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 September 1, 1999

First a foe, Internet now friend to travel agencies

BOULDER — Not long ago, travel agencies saw the Internet as a potential competitive threat. Estimates show that up to 20 percent of the Web’s content is travel related, and consumers can book and purchase travel tickets themselves online.

But Boulder travel agencies, as well as many nationwide, have found the Web is much more of a friend than an enemy when it comes to satisfying customers and increasing sales.

Agencies are treating the Web as the next mass market medium, launching their own Web sites to provide detailed travel information as well as to brand themselves to customers.

“It is an excellent tool for us to provide research for our clients,´ said Jan Walden, director of leisure travel for Boulder-based Cain Travel. “People report getting very frustrated trying to find what they’re looking for on the Internet. Rather than spending hours searching on the Web, they can use our links to get information on the destinations they are interested in.”

James Ashurst, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), estimates that 76 percent of its members have online access and 49 percent have agency Web sites, with that number growing daily. “We definitely see the Web as an opportunity, not a threat,” he noted. ASTA offers its 26,500 members detailed advice on setting up agency Web sites and even offers low-cost home pages through its own online information service, ASTAnet.

The competitive impact of booking travel online has been minimized by the fact that travel agents really do know best when it comes to navigating complex fare structures and providing destination knowledge targeted to the customer’s needs. According to ASTA, more than 80 percent of airline tickets and 95 percent of cruises are still being booked through travel agents.

Andy James of James TravelPoints in Boulder does not see the Internet ever replacing the role of the travel agent as consultant. “People often come in with a lot of information they’ve gathered on the Internet. Our job is to help them sort through it and figure out what’s a good deal and what isn’t. There will always be things we do that the Internet can’t, mainly because we have people who can actually think, and who use their experience and knowledge to help people through the process of making their travel plans.

“Clients come to us for expertise and reliability,” added Walden. “Every day we get e-mails that say, I found this fare on the Internet, is it a good one?’ People don’t have anything to compare it against. Those situations are fun, because you if you can beat the fare on the Internet, you’ve got a client for life.”

Some great deals do exist on the Internet, but they go fast. Cyber-agencies that don’t have retail locations sometimes buy blocks of space from airlines and sell tickets for them online. “Those seats go very quickly and are seldom available,” explained Phillip Mundock, corporate sales manager for Travel Leader Group of Colorado. “Yet the buzz gets out there that Wow! there are great fares on the Internet.’ But it’s like a chain letter – as long as you’re the first one in line, it’s great.”

The advising role of the travel agent is especially strong in specialized travel agencies. South Seas Travel of Boulder focuses exclusively on the South Pacific and books a great deal of adventure travel, scuba dives and honeymoon tours to Fiji, Tahiti and the Cook Islands.

“Our Web site has been very successful because people can gather so much information so conveniently,” explained Paul Rec, a tour operator for South Seas. “But our clients wouldn’t go so far as to book a trip on the Internet. They still want to have a one-on-one discussion with you and hear personal descriptions. The four of us in our office have all been to the South Pacific many times, so we’re qualified to tell people exactly what a certain resort or airline is like.”

The relationship between traveler and travel agent becomes critical if something goes wrong on the trip. “People will do a lot of research on the Internet, but they still would prefer to buy locally and have the agency back up the recommendation and make good on the product that’s being sold,” explained James. “If there’s a problem, you have somebody to go back to, whereas on the Internet, if you bought it and you have a problem, tough luck. There’s no accountability.”

Travel scams are proliferating on the Web and can be difficult to spot. Scams that used to be sold through telemarketing or direct mail have moved to the Internet. The Web offers an additional veil of secrecy to these operators.

The airlines’ policy in recent years of capping commissions to travel agents has been an additional competitive pressure on the industry. Most have responded with a ticketing fee over and above the price of the airline ticket when only air travel is being purchased. The nationwide average fee is $10, which is what most Boulder agencies charge.

The fees have been generally well accepted by customers, who recognize the added value of the travel agent’s fare expertise. According to Michael Cain, director of marketing for Cain Travel, “I’d say we have about 95 percent acceptance of the fees. Travelers have simply decided that the extra service is worth it.”

BOULDER — Not long ago, travel agencies saw the Internet as a potential competitive threat. Estimates show that up to 20 percent of the Web’s content is travel related, and consumers can book and purchase travel tickets themselves online.

But Boulder travel agencies, as well as many nationwide, have found the Web is much more of a friend than an enemy when it comes to satisfying customers and increasing sales.

Agencies are treating the Web as the next mass market medium, launching their own Web sites to provide detailed travel information as…

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