'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, 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 feedback.

"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 tone.

"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 bonus commissions.

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 do.

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.


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