Insights from an Internet guru

ime for a pop quiz. Question No. 1: Can you do business without a Web site? Question No. 2: Can you do business without a telephone? If you answered "yes" to both questions, Dan Bohan, chief operating officer of Fairfax, Va.-based Omega World Travel, offers his congratulations.

If you didn't, you should give the Internet another thought.

According to Bohan, the brains behind Internet powerhouse Cruise.com and Airdeals.com -- along with 47 other Web sites -- your Web site is indispensible.

www.airdeals.com."Today, you've got to have a Web site, whether you're leisure or corporate," he said. "It's the first thing a large portion of your clients will see."

Bohan shared a few Internet insights, directing them at fellow agents.

"The majority of Web sites that I've seen of travel agencies are not very good," he said. "That's a mistake.

"When I go into something, I tend to go into it all the way," Bohan explained. "I really delved into [the Internet] and really felt I had to do it... I went to seminars, read a lot."

And the secret to his success? "We didn't want to electronically sell; we just wanted to present an electronic [version of our] brochure," Bohan said. It apparently worked, he added, because "we got people to call."

www.cruise.com.In fact, the Web and telephone work together to enhance agents' business. Don't hide your phone number at the bottom of the screen or on an inside page, he said.

"I don't think most agencies can, by themselves, get a booking off a Web site without using the phone," Bohan said. "I don't think it's desirable, frankly."

To be successful, agents have got to narrow their focus and sell a niche market on the Web, he maintained.

"The biggest problem is that most agents don't have a niche, and they try to be all things to all people."

Bohan.And don't worry about competing with Orbitz or Hotwire for air deals. "There are 100 Web sites out there trying to do it, and they're getting killed," Bohan said.

Other tips:

• Build a better Web site; have it designed by a professional.

• Make sure your site loads quickly; don't overload it with graphics, which slow a site down.

• Update your site at least once every two weeks.

"Content is king. You've got to have good content," Bohan added.

• Don't get discouraged. "You're probably not going to make money off your Web site, at least not right away. But you've got to keep doing it anyway."

• Your agency's Web site must look and be professional. That's the most important thing, according to Bohan.

"And you need to have one, no matter who you are," he said. "[The Internet] is not going away. Regardless of the downslide, it'll be there for a long time to come. And it'll get stronger and stronger."

-- Rebecca Tobin

Some advertising adages

hen it comes to advertising your Web site, there are a lot of ways to get lost in the World Wide Web's vortex. But Dan Bohan, who is behind Cruise.com, Omegatravel.com, Airdeals.com and Tourdeals.com, among others, has a few tricks up his sleeve.

First, there's the power of e-mail: It's easy and cheap.

Cruise.com, for example, sends out 180,000 e-mails per week. Bohan said agencies get the best results if they can target mailings toward their clients' interests.

But make sure clients have asked to receive these e-mail notices, he said.

"Otherwise, they'll hate you to death," Bohan said.

If people respond by e-mail to the Web site, Bohan said he tries to get his staff to respond by phone.

But, he quipped, "If somebody e-mails us about Silversea Cruises and there's no phone number, you can bet we'll get back to them."

Your agency probably doesn't have the bucks to partner with Yahoo! or America Online, but getting a top ranking with a search engine is key.

Bohan said he has a full-time employee that is responsible for making sure Cruise.com is listed near the top on major search engines.

The more focused an agency is on selling a niche product -- and its Web site reflects this -- the better chance it has of popping up on top when someone types keywords into the search box. You'll have less competition from other listed sites.

Bohan suggested signing up to become a "sponsored site," which gets the Web site prominent placing on a search page.

How it works: You sign up with a placement company (like GoTo.com or FindWhat.com) and then pay a nominal fee each time someone clicks through to your site (Yahoo's sponsorship program requires a monthly fee.)

Depending on the keywords you use, the click-through cost could be as low as five cents. Again, having a niche keeps the cost low and drives specific traffic to your site.

"The cost is very low when you talk about [a niche like] Condos in Italy, and not so low when you're competing in one like cruise," Bohan said.

"Because then you're competing with me. And we feel we can do better."

Taking advantage of Web weaknesses

tudies show that the number one product sold online is travel.

We've all heard the predictions that the Internet could, in the not-too-distant future, surpass the travel agency as the primary outlet for sales of many travel products.

But the Internet offers as many opportunities as challenges.

Marc Mancini.As with any new medium, the Web has its weaknesses, and we can use them not only to retain our current clients, but to attract new ones, as well.

Here are four ways to take advantage of the Internet:

• Focus on your expertise. The Internet can be overwhelming to travel novices, with literally thousands of available Web sites and billions of bits of information.

Your strength is your knowledge and experience.

You can quickly sift through data, finding insights that it might take your clients days to do. Time savings are a huge plus in our over-stressed times.

And if your clients can reach you on line as well, they'll retain all of the benefits of that expertise, while at the same time reaping the rapid-communication benefits of the Internet.

• Think. The Internet can't. Your client might be able to book a flight online, but he won't be sure it's the best for his needs.

You can solve these problems for him, saving your clients both time and money with your ability to "out-think" the computer.

• Create your own Web site. This may take a little effort and involve a little expense, but it can bring incredible results.

A client who lives in California can book a trip online through an agent in Florida. It isn't only the providers who are competing for Internet business today -- it's agencies, as well.

Through the Internet, you can now broaden your client base far beyond the limits imposed by geography.

Marc Mancini is a professor of travel at West Los Angeles College.

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