By, Michael Milligan
WASHINGTON -- It is called Travants.com, but you can think of it as an Internet matchmaker for travel agents.
Travants.com is the fancy new moniker -- an amalgam of "travel" and "savant" -- for the Web-based, lead-generator and referral service formerly known as WeBeenThere.com.
Although the name has changed, the concept has stayed the same.
"In a sense, we are a matchmaker," said David Feit, Travants' chief executive.
To that end, the Web site attempts to connect consumers who have specific travel interests with agents who are experts in those areas.
"The entire premise of our model is there's a lot of disintermediation on line that is getting rid of the middleman," Feit said.
"However, we feel in travel, above all else, there is a need for a middleman" to customize and book trips that fit consumers' needs, he said.
The major airlines' move to zero commissions has spurred agent interest in Travants, Feit said.
"Originally, we were doing a lot of recruiting, asking a lot of suppliers and operators to recommend specialists to us," he said. "But since [the commission cuts], we have had agents contacting us."
Approximately 300 agents have signed up with Travants. Membership is $100 per year; however, retailers can join for $50 under a summer promotion.
But Feit said not every agent can be a "Travant."
"We have an online application form that they fill out," he said. "Then we get back to them right away, interview them and discuss their expertise and experience to get a better understanding of what their level of knowledge is.
"We want to make sure that if we do list them, that we put them in the right place on the site and that they are experts in everything we list them for."
However, Travants limits the number of agents who specialize in each field. That way, it doesn't wind up with, say, 100 Jamaica specialists and only one Italy expert.
Feit said he also keeps tabs on whether his "Travants" respond to consumer leads in a timely manner, weeding out those who don't.
"We have an interface where all [consumer] requests go," he said. "It is a Web page personalized for [the agent]. They can go in and accept the leads or reject them. The request will then become available to other [Travants] specialists in the same category, and they can decide if they want to accept the request."
But matchmaking is just the beginning at Travants, Feit said.
"We have other services to help agents thrive," he said, including e-mail marketing services "so they can send out professional-looking newsletters to their clients."
In some ways, Travants considers itself to be a "virtual consortium," steering clients to its members while providing agents with the tools to help them close sales.
To that end, Travants is undergoing a number of enhancements. One is a "call me" button that will appear on the Travants agent's Web page.
Consumers will be able to click the button and fill out certain information to request the agent telephone them. The request immediately will appear as a pop-up window on the agent's computer.
"Right now, we are experimenting with it," Feit said. "The response and the conversion rate seem to be higher than the regular contact forms."
Does the Travants concept work? Don Capa, an agent in Flushing, N.Y., thinks so.
Capa runs Away U Go Travel from his home and specializes in tropical destinations such as the Caribbean.
He signed up with Travants more than a year ago and gets about a dozen leads a week; Capa estimates he closes sales on about 20% of them.
One example was a client from the Midwest who wanted to go to the Bahamas but didn't want to fly.
"He had gone to agents in his neighborhood and he got chased out the door," Capa said.
But Capa, a Bahamas expert, put together a customized, seven-night trip that featured mostly cruising with some flying. The client bought it.