oyalty, Peter Yesawich believes, is fragile. The managing director of the marketing company Yesawich Pepperdine Brown & Russell was addressing a general session of the Mountain Travel Symposium held in Steamboat Springs, Colo., earlier this month, and was sharing the findings of his latest consumer research with the audience.

Price transparency on the Web has led consumers to look for the best brand for the money, he reported. Not the cheapest available product, mind you, but the greatest perceived value for the amount of money they've already decided to spend. If, for instance, The Plaza in New York is available for the same price as the business-class chain hotel where a traveler usually stays, The Plaza likely will be perceived as the better value because its brand is associated with luxury.

This is not good news for travel companies that have invested heavily in building consumer loyalty and have come to rely on repeat business to maintain profitability.

I was moderator of a panel in the session following Yesawich's presentation, and was curious to see whether the panelists and the audience (resort-area hoteliers, condo-management company executives and tour operators working in the ski industry) had felt the implied impact of Yesawich's research.

In other words, how was repeat business this past season?

On one hand -- perhaps the one with fingers crossed, either for continued luck or to permit a lie -- no one reported that repeat business was off. In fact, the general feeling was that repeat business was what saved the past ski season.

On the other hand, when the discussion moved to the question of Web pricing transparency and its effect on booking, everyone acknowledged that consumer focus on getting the greatest perceived value for money has led to price erosion and deteriorating yields.

If there were a third hand, it would have been held up by the audience in resistance to Yesawich's implication that this was how it was going to be for the foreseeable future. Though a condo-management exec acknowledged using discounted Web sites as a dumping ground for his distressed inventory, he didn't want to continue doing so.

It was "like a drug," but he was determined to kick the habit.

How? "Flexibility in marketing," came the answer, and there were nods of agreement all around. Give call centers the ability to work with clients on the phone. Rather than give a blanket

discount, only discount when you need to, on a case-by-case basis.

But soon it became apparent that attendees were of two minds on the issue of flexibility. Someone brought up the practices of Southwest Airlines as an example of a company that did not put its inventory on discounted Web sites, yet was one of the few profitable airlines.

Everyone -- including those touting flexibility -- praised Southwest for having a plan and sticking to it through thick and thin. Southwest, it was noted, used distribution channels on its own terms.

But this, in essence, is the opposite of flexibility.

Yesawich was careful not to say that brand isn't important. In fact, if one is looking for the best brand at a given price, adding value to brand is more important than ever. But brand loyalty has become secondary to price loyalty, and price loyalty encourages discounting.

I sense he's right, but like everyone else in the room, I'm not sure what lesson to take away from his observations. To go after market share at the expense of yield only makes sense if you later can exploit the market share through brand loyalty, and eventually raise yields.

But loyalty is fragile.

No wonder everyone needs three hands and two minds to try to work this one out.


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