Travel Sites Get Personal
February 5, 2001

By Morris Dye


For travelers with a pretty good idea of where they want to go, services like Expedia (EXPE) and Travelocity.com (TVLY) offer a decent deal. Efficient and user-friendly, the sites, for all their snags, allow travelers to book an itinerary with relative ease; most people who use them plan an entire trip without ever contacting another human being.

But while the services achieve a number of their goals, they ignore a substantial portion of the traveling population – those looking for a little advice. Enter sites like VacationCoach, eGulliver.com and Condé Nast Traveler's Concierge.com, all of which can be viewed as reactions to the general trend toward self-service sales à la Expedia and instead seek a more customizable approach.

Concierge.com recently rolled out a feature called Place Wizard, which helps users sort through a pool of more than 650 holiday destinations. Users can input a list of criteria – say, a budget-friendly place in Central America with a laid-back atmosphere and attractive beaches. The site will return a ranked list of destinations. Another site, VacationCoach, matches member profiles against a proprietary database (as opposed to the all-too-common travel-site practice of recycling content) of destination content. While many of the features resemble that of Concierge.com, the site does offer some unique features, like Someplace Similar, which recommends destinations based on what places the user has enjoyed in the past.

In a similar vein comes sites like
Webeenthere.com, a free service that matches consumers with specialized travel agents Launched just last month, Webeenthere is one of several companies that aim to broaden the geographical reach of traditional full-service travel agencies by hooking them up with customers via the Net. In essence, these services do for online travel booking what 1-800-Dentist did for oral hygiene, making it easier for consumers to locate agents with particular areas of expertise. Among the more established players in this field is eGulliver.com, which markets a network of more than 1,000 agents through its own Web site and through partnerships with Expedia and VacationCoach. Meanwhile, Virtuoso.com, a long-standing consortium of high-end travel consultants formerly known as API, has partnered with Travelocity to offer a premium referral service for Travelocity users who want help with their travel plans.

"The Internet travel space in its current form doesn't provide the necessary level of service for travel shoppers," says Webeenthere CEO David Feit. "This is why the conversion rate for online travel is so low and so many people are looking online and booking offline."

The new crop of sites may prove useful for consumers, but the question remains whether a business model lies under all that helpfulness. The sites haven't fully
resolved the question themselves, but they do seem to be considering multiple options. For instance, VacationCoach Senior VP Lora Kratchounova says her company hopes to draw revenue by charging a $25 annual fee for content from its own site and, more importantly, by licensing out their technology and content.

With shrinking commissions slowly sucking the life out of traditional travel agency revenues, it's a good bet that companies will continue to make more personalized forms of information available – for a price.