Brand Keys will be doing some traveling over the next couple of months. We just returned from the Motivation Show in Chicago. Amy Shea, our EVP Global Brand Development, will be talking about measuring the value of advertising at the Brand Finance Forum in London, and Robert Passikoff and Leigh Benatar (our EVP of Loyalty and Engagement) will be giving a Keynote at the Brand Summit in Dubai. Then we’re off to India. We’re working on the theory that a journey is best measured in knowledge than in miles, and counting on online travel sites to help facilitate trip planning.

We measure Online Travel Sites in our Customer Loyalty Engagement Index and right now the traditional default sites rank as follows:

1. Expedia/Kayak
2. Cheap Tickets/Orbitz
3. Priceline/Travelocity/Hotwire
4. Fodors/

You don’t need a map to see that differentiation among the online travel sites isn’t vast. The reality is, though, that expectations for the category are pretty high and that sites that were able to take advantage of the gap between rational delivery and emotional delight would be able to count on engagement and loyalty to drive traffic rather than just depend upon habit and routine.

Differentiation has never come easily for brands that rely on traditional Q&A inquiry, satisfaction studies, or likelihood to recommend estimates. But leading-indicator loyalty assessments suggest online travel sites consider borrowing some values from social media. Despite a commodity-like delivery on the very rational primacy of service side of the equation, an online travel site could foster real emotional relationships with its clients and turn an “exchange” into a true “conversation.” If they did that, navigation to a more profitable latitude would be a far easier journey.

We predict greater explorations into the frontiers of social media for travel sites in the very near future. As Marcel Proust observed, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” New values too.