've been involved professionally with
the Internet since 1993. And through all the ups and downs of the
dot-coms and online services, I've noticed one unyielding constant
in an otherwise fluid and fast-changing medium: arrogance.
The early enthusiasts of online travel were convinced that
brick-and-mortar travel agents were marching to extinction.
At online travel conferences in the mid-1990s, there was no
debate about efficiencies of technology vs. personal service -- it
was a given that technology would carry the day, and that the
personal touch simply was not a necessary part of the equation.
Attending these meetings, it was as if I had suddenly landed in
the middle of a steam-drill industry convention where anyone who
dared to bet on John Henry was promptly deemed a "Luddite." Lawd,
So it was refreshing to sit down to dinner with Michelle Peluso,
the chief executive officer of Site59.
Site59 sells packages of distressed travel inventory (the Web
site's name is meant to imply the last minute of an hour).
Peluso has partnered with major consumer sites -- Travelocity,
Orbitz and Yahoo!, among others. But she has made a significant
effort to reach travel agents through Worldspan's Go program, which
provides Internet access, even to green-screen terminals.
"We've learned an enormous amount from travel agents," she said.
"They have a great understanding of the mindset of consumers
interested in traveling at the last minute. What they might not
have is the time to sort through all the packages that are out
there. That's what we provide."
She doesn't see herself in competition with agents but rather as
a supplier that puts together packages.
"Our competition is Blockbuster -- we need to get people off
their couches this weekend. And agents are good salespeople -- they
know how to motivate people to travel."
As a supplier, she's looking for the most efficient means of
distribution, and she's found it.
"We have a higher conversion rate through [Worldspan] Go than
with any of the consumer sites," she said.
The Site59 travel agent site differs considerably from the
company's consumer version, and its features were based on agent
"It would have been easier to have just built a travel agent Web
site rather than work through a GDS, but the first thing we learned
is that agents don't want to leave the GDS to book, and they like
having the GDS track commissions.
"That led us to Worldspan. The agent site is different [from
consumer sites] because agents are experts. We stripped out
superfluous content and used bullet points rather than a chatty
"At the end of the day, we're asking the agents to do us a favor
and use our products, so we have to be attractive. That's the
responsibility of a supplier."
The site pays 5% commission on packages and frequently offers
Five percent isn't going to get agents jumping for joy, Peluso
acknowledged, but she pointed out that in these packages, which
often include air, "nothing's capped," and the final commission may
be comparable to similar travel with caps in place.
Site59 isn't the only Web site that is reaching out to travel
agents. But I doubt any will be successful unless they truly
appreciate what agents bring to the table, as Peluso appears to
The majority of the Web entrepreneurs who predicted the demise
of brick-and-mortar agencies back in the '90s are now themselves
out of business.
The true visionaries, it turns out, are the ones who sought to
blend the best of technology with the best of customer service.