When Bill La Macchia characterizes a project he's working on as "the Holy Grail," you'd better pay attention.
The chairman of La Macchia Enterprises and Mark Travel Corp., Bill has had a remarkable career blending retail travel sales, research and technology. He began his career as a travel agent in 1963, founded Funjet Vacations in 1974 and started Trisept Solutions (the travel technology company that developed VAX VacationAccess) in 2000.
Mark also operates Southwest Airlines Vacations, Hawaii specialist Blue Sky Tours, the LGBT-focused Brand G, MGM Resorts Vacations and a receptive operation and niche companies focused on wellness in Mexico and Las Vegas excursions.
He is, in other words, a travel agent who knows how to think big.
What is the Holy Grail? For La Macchia -- and for other crusaders chasing the same concept -- it is an online travel planning solution that keeps human beings (i.e., travel agents) front and center in the process. For the last three years, he has had as many as 16 people at a time working on researching, testing and developing a technology process that brings together what are now, for the most part, competitive channels and diverse resources.
He invited me to his office outside Milwaukee to give me a briefing on his progress after some agents had contacted him when rumors arose that he was working on something that would compete with travel agents.
"It's not a threat to travel agents," he said. "In fact, it may be the key to their future."
He told me that he began his quest by doing research among consumers who never use travel agents and always book online.
"Buying keyword ad search is not a unique proposition," he said. "And the 48% who are buying travel online, they're not going to stop buying online. But we discovered they would like to talk to an expert and book online. These consumers never even think about using a travel agent, but they're looking for a higher level of service."
On the other side of the equation, he saw a need among agents for tools that would enable them to reach the high end of the market of online bookers, and he further identified an agent need for a network of local destination experts who can provide unbiased expertise.
The local experts, he emphasized, would not be connected to a supplier or product. They might be journalists or knowledgeable, reliable locals, "available, on retainer, when we need them. Their services would be complementary to what a travel agent would offer."
Booking would no longer be an either/or, online/offline proposition but would potentially build both channels.
"It would give an agent in Wisconsin a shot at booking a trip to Tahiti for a couple in Ohio who would never consider going to a travel agent," he said. "We're about to see a huge shift. In three to five years, the industry won't operate the way it does today. Access to a global network will be a game-changer for travel agents, suppliers and consumers."
La Macchia estimates that there's a potential market expansion of 21 million consumers who would gravitate from online booking to a blended high-tech, high-touch model.
The project has reached the beta stage, but La Macchia has been involved in enough technology initiatives to shy away from predicting a launch date, and he assumes the concept will be refined up until the launch.
"There are a lot of smart people chasing this, and it's complicated and expensive, and may not work," he allowed. "But our research leads us to conclude that it's critical that there be an agent solution as part of this. Or even multiple agent solutions. I don't mind spending the money, because I really do believe it's the Holy Grail."
Having written about the likelihood of channel convergence for many years, I am surprised that the online/offline language of polarity is still as strong as it is.
As our recently published Travel Weekly 2013 Consumer Trends study showed, the channel showing the greatest growth is supplier-direct. If intermediaries -- any intermediaries -- can indeed add value to a booking, then there must be a blending of technology and what industry consultant Jack Mannix calls "the knowledge base between someone's ears."
Holy Grails are, by definition, elusive. Whether or not he actually realizes the object of his quest, I believe La Macchia is searching in the right direction.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.