- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

The Internet has brought the world to travelers' fingertips.
Vacationers are skipping their travel agents and going straight to the Internet to research, plan and book their trips sifting through the hundreds of travel services that have come on line the last several years.
"It's all about putting consumers in control of their travel," said Michael Stacy, senior vice president of consumer marketing at Travelocity.com (www.travelocity.com), one of the leading on-line travel services.
Vacationers now have the ability to compare air fares and routes and even bid for cheap hotel rooms.
But this do-it-yourself trend doesn't come without a price. Many Internet surfers can end up confused, book trips that are too expensive or destroy their plans.
And the new on-line industry, dominated by airline reservations, is forcing traditional travel agents to reinvent themselves and become experts in specific fields, rather than rely on dwindling airfare commissions.
More than 54 million U.S. adults, or 25 percent, turned to the Internet to gather information, get prices or check schedules relating to travel last year. That's up nearly 75 percent from just two years ago, according to a recent report by the Travel Industry Association of America.
"If you look at survey results, usage is off the charts," said Gary Leopold, president and chief executive officer at Boston-based Irma S. Mann Strategic Marketing Inc. "I think we'll continue to see exponential growth because more and more people are becoming comfortable with the medium."
The $4 billion on-line travel industry is made up of a wide range of sites from full-service Internet travel agencies and airline Web sites to bidding sites and Web auctions. On-line travel sales are expected to reach $6.3 billion this year and soar to $16.3 billion by 2003, according to Jupiter Communications, an Internet research firm.

Let mouse do your walking

The top two reasons consumers make travel and airline reservations on line is because they can book whenever they want and compare rates, according to Forrester Research Inc., a research firm in Boston.
"But the problem with the Internet is there's tons of information," said Tom Parsons, editor of www.BestFares.com, an industry magazine. "We're just one source. Every single Tom, Dick and Harry can get their information out there cheaper and quickly."
Vacationers have hundreds of sites from which to choose. Full-service travel sites include the popular Travelocity.com, which has access to 700 airlines, 50 car-rental companies, 46,000 hotels and more than 70,000 vacation packages. Other sites like Priceline.com let travelers name their own price on airfare, hotel rooms and car rentals.
Mr. Parsons thinks the variety is beneficial to a point.
"Now we can look without relying on just two sources: airlines and travel agents," he said. "There are so many sites that are telling us what's good, bad and ugly."
The top on-line travel services include www.Expedia.com, Preview Travel Inc. (www.previewtravel.com) and Travelocity.com, according to a winter 1999 report from Gomez Advisors Inc., which rates the Internet sites based on how easy they are to use, customer confidence, on-site resources and customer services.
Those sites, as well as the hundreds of other on-line travel services, are vying for the same dollar. However the industry is too new to know which sites will prevail.
Eventually "people will settle down in a comfort zone," said Terry Trippler, airline expert at www.1travel.com, another on-line travel service. "Comfort level is a critical thing. A site with a comfort zone and a good booking engine will win."
For now, most people booking on line nearly 70 percent use various sites to book their travel plans, according to a survey by Forrester Research. A much smaller group about 24 percent shop around when researching travel arrangements but always go to the same site to book.
Emil Hill, director of legal services marketing at Deviller Communications in the District of Columbia, has a list of travel sites that he relies on when he is planning a trip, including Cheap Tickets Inc. (www.cheaptickets.com) and airline Web sites.
"It saves me time," Mr. Hill said. "I've been doing it long enough that I have a system in place… . I know the trip is done."
Mr. Hill traded in his travel agent for on-line travel services after he heard about inexpensive deals his friends had found on the Internet, as well as seeing advertisements from on-line travel services.
The AOL Travel Channel, Expedia.com Travel and Travelocity.com were the top three travel sites based on the number of users who visited the site in February, according to Media Metrix, which tracks Web users.
But the 6.4 million visitors to AOL and the 5.3 million visitors at Expedia.com don't necessarily translate to booked trips.
"Our numbers show there is a vast amount of shopping on our site, but as the site matures, the number of bookers are increasing," Mr. Stacy said. "We're on the cusp of something revolutionary. It takes a while to ripple through the United States."

Traveler beware

But the abundance of travel sites all offering the best deals with the lowest prices can be confusing.
Consumers some logging on to travel sites for the first time are bombarded with sites claiming they have the lowest prices and the best deals.
"The amount of information is overwhelming," Mr. Leopold said. "[Consumers] have to understand who that provider is and who stands behind the name," he said.
Names that are instantly recognizable like American Express (travel.americanexpress.com) can count on that recognition for credibility. Expedia.com, affiliated with Microsoft, has gained credibility because it is owned by the computer giant. Travelocity.com is owned and operated by Sabre Inc., which was started by American Airlines. American Airlines' parent company, AMR Corp., sold its 83 percent ownership in mid-March.
Mr. Trippler is convinced the Internet has holes, despite the wealth of information.
"On-line travel sites are poor at offering complete information," he said. "As on-line booking services get stronger, they have to have absolute correct information. They don't provide adequate information now."
Mr. Trippler receives 175 to 200 e-mail messages a day from people who aren't able to get all the information they need like airport procedures and flight restrictions.
"Disloyal" bookers consumers who book travel plans on different sites are skeptical that one site will have the lowest price for every trip they take, according to Forrester Research.
"The reality is you have to shop around," Mr. Leopold said. "Not every site has every deal or package."
It takes time to sift through the hundreds of on-line travel resources available. Those tired of looking can use sites that look for them like shopping services Respond.com (www.respond.com) and www.Imandi.com.
Sites like E-Gulliver Inc. (www.egulliver.com) match on-line travelers and their interests with travel specialists.
"If booking through the Internet, you want the benefit and service of someone who understands [the industry]," Mr. Leopold said.

Agents switch direction

The advent of on-line travel services, including airlines beefing up their own on-line capabilities, has alarmed traditional travel agents.
"Airlines are doing what they can to remove the small [travel agents]," Mr. Parsons said.
For example, some airlines offer a 5 percent discount to consumers if they book directly through them. Travel agents get a 5 percent commission from the domestic flights they sell, a percentage that has fallen over the years.
Most airlines have created their own Web sites, making it even easier for consumers to book through them. Soon, it will be even more simplified with the start of a new Web site that features 33 participating airlines. The idea of the site, expected to debut by the end of June, was started by Delta, Northwest, Continental and United airlines. The name has not been determined.
"If you are dependent on point-to-point airline [sales], you are going to go out of business," said Dick Knodt, president and chief operating officer of Vacation.com, a D.C.-based travel service with a network of travel agents.
But industry officials say travel agents can survive if they are willing to change their strategy.
"Consumers spend a lot of money [on vacations] and expect a certain kind of experience," said Mr. Knodt, who was former president and chief operating officer of the American Society of Travel Agents. "They still want human interaction."
Travel agents provide expertise, save time and someone to hold responsible if things go wrong, industry officials say.
"Once consumers have shopped around, they want someone to come in and say they're doing the right thing," Mr. Knodt said. "They want an expert to validate [their choices]."
Travel agents are beginning to reinvent themselves, becoming experts on particular vacations and destinations, as well as putting themselves on the Web.
A good travel agency is using the Web, with its own site and sending e-mail messages to let customers know about deals, Mr. Leopold said.
Vacation.com (www.vacation.com) has 8,800 travel agents who specialize in vacations. The agents focus on selling destinations, working with such suppliers as cruise lines and tour operators.
Travel services such as Expedia.com and Travelocity.com, where the majority of business is from airline bookings, are not competition.
"We market vacations," Mr. Knodt said. "We're in the experience business, not the commodity business."
Travel agents who specialize in niches like cruises or resorts actually have the power to influence where people go, which drives market share, Mr. Leopold said. If travel agents are helping to improve their business, vendors will want to work with them, he added.
Despite all the research consumers can do about a particular vacation, it still may be difficult to get the deal complete on their own.
"For now, travel agents are an important part of the business," Mr. Leopold said.

The future is here

Despite the hype surrounding on-line travel services, the industry is still only a small fraction of the entire travel industry.
For example, 1998 on-line air bookings totaled $1.8 billion, or 2.6 percent of the total air bookings that year, according to Jupiter Communications. However, the on-line industry is growing rapidly; by 2003 on-line air bookings will make up 11 percent of total air bookings in the country.
More brick-and-mortar travel agencies will begin to jump on the Internet, offering both real-world services and their services on the Web, said Flo Lugli, president of WizCom International Inc., which provides reservations and information management systems to hotels, car-rental companies and tour operators.
"We'll see more traditional players enter the on-line market," Ms. Lugli said. "They've got the customer base and the infrastructure."
"The challenge for the supplier is to communicate with consumers the way the consumers wants to communicate," she said. That could mean mixing traditional media with new technologies.
And like any industry, the on-line travel business will consolidate. It's already happening.
For example, last month, Travelocity.com, which brought in $800 million in sales last year, completed its merger with competitor Preview Travel Inc., which has 9 million registered members.
Those services that already are dominating the Internet will begin to look elsewhere for customers.
"The future access to a site like Travelocity.com will not just be on a PC," Mr. Stacy said. "It's the wireless market we're looking at."
Travelocity.com and Palm Computing are developing a way to provide travel information and services on Palm's new wireless, handheld computer. The company also has teamed up with Vodafone to make Travelocity.com's services available on a range of devices like mobile phones.
Despite how rapidly the industry has grown, there is no sign of it slowing down.
"The industry is young," Mr. Trippler said. "We will not recognize it a year from now."

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