Technology 3-3-2006

Online Opportunities

By: J.L. Erickson

W ith the number of consumers using the Internet to research and book vacations continuing to grow and the patterns of how they do it shifting an escalating key for travel professionals to capture more of the market may be harnessing an understanding of consumer psychology and linking it to online offerings.

A survey by the Travel Industry Association of America found that 78 percent of travelers who book online nearly 79 million Americans turned to the Internet for travel or destination information last year, much higher than the 65 percent of online travelers in 2004.

The survey also found that when it comes to leisure travel, women are more likely to be online travel planners (56 percent) and bookers (55 percent).

“Our research shows that women now outnumber men online, and that women are more likely to plan and book leisure trips,” said Dr. Suzanne Cook, the association’s senior vice president of research. “It’s important that travel companies pay attention to that demographic and market themselves accordingly.”

And a one-size-fits-all approach to online offerings may not be the best.

A recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that women online are more enthusiastic communicators, using e-mail to share information with friends and family, and viewing it as a more textured and interactive process.

The gender difference offers savvy travel professionals an online opportunity by offering women such features as chat or message boards and other interactive features that deepen their experience of the site.

All-Travel, headquartered in West Los Angeles with offices in Southbay and Valencia, Calif., offers an All-Travel Chat Assistant that allows online users to interact with All-Travel specialists in real-time during normal business hours, according to Eric Maryanov, president and owner.

“It’s a wonderful feature to initiate contact,” said Maryanov, noting the feature gets a significant amount of use. “It serves as a good introduction.”

But it’s not a cure-all and alone doesn’t land a customer. Maryanov said that contact via chat quickly shifts to in-person calls.

“We’ve found that typically the questions people have are not short answers. With travel it’s much more than just yes and no. It’s also far better for us to convert them quickly to voice so we can pick up on verbal cues. You lose all that in chat.”

Chats also diminish the opportunity to upsell and collect in-depth feedback from consumers, and a danger is that unlike over the phone chats can involve a silent delay in which a customer could lose interest as a travel expert types a response.

“Voice is more efficient with sales, picking up on cues and a lot of the excitement and enthusiasm of an agent can be lost [with chat],” he said.

The company has considered adopting such features as an online message board for travelers to share information but is remaining focused on returns.

“I agree with the premise that people like to learn, but our philosophy is to do what you do and be the best doing it. We are the experts in selling travel,” he said, noting that myriad sites allow consumers to share travel information.

“Truthfully, I think if [consumers] also can get their information in the open marketplace, it gives us more credibility when they come to us they don’t link us or our motivation to a message board or information that might be advocating a certain location,” he said.

Online marketing also needs attention in tapping online consumers. In its survey, the TIA partnered with to gauge response to Internet-based marketing communications.

Unsponsored search-engine results triggered 36 percent of responses, followed by e-mail recommendations by friends or colleagues (34 percent); links on Web sites (26 percent); and opt-in e-mails or e-newsletters (21 percent).

“As this year’s survey results clearly show, consumers are much more responsive to strategic online marketing communications, such as organic search engine returns, than they are to paid media, such as a pop-up or banner ad,” said Jennifer Barbee, president of

Maryanov at All-Travel said he continues to see his agency’s business grow online through use of search engine optimization, keyword placement and other efforts including the launch of about a half-dozen independent, product-specific sites not linked to the company’s main Web site offering niched expertise in areas such as cruising.

“The bulk of our business development is all coming from the Web these days,” he said, “and through client referrals.”