Arnie WeissmannOne way of looking at the opportunities to sell travel on the Web is to imagine an enormous graph of intersecting lines. The horizontal lines represent consumer interests, e.g., stamp collecting, bird-watching, cycling, Beatlemania. The vertical lines are destinations. At every intersecting point is a travel business: stamp collector tours to Lichtenstein, bird-watching trips to the Amazon, biking in Scotland, a Beatles-themed Caribbean cruise.

Social media has made it a lot easier to reach the enthusiasts who sit at the intersecting points. There are Facebook groups for every imaginable human interest, and agents who join groups and contribute can find clients around the world.

Brendan Murphy is a 28-year-old who says he can recall -- just barely -- using a rotary phone. He is, however, very comfortable with social media. And he is creating a website to reach groups whose point of commonality is that they will buy travel from him and become sales agents to encourage, via social media, their friends to buy from him, as well.

Word of mouth from one enthusiast to another is key to all affinity group sales, of course. What's different about Murphy's model is that he doesn't have to identify and pursue a specific group. On his site, groups form around products instead of the other way around.

Before starting his site, TripAlertz.com, he had worked in group sales for an American Express-affiliated agency near Boston. TripAlertz reflects an understanding of group sales dynamics, but it also draws inspiration from private sales sites like Jetsetter, Rue La La and SniqueAway. As is the case with those sites, consumers join for free to view deals, and "members" are encouraged to share news about deals and are incented to recruit others.

What separates TripAlertz is the nature of the incentives. The more people who purchase his cruise, package or hotel deals, Murphy said, the better the deal becomes. Each sale is active for a two-week period. The speed of social media is crucial, Murphy believes, but he also said that the speed with which one can reach thousands enables a group to easily come together in that time frame.

For example, a resort might be on sale for $250 a night. Once a certain number of people have purchased the deal, the price might go down or benefits might be added (retroactively), such as two free massages.

For each new member that clients recruit, they get $5 in "trip cash" to make future purchases, and for every friend they refer who books, they get $25 in trip cash. So if a member refers 10 people for that $250 resort, not only will everyone get the massages, the member will have amassed enough credit for a free night.

Murphy did a soft launch three months ago, and when I first spoke to him last month he said he had 25,000 members signed up.

"Suppliers are asking how to sell more travel through social media without disrupting distribution pricing," he said. "This is one way."

I asked Murphy if travel agents could resell inventory to clients, accumulate trip cash and redeem it to acquire inventory that could be resold to their clientele at 100% profit.

He said such a scenario was plausible and added that he has been in talks with agent consortia, looking for ways to create partnerships with agents. (There is a precedent: Competitor Rue La La has already made a deal with Virtuoso agents.)

Murphy said he raised more than $1 million to finance the site and has enlisted some industry veterans, most notably Ypartnership's Peter Yesawich, as advisers and investors.

As mentioned earlier, I believe there's an Internet travel business at every point where destinations intersect with enthusiasms. But within that paradigm, opportunities vary depending upon how sellers of travel merge their business knowledge with their understanding of digital distribution.

Murphy's venture demonstrates that while technology can change the format in which we do business, some things remain constant. A cellphone reflects decades of refinement over a rotary phone, but both are, fundamentally, voice transmitters. Murphy's site may be cutting edge, but at heart it relies on the basic principles of volume buying. And it's another example of how technology has the potential to amplify models that have been with us since the dawn of the industry.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter

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