Working the Web can boost Aloha State sales By Fred Gebhart / September 12, 2002 Share 1 -- et's get to the bottom line: The Internet can help travel retailers boost Hawaii interest, sales and profits. Agencies that don't use the Web will see their Hawaii business falter. According to New York-based Forrester Research, U.S. consumers will book $20.4 billion in travel on line this year, about 10% of total retail travel sales.By 2006, estimates have the Internet accounting for $33.8 billion in direct travel sales, about 14% of U.S. leisure travel sales.Online sales are just the tip of the retail iceberg. Jupiter Media Metrix said that for every dollar spent on line, U.S. consumers spend another $3 off line that was influenced by something they saw on the Web.That means online marketing will sway $81.6 billion in leisure travel spending this year alone. The logical conclusion: Travel agencies that aren't on line will be fighting for a steadily shrinking share of that business.Weave it inUsing the Internet doesn't mean abandoning traditional marketing and sales channels. It means integrating a Web presence into a more traditional business.In Los Angeles, Montrose Travel has three people working full time on the agency's Web site, located at www.montrosetravel.com.However, across town, the Travel Store (at www.travel-store.com) doesn't have anyone devoted to online development.Yet both agencies are among Giants' top Hawaii producers, and both get significant business via the Web."You need to create a rich and dynamic online opportunity for clients," said Dan Ilves, vice president of leisure sales and marketing for the Travel Store. "The Web is really a search tool for people. It gets them to contact us."Lois Shore, vice president of marketing at Classic Custom Vacations, agreed. Shore said she is moving out of paper because the Internet is faster, more accessible and cheaper."We believe in distribution on line," Shore said. "When we e-mail specials, agents can forward them to select clients to tweak their interest."Follow the clientMore than 90 million U.S. travelers have already ventured on line, according the Travel Industry Association of America. Two-thirds of them used the Web to plan travel in 2000.And Internet growth continues. Hotels.com reported an 83% jump in room nights for the second quarter; that comes on top of a 74% increase in online bookings during the first quarter of 2002, said president Bob Diener.Aloha Airlines is offering agents a 5% Web discount. Prince Hotels Hawaii lets agents track commissions and earn free stays on line.On Maui, the single-largest source of traveler referrals to local suppliers is VisitMaui.com. The Maui Visitor Bureau gets 2,000 different visitors on an average day, said a spokesman."The Internet has changed the retail game," said New York consultant Wally Boch, author of "What's the Big Idea? Business Tips for the Digital Age.""Internet penetration is 80% to 90% for people above the median national income, about $40,000," Boch said. "E-mail and other Internet technologies are how these people communicate, shop and buy. The more you use the same technology to stay in touch, the more successful you will be."How do travel agencies use Web technology to stay in touch and increase sales to Hawaii and other destinations? Here are a few ways:• Destination and product research. Web research is easy for agents and the preferred research tool for travelers, Boch said. Giving travelers useful Hawaii information is a key to selling them."Travelers visit retail Web sites for information, not entertainment," Boch said. "Design your Web site like a conversation that answers questions."You're helping travelers make choices and get involved in the decisions. That's a basic sales tactic in any setting."• Sales training. Putting sales and product training on line helps agents learn at their own pace.The Institute of Certified Travel Agents is putting its updated Hawaii Destination Specialist program on line in early 2003.The Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau already has a self-study destination specialist program on line at www.gohawaii.com/travelpro/kekula.asp. Vacation.com posted the entire program on its member-only AgentNet."It's not just training; it's information agents can use to market Hawaii," said Vacation.com chairman Dick Knodt.• More competitive product offerings. Robert Zalinsky, vice president of business development for Brentwood Travel in St. Louis (at www.brentwoodtravel.com), puts Hawaii in the spotlight with Passport to Travel, a collection of specials and packages from multiple wholesalers."It's easy to manage," Zalinsky said. "The specials are updated by wholesalers without any work by the agency."Zalinsky also uses Passport On Line (at www.passportonlineinc.com) to let customers research and create packages on Brentwood's Web site.The agency controls content and customer information, and customers can either book themselves or contact an agency by phone or e-mail.• Managing the customer relationship. Tod Silbermann, chairman of Better World Travel in Portland, Ore. (at www.betterworldtravel.com), calls it "click and talk."Better World's clients can buy on line, but few do. The Web site encourages them to call or e-mail the agency."We give travelers a consumer advocate in the middle of the transaction," Silbermann said."What people are looking for on the Internet is information they can use."Our job is to help them use information more effectively to create a travel experience."• E-mail marketing. This technique is cheaper than direct mail and at least as effective, according to numerous research surveys. Direct mail cost about 18 cents a piece before the postal rate increase, said Forrester Travel. That compares with less than a half-cent per e-mail.And although e-mail response rates are only about 1.8%, according to New York Research firm eMarketer, that's still better than direct mail."Targeted e-mail blasts are huge for us," said Jamie Hoff, leisure marketing manager at Montrose Travel. "Clients don't see anything they haven't already told us they want to hear about."Judy Chaitman, president of Great Getaways Travel in Leawood, Kan. (at www.greatgetaway.com), relies more on inbound e-mail.She uses a high media profile and frequent mentions in the Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast Traveler to lure potential clients into an electronic conversation about Hawaii.Once she has them on line, she steers them to the telephone."I need to get a feel for what people are really after," she said. "I can do that better by phone. The Internet helps, but I do the selling."Sell like the online giantsNEW YORK -- What are the big three online travel agencies -- Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz -- doing to sell Hawaii?Everything they can -- and nothing they want to talk about; none of the top three players in online travel responded to Travel Weekly's inquiries.But a quick search on Google gives a good clue: The first two links to travel and Hawaii, out of 1.7 million hits, are Expedia and Orbitz. The two giants paid to top the list when clients search the Internet for Hawaii travel.But behind the expensive advertising placement, the major players aren't doing anything their smaller competitors can't emulate.Expedia, for example, has been touting its Build Your Own Trip feature, introduced last May, that lets buyers create a customized tour itinerary. That's what travel agents have been doing for decades.Travelocity and Orbitz offer similar do-it-yourself booking engines -- any agency can license similar services. Orbitz uses NeatOnline from Neat Group. TravelSavers, a 2,400-agency consortium based in Oyster Bay, N.Y., uses NeatOnline and an agency-only engine called NeatAgent.The agency gets its commission whether an agent handles the booking or a client does it. United Escapes and Worldspan also are using NeatAgent. ("Set your own commission" is one of Neat Group's strongest selling points.)The Big Three also are selling Hawaii packages from Classic, Pleasant and other wholesalers. Other agencies can link to the same wholesalers to sell the same products at the same prices.Don't want to bother linking to multiple wholesalers? Consider VacationPort from Passport On Line.VacationPort gives agency Web sites a dynamic selection of packages and specials that clients can book themselves or through the agency. Agency commissions apply either way. Passport On Line clients include AAA Travel, Carlson Wagonlit Travel, Uniglobe Travel, and several Virtuoso agencies. -- F.G.