Luxury on the dot

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At luxury4less.com, the new luxury travel Web site, "we aim to be everything Expedia and Travelocity are not," said Ted Charron.

From left: Kimberly Wilson Wetty, Valerie Wilson, Ted Charron.So luxury4less not only sells high-end travel products (a previously neglected category in travel cyberspace), but provides high-touch "concierge" service from New York-based agency Valerie Wilson Travel.

When Charron's company, the New York-based Web site development firm Vacation Network, co-developed luxury4less with Valerie Wilson, "we purposely didn't put a booking engine on the site," he said. On-line booking is "contradictory to the luxury travel experience," he added.

Valerie Wilson currently has five full-time agents dedicated to servicing the site during normal business hours. Affluent consumers who ask for the concierge service can schedule a private phone consultation at any time they'd like, said Kimberly Wilson Wetty, the Valerie Wilson senior vice president responsible for new product development at luxury4less.com.

The site offers a changing inventory of roughly 150 trips -- as well as the chance for clients to design their own fantasy journey. "Our first phone call was from someone who wanted to rent a private island in the South Pacific," said Wetty.

What about the "for less" part of the equation? "We're never going to be described as a discounter, but [affluent clients], like everybody else, want value for their dollar," said Wetty. Luxury4less will add value with such exclusive extras as private shore excursions and limousine transfers -- available through Valerie Wilson Travel's affiliation with the upscale consortium API, as well as its long-time relationships with major luxury suppliers.

The site's launch in late October was a "soft opening," said Charron. Luxury4less principals are deferring a hard launch until they have money for the kind of major advertising support that the only other luxury Web site, luxuryfinders.com, has been getting. To that end, they are seeking funding from venture capital companies.

Still, Charron is clear about the company's priorities: "The first thing is to make sure we're giving absolutely superb service."

Building a better Web site

If you took the names off a bunch of travel Web sites, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart," said Ted Charron, bemoaning the fact that most of these sites "look exactly the same."

As chairman of New York-based Web site developer Vacation Network, which created the new luxury travel site luxury4less.com, Charron said he strives for sites that stand out.

His company didn't stint when designing luxury4less, working with "top quality copywriters and graphic designers" who spent "literally thousands of hours" on the site.

You may not have the deep pockets he had, but you can follow his basic principles just as well:

  • Strive for a high-quality Web site that's "as rich in pictures, itineraries and descriptions as possible," so consumers -- who frequently shop at night and on weekends -- have as much information as they can get to do the initial planning by themselves.
  • Get the highest quality technical support you can afford. "You need a company that understands the Internet and has terrific Web designers," said Charron.
  • "Unless you spend the money, you look like an amateur" -- a surefire way to turn off consumers who surf the Web and "are generally very sophisticated."

  • Specialize to save money and stand out from the pack. The more narrow the focus of your site, the easier it will be to provide in-depth information as well.
  • Differentiate yourself by delivering good service. Studies have shown that 50% of e-mails to Web sites are answered within three days; 30% are not answered at all, said Charron.
  • Do better than that and you'll stand out. "Even though we're a dot com company, we believe that the best service is provided by bricks-and-mortar agencies," said Charron.

    The Hotel Inspection Book

    May I see your trip reporting manual? When I ask this question of agents I'm consulting for, I usually get a blank stare. Most agencies allow staff to travel on fam trips and return to the office eager to share their information with fellow staff members during the next scheduled meeting. But that's pretty much where it ends.

    Richard Turen.Think how valuable it would be to develop a printed form which every staff member would fill out during every hotel inspection. One of the key components of this report would be the listing of the best and worst rooms in each grade category.

    Once this project was started, some of the information could be gathered over the telephone or by e-mail by questioning a room reservation manager or concierge whom you felt would be candid.

    If properly designed, this "report" could be written in such a way that it would be useful to staff and as a hand-out for clients. The material could also serve as the centerpiece of a newsletter designed to "rate" hotels and resorts. Clients could be asked to help fill out reports when they travel on business, in exchange for future travel credits when the reports are turned in.

    Imagine having your clients say, "My agent gave me a listing of the best rooms in the hotel and another list of the rooms to avoid." That's an agent who stands out from the pack.

    Richard Turen is an industry consultant and agency president. Contact him at [email protected].

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