Web sites 101

"How many of you have Web sites?" Eric Hosek, the Whitefish, Mont.-based director of market analysis for Orbit Network, asked the audience at the panel discussion. A fair number of agents -- at least half of the perhaps 100 in the room -- raised their hands.

"How many of you feel your Web site is successful?" Hosek asked. This time, about three agents raised their hands.

It was immediately clear why this seminar, Secrets of a Successful Web Site, held at the recent ASTA World Travel Congress in Los Angeles, was playing to a packed house.

Among the hints a panel of techno-savvy agents and experts provided:

  • When you're hiring someone to design your site, "beware of HTML jockeys who know HTML and nothing else," said Amy Goodrum, creative director, Web services division, of New Orleans-based Cruise & Vacation Shoppes America. "Look at their portfolio and make sure they're familiar with travel as well as marketing."
  • Qualify leads you get through your Web site. You can do this by having them fill out a quick e-mail form asking whether they're a.) shopping, b.) seriously interested or c.)ready to book, Hosek suggested.
  • Include at least one phone call in the booking process -- ideally, right after the initial exchange of e-mails. Prospects "are not going to plunk down $3,000 on a vacation if they haven't talked to a human," said Nancy Zebrick, president of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based All Destinations Travel. Conversely, your quick phone call to prospects who've e-mailed you for information can also help weed out the surfers vs. the bookers. "I know of one agency that telemarkets all e-mails, so within 30 seconds of talking to a prospect, the agency knows if [the prospective client is] just a kid," said Hosek.
  • "If your Web site can't be found, you're dead, no matter how gorgeous it is," said Zebrick. It's important to be cross-referenced on other sites and on search engines. After you go through the registration process for a particular search engine, it should take about four to six weeks before you're listed. Yahoo! is one of the best to get on, said Goodrum, but it is selective; if Yahoo! doesn't like your site, it won't put you on.
  • Aid from the techno-savvy

    Nancy ZebrickAt ASTA's recent panel on Web sites, techno-savvy travel agents Nancy Zebrick and Karen Killebrew presented their case histories.

  • You gotta get a gimmick, said Zebrick, who is president of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based All Destinations. Zebrick, who does virtually all of her business on the Net, found that it was only when she developed a niche that things took off.
  • A registered dietician who has visited 51 spas, Zebrick started promoting this expertise on her Web site. "But commission on spas is not as much as everybody thinks," she noted. "I had to find other specialties." Now she focuses on inclusives such as Sandals as well as on cruises. Besides being listed on search engines, Zebrick believes in using banner ads on linked sites handling her specialties. "They're very expensive but worth it." Two additional tips:

  • "The Web has made travel a commodity, so you have to discount or otherwise offer something value-added such as a bottle of champagne with a booking.
  • "Tell suppliers, 'Stop faxing me; send me Web promotions that I can put up on my site instead.' "
  • Killebrew, owner of Escape Artists Travel, Oakland, Calif., had been very active on America Online's travel forums, so it "was embarrassing when I realized my agency wasn't ready for a Web site," she noted. "The wave of technology washed over me and left me stranded on the beach." She advised agents to "look inward and see what everybody else is doing" before taking the Web site plunge. "It's not important to be a pioneer."
  • Eventually, Killebrew developed a Web site that worked with her agency's goals, integrating it into the database that provided "customer relationship management." She arranged to have clients' e-mail request forms directly into her database. As a specialist in ecotourism and adventure travel, Killebrew "discovered small international companies that don't have marketing reach in the U.S. I am now brokering their business on my Web site."

    More Web site hints

    Stephanie KenyonAs in marriage, commitment is important to marketing a Web site, said Stephanie Kenyon, ASTA's vice president, travel technology, at the recent ASTA panel Secrets of a Successful Web Site.

    "Have you looked at our Web site?" should slip off the tongue of all staffers in their contacts with clients, noted Kenyon. And, "how many of you formally announced your Web site address to your existing client base ?" she asked.

    Other tips from Kenyon:

  • "Make it easy to navigate [on the site]," she said. "A purchasing decision should never be more than three clicks away."
  • Include targeted testimonials from satisfied customers. For example, the Web site of spa specialist All Destinations Travel includes clients' letters describing their successful spa trips.
  • Make sure the colors of your Web site are attractive -- something ASTA officials neglected to check out before finalizing the details of the Society's Web site. "On one computer ASTAnet looked lovely; on another, it looked [awful]," she said.
  • Develop links to Web sites selling other kinds of products besides travel. Kenyon suggested that you check with companies marketing almost anything else on the Web and ask, do you want a link to a travel site? Since travel is the second- or third-most requested service on the Internet, most companies should jump at the chance.
  • Individual ICTA course books available

    Robert LepistoIf you've ever been interested in any of the courses the Institute of Certified Travel Agents offers -- but didn't have the time or money to commit to joining its certification program -- you're in luck.

    ICTA is selling individual course books from its certified travel associate/certified travel counselor certification program. "Purchasing a single course book allows someone to fill an immediate knowledge gap and experience the content of ICTA's educational materials in a nonintimidating manner," said Robert Lepisto, ICTA's president.

    With almost 50 titles in print, the publications cover a wide range of topics, including service fees; marketing strategies; sales and customer service, and computer technology. ICTA's Destinations Specialist courses also are included in the new catalog. Prices start at $35 ($30 for active CTCs and CTAs) including shipping for certification course books. Prices of the other publications vary. To purchase, call (800) 542-4282.

    Yes, I'm a real travel agent

    Unexpectedly, my working vacation in Europe turned into a chance to promote the idea of home-based travel agencies. As I have done for many years, I made a point of introducing myself to the manager of the hotels where we stayed, to make that personal contact so critical in our business. I also met with several small ground operators. This time, I wasn't shy about mentioning that I operate from home.

    The trend toward home-based businesses has not reached Europe, but the response was universally positive.

    "How do you do it?" they asked. "How do you get your clients?" I thoroughly enjoyed answering these questions and in doing so felt my friends gained a new respect for our way of doing business. In fact, I found that small hoteliers and tour operators wanted my business and actually offered me more beneficial rates and services.

    A hotel I use frequently in Paris has guaranteed me a rate of 20% off rack rates. I book directly with it via fax and promise that we will use its hotel for all suitable clients in Paris.

    I have met the owner and we have a good relationship. In addition to these favorable rates, he often upgrades my clients, "finds" a room during heavily booked periods and obtains hard-to-get dinner reservations. My clients love the special attention, and I love the fact I can always count on receiving my commission check.

    And what was the comment most often spoken by my European partners about working from home? "I wish I could do that!"

    Robin Fetsch operates Specialty Tours from her home in Falls Church, Va.

    ARC helps CTA candidates

    If you're a candidate in the Institute of Certified Travel Agents' certified travel associate program, you're also eligible for more than 50 scholarships offered by the Airline Reporting Corporation for special "immersion weekends." These weekends feature a day and a half of discussions and activities based directly on the CTA course materials and culminate in a proctored testing session.

    The 1999 spring schedule of ICTA immersion weekends is: Feb. 4 to 6 at the Doubletree Hotel, Nashville, Tenn.; March 18 to 20 at the Doubletree Hotel Anaheim in Orange County, Calif., and April 29 to May 1 at the Regal Minneapolis Hotel. The ARC scholarships, for $195, cover the registration fee for the weekend. For more information, visit ICTA's Web site at www.icta.com or call the fax request line at (888) FAX-ICTA and request documents 23 and 18.

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