Turning Web lookers into off-line bookers
Travel Weekly March 22, 2001

NEWS - Agent Issues

By, Laura Del Rosso

In the uncertain world of e-commerce, one thing is clear: More people are researching travel on the Web than buying. The latest Travel Industry Association of America research shows that 25 million travelers booked on line in 2000, but another 34 million looked but did not book.

Trend-watchers say most people prefer to talk to a live person for complex travel plans, and many still fret over credit card security.

This sets the stage for a new kind of partnership -- one between travel agents and a new breed of Web company offering referrals to those agents.

The lead-generation companies claim to have what agents want: clients who are screened and proven ready to buy a trip. And agents have what the traveler wants and what the Web companies would like to deliver: personal service and expertise.

The scramble to snare agent-experts as participants in the untested referral plans started about a year ago.

Key players include the likes of eGulliver, Ez2plan.com and Webeenthere.com -- all looking to attract a coterie of traditional retail agents, promote them as travel experts or specialists and offer their services to consumers who are looking for travel on the Internet.

The thinking is that by giving consumers the option of e-mailing an agent who specializes in the activity or destination they are looking for, Internet lookers can be turned into bookers in an off-line environment that is more personal and hence more comfortable to them. As the tipster, the referring Web business would earn a fee of some kind from the agencies.

Another group of referral sites, among them Respond.com and Netgenshopper.com (which has an agreement with the Institute of Certified Travel Agents), offers referrals for a number of professions, not just travel.

In addition, traditional agencies and consortia, such as American Express, Carlson Wagonlit, Travelbyus, Vacation.com and Virtuoso, have Web site features, based on ZIP code, specialty or both, that are meant to bring consumers to their members or affiliates.

While it is too soon to say who will come out the winners, some early attempts at a clicks-and-bricks strategy have fallen short of expectations.

Last year, Travelocity and Virtuoso, the luxury agency network, signed a deal in which the on-line mega-agency offered its users the option of connecting to a high-end travel specialist.

Travelocity charged consumers a $25 fee to contact a Virtuoso agent; this was meant to ensure that the consumers were serious about buying travel (the fee was taken off the price of a trip, if booked).

But Virtuoso officials conceded the fee didn't work, and the program is in limbo.

Lisa Bertini, Virtuoso's director of Internet product marketing, said the fee is no problem once the consumer has a relationship with the travel agent, "but paying a fee without knowing that person is trickier."

She said Virtuoso is talking with Travelocity about a new referral system, without the fee.

Meanwhile, the network entered into agreements with Altrec, an on-line seller of outdoor gear, and other companies that feature on their Web sites a link via Virtuoso to its travel specialists.

"We have 600 agents who have signed up," said Perry Lungmus, Virtuoso's executive vice president of marketing. "That's encouraging to us because it's still very early in the business model."

Webeenthere.com

New York-based WeBeenThere.com, in business since January, has signed 220 agents. Under its business model; agents pay nothing to participate or receive leads, which they receive by phone or e-mail.

The site was just launched and marketing has not begun, so it is too soon to release any figures, said company president David Feit.

Unlike eGulliver and others, the core of the firm's revenue stream will be from travel and nontravel-related Web sites seeking links to travel consultants, Feit said.

He said he believes sites are willing to pay for the opportunity to provide their users a link to travel experts because it creates more "stickiness" -- more of a reason to use and return to a site. No partner sites have yet been signed.

"The ability to contact travel experts in a certain area adds greater content to a site," he said. "For example, if [an agent] has a site about Greece, he can integrate [a site link] to our Greek travel experts."

The firm also hopes to charge fees to wholesalers and travel vendors that want to promote products to Webeenthere agents. Feit said he believes vendors will be willing to pay to participate because they will reach high-quality specialists.

Suppliers also can buy space on the consumer side of Webeenthere's site to promote a destination or product, but only with a link to Webeenthere's agents who specialize in that destination or product.