y friend Pat Spain was the first person I knew who booked travel on the Web. At that time -- I'd guess it was 1995 -- we both ran small publishing companies in Austin, Texas. We'd get together for lunch and discuss what we saw as opportunities on the Internet.

We pursued different strategies. I licensed content and achieved an incremental revenue stream. He jumped in with both feet, betting the future of his company on the Web (he even renamed it, with a dot-com suffix). Investment bankers flew him around in private jets to meet institutional investors in advance of an IPO. Before too long, his company was listed on Nasdaq.

As it turns out, our companies met similar fates: Both ended up as subsidiaries of gigantic publishing companies. But I admired Pat's instincts for predicting the twists and turns in the online marketplace, and recently had lunch with him when he was in New York to promote his latest venture, Alacritude, an online research company.

I found that he's still a travel Web site junkie and well-versed in the minutiae of that channel. I asked him if he saw any openings for entrepreneurial agencies to make a strong online play.

His answer: "Blogs." Blog is a contraction of "Web log," the phenomenon that enables anyone and everyone to share his or her views on anything and everything. Blogs often take the form of personal diary pages, but many sites are thematic, well-organized and even templated -- for instance, there are sites where people offer critiques of airlines, hotels, cruise lines, theme parks and destinations.

The quality of blogs varies enormously -- and therein lies the opportunity. Spain believes that, in travel, there's unclaimed turf in cyberspace for people who have the time and expertise to wade through blogs and vet them for travelers. "You essentially say, 'I've read 100 blogs on Faroffistan today. Here are the only five you need to read.' "

Spain thinks that a site that assembles and organizes links to blog entries and knits them together with relevant travel information and comparative pricing technology could generate traffic -- potentially big, loyal traffic. What then? "There's a lot of discussion about how to monetize blogs," he said. "No one pays for a subscription to this type of site."

The revenue model he suggests could be highly satisfying to a traditional agency that has seen its business drift toward big online firms. "You work it so that Expedia pays. Travelocity pays. Orbitz pays. Once you can demonstrate traffic, you put up links to their sites. They pay you not only for advertising and the traffic you send them, but have them bid for the top position among the links. Or perhaps the bottom, if they think shoppers buy from the last comparison point."

It would certainly be ironic if a business pushed to the brink by online agencies gets back into the game through revenues that come primarily from its former competitors. Then again, it's really no more ironic than online agencies seeing sales increase thanks to their former competitors in the offline channel. In this one hypothetical twist in the ongoing channel wars, sweet irony for both.


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