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Why do airlines get it but hotels don’t?

Why do airlines get it but hotels don’t?

At this stage, the concept of top tasks dominating the home page is hardly revolutionary, so why are there still some industries that resolutely refuse to embrace the concept?  Looking at the tourism sector it is difficult to understand why the improved online performance which this approach has brought the airline industry hasn’t been embraced by the hotel sector?

When we look back quaintly at the early days of the web, it’s clear that many organisations viewed websites as online adverts.  Airline websites focused on images of planes, smiley cabin crew, boasts about breadth of routes and numbers of passengers.  For hotels there were classic hero shots of the hotel building, welcome messages from the CEO and loyalty scheme promotions.

Airlines quickly realised that this painful self–promotion needed to be substituted with online customer self–service.  Pictures of planes were replaced with booking forms and route maps were replaced with special offers.  The quality of the booking forms and process continues to vary significantly (from really slick to downright awful) however that’s a subject for a different day.  In short, airlines were quick to enjoy the benefits of building a website around the most important tasks of their most important visitors.

So why have hotels been so slow to adopt the same principles?

Across a decade of research we observe consistently that for hotels implementing the principles of building a home page experience around the most important tasks for most important customers means two core tasks for visitors.  These are booking a room and viewing special offers.  Consistently these two pieces of functionality represent disproportionately important content elements for a significant majority of site visitors.

So why are they often nowhere to be seen?  Or perhaps more accurately, why are they so often displayed with a sense of embarrassment tucked away in a corner or a thin strip across the top of the site and thus barely usable.  Hotel online booking forms are the socially awkward teenager of hotel user experiences.  They lurk around in corners you’re not expecting, half–communicating to those who try to get anything out of them and generally leave everyone feeling pretty unfulfilled.

I agree entirely that beyond the two core tasks (book a room and view special offers) there are many other important tasks such as comparing room types, viewing photos of bedrooms, restaurants, gym and other facilities, finding out about car–parking, travel to the hotel and other buying criteria.  With good design, it is entirely possible to have a home page experience which provides access to tasks but at the same time shows off the hotel’s uniqueness using beautiful photography.

The piece that I can’t understand is why a website manager would wish to lure the user to entice them to buy with beautiful imagery and then make the process of purchasing so difficult.

Once a website has established the value of its proposition in the eyes of its customers it must make acting on that proposition as straightforward as is humanly possible.  This can only be achieved with a commitment to user–experience and an embrace of the philosophy that home page content decisions get made based on top tasks for top customers.

Going Way Back

We don’t claim our approach is scientific, however by way of research we checked out the websites of 15 global hotel chains and five–star hotels, and 15 of the world’s largest airline websites.  We contrasted the earliest websites we could find for each company with the latest version of their site, to see what they had learned in the intervening decade and a half regarding user–centred design. Airlines and Hotels are listed below and you can download the before and after screenshots for airlines and hotels (PDF format, 2.8 MB)



  • Aer Lingus
  • Air New Zealand
  • American Airlines
  • ANA
  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific
  • jetBlue
  • Korean Air
  • Lufthansa
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Qantas
  • Qatar
  • Ryanair
  • Swiss
  • Virgin Atlantic


  • 62 Castle St
  • Accor
  • Barnsley House
  • Berkeley
  • Best Western
  • Caherane House Hotel
  • Castle Martyr
  • Choice Hotels
  • Corinthia Hotels
  • Hilton
  • The Landmark
  • The Lowry Hotel
  • The Marcliffe
  • Royal Garden Hotel
  • The Witchery

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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