n this corner, we have frightened travel agents, cursing the Internet and wondering how to turn back the clock. And in this corner are the worshipful, in rapture over statistics showing rapid growth in online travel sales during a time when the rest of the industry is in the doldrums.

"Travelers will always need the human touch," the frightened reassure one another. "Everyone values good service. Travel can be a very complicated product. And don't forget, we're still the largest distribution channel, by far."

"Technology will keep improving the online experience," the worshipful state. "The coming generations will only want to buy online. Why do you deny what is happening before your very eyes? Accept the inevitable."

And in this corner -- don't forget, there are four corners -- are the befuddled: Suppliers that are moving product on the Internet, product that otherwise wouldn't have moved. But they're wondering if they're committing slow-motion suicide, and struggle to regain control over their pricing.

In the fourth corner stands Heather Leisman, director of product development for National Leisure Group, a technology company that creates products for online travel sellers and also sells travel on the Net under third-party labels. She is saying, "Don't be frightened. Don't be worshipful. No need to feel befuddled."

On a panel at Travel Weekly's Mexico Leadership Forum earlier this month, she noted that we're simply observing the effects of an economic cycle that is no more permanent than any previous cycle has been.

We have an overabundance of supply and not enough demand, which is driving prices down. The Internet is a particularly good marketing tool to get rid of distressed inventory. In short, it is being greatly aided by conditions in the current economic cycle.

She's in the right corner. When the economy improves and the cycle shifts, when there's no longer an abundance of hotel rooms and airplanes return to service from the desert, prices will rise. Bargains will become the exception, not the norm. The Internet will not necessarily be regarded as the channel with the best prices. And Internet or no Internet, control of pricing will return to suppliers (where, in fact, it has always resided).

And consumers, once again paying higher prices for their vacations, may feel the need for more reassurance than can be provided by a computer screen, no matter how user-friendly it is. The Internet will always have the advantages of pinpoint targeting, convenience and customization, but these can be used by traditional agencies that also have the human relations aspect down pat. The panel of online executives Leisman sat on also concluded online and traditional retail models would blend and all agencies would be a hybrid of online and traditional.

During the dot-com stock bubble, many investors were convinced there truly was a new economy, which created new rules for how companies would be valued going forward. When the bubble burst, so did that theory.

It didn't mean Internet stocks were necessarily bad investments. Dot-com companies simply were recognized for what they were: Companies whose value was determined largely by earnings and the confidence the market put in the quality of their management.

Current economic conditions are perfect for the growth of Internet sales in travel. But these conditions will change, and it's likely the online channel will eventually be recognized for what it is: A terrific sales and marketing tool available to all sellers of travel. Nothing to be frightened of. Nothing to be reverent toward. Nothing to be confused about.


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