SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California's tourism office is launching a hotel booking service through its toll-free telephone number and its Internet site, becoming the first state to offer lodging reservations to consumers, largely bypassing agents.

Some 300 California hotels signed up with the program, and 1,700 more are expected to be added as the service builds steam, according to John Poimiroo, the state's tourism director. The program is operated through an agreement with BASS, a California-based call center operation, and World-Res, an Internet hotel service that will take bookings from the state's travel Web site.

Starting in late November or early December, when consumers call the state's toll-free line -- (800) GO-CALIF -- for brochures and general information, BASS agents will ask if they also wish to make a hotel booking. If so, the agents will offer the participating hotels. The tourism office's Web site at http://gocalif.ca.gov, which offers general state travel information, will feature the WorldRes hotel booking capability, also starting in the next two weeks.

Poimiroo said travel agents should not be disturbed by the new reservations systems because they will not offer air-inclusive or complex itineraries. "They help relieve agents of the kind of less-profitable booking burden that they are trying to get away from," he said. "Most of the reservations we expect will be made are not the kind that agents would handle. Many travel agents don't want to be bothered by individual night stays, particularly at less expensive properties." However, he said all types of hotels are represented.

An ASTA spokesman took issue with Poimiroo. "This is something ASTA has consistently come out against -- the public sector entering in competition with the private sector."

He said it would be up to ASTA officials in California to take up the matter; no officials were available for comment at press time.

Poimiroo said hotels can enroll in the program for free and offer any rates or special promotions that they choose. They then pay BASS a commission of 10% for the telephone bookings and WorldRes 8% for the Web bookings. The state receives a cut of the commission (1.5%), which will go to its marketing fund, he said.

Some hotels may choose to pay agent commission, Poimiroo said, but most probably will not because the margins are "too thin."

The state tourism office will advertise the booking services in its promotional materials. "We're going to be putting a lot of money into the [toll-free numbers and the Web address] to promote them."

Poimiroo had no projections about the number of bookings expected in the first year or how much revenue would be generated.

BASS has entered into agreements with at least three other tourism marketing organizations in California -- in Monterey, Lake Tahoe and San Diego -- for similar hotel booking services. The state's program is similar to one launched by the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau last summer, enabling consumers to book hotels directly through a toll-free service, operated by S.F. Reservations, which does not pay commissions.

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