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
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
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