerably from region to region.”

Shifting services

The “fragmented and dynamic data sources” Gerra refers to have spurred a shift in services for some multimodal platforms.

While companies such as Rome2rio (launched in 2010) and GoEuro (2012) began as strictly metasearch sites – showing users the available options and prices for their requested itineraries and then sending them to supplier sites to complete the booking – both have been transitioning to offer the purchase function within their systems.

And it’s easy to see why.

The sector has multiple thousands of suppliers across bus, rail and ferry routes, with varying levels of technological sophistication.

Multimodal platforms have found the customers’ experience booking on those supplier sites is often less than ideal. Bringing the entire process into their systems has allowed them to ensure consistency and quality.

“In the metasearch world, when you are controlling the front end of the product… but then you might click off to bus company ABC, if their product on their end is not enabled in the same way as we would like it to be to give good experience, then clearly conversion will drop off,” says Tim Claydon, chief strategy officer at GoEuro, the Berlin-based multimodal platform that has raised $146 million in funding to date.

“So I think the whole idea of it being self-contained, in one product, and seamless regardless of the provider, regardless of the mode of transportation and regardless of the geography, that obviously builds confidence for the customer.”

And Claydon says the strategy is working – conversions are up – and GoEuro will continue to develop its technology to enable research, booking and mobile ticketing.

That’s also the plan for Rome2rio. The platform currently offers information about 100,000 train routes, more than 570,000 bus routes, 12 ferry routes and 52,000 flight paths.

In addition to price comparison and booking, which Rome2rio launched in 2016, acting CEO Kristeene Phelan says the site aims to be a “trusted traveling companion” by offering travel guides and user-generated tips.

“The geographic mass and complexity of ground transportation is tricky,” Phelan says.

“Rome2rio wants to hold people’s hand through that. So let’s say you are booking a route between Rome and Milan. We may have extra information from one of our customers… to say, ‘Hey you might think you need that business class seat, but if you get this seat in this car, you’ll have a great experience.’ Sort of a cross between TripAdvisor and SeatGuru if you will.”

Mobile matters

Unlike flights and accommodations, ground transportation is often booked at the moment it is needed. That immediacy reinforces the need for reliable mobile interfaces.

“Without a doubt, mobile is the way to develop this industry,” Phelan says.

And the fact that, in many cases, there are multiple ground transportation options to connect between two points – for example dozens of trains and buses between two cities in Europe when there may only be a couple of flights – puts more control in the hands of travelers.

“If you are not having a really great experience in a mobile environment people might end up booking elsewhere for their ground transportation needs,” Phelan says.

Claydon says 75 to 80% of GoEuro’s customers interact with the platform via its app or mobile web product, with customers from 120 countries using the product in 16 languages.

As they work to add more content, he says GoEuro’s biggest challenge has been integrating data from its 800 partners.

“In the airline space and even to a lesser degree in the hotel space, there are standardized systems that allow travel providers to be able to standardize the booking process and the booking systems,” he says.

“Unlike a standard global distribution system or any internet booking engine that might sit on top of a GDS, with trains and buses in particular, it’s very complex.”

Next steps

Cuthbert sees positive signs from some of the large state-run rail transportation organizations, such as Trenitalia and Deutsche Bahn, to open themselves to new distribution systems.

“It’s a real change since even five years ago when they were largely closed and only wanted to sell tickets themselves,” he says.

For buses, Cuthbert says Germany’s Distribusion is making inroads.

“It’s essentially a GDS for buses,” he says.

“You get hundreds of bus companies around the world. I think they are really revolutionizing that space and they are going to bring the bus market onto retail sites and apps really quite quickly.” And for ferries, he notes Rome2rio is working with Direct Ferries to facilitate online bookings in the near future.

Along with improving the supply and distribution mechanism for ground transportation, multimodal platforms are working toward better bundling of options – combining routes from multiple suppliers in a single purchase – and greater personalization.

“So we can tell you what your seat type is like, what platform you are on, whether there is food on board – things people are interested in,” Phelan says.

“Or timely valuable notifications – you’ve just arrived, and these are the options to get out of the airport. Knitting it all together in a way that makes sense for the customer… so they have a one-stop shop. There’s a lot of opportunity not only for serving the customer but providing new avenues for monetization.”

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