Firms offer research on Web, book on phone

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ost hotels, attractions, activity outfitters, car rental firms, shops and restaurants these days have Web sites that can be quickly and easily pulled up at any time of the day.

But apparently many travel agents aren't taking advantage of the Internet as an information source.

In fact, some admit they're Web-phobic.

"Many agents still ask us for information via mail and fax [when] with the Web they can access what they need immediately," said Krislynne Markey Patterson, manager of Travel Trade Development, North America, for the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau (HVCB).

Every form and schedule is available on the HVCB's www.gohawaii.com Web site, Patterson said.

Having visited the islands numerous times, some agents said they don't feel the Web is necessary; they sell Hawaii based on personal experiences, which, they point out, is better than using a second-hand source. Others said they rely on their preferred wholesalers to provide them with information.

One agency executive, who declined to be identified, said her company discourages agents from surfing the Web during the workday.

"There's no time for that," she said. "The bottom line is a priority; and we want our agents on the phone booking business, not spending hours checking out Web sites."

That said, she added, "Most of our clients go on line themselves to research hotels, activities, transportation, etc., then call us to make the reservations."

Do it yourself

Hawaii Visitor Center, based in Denver, has capitalized on that concept by creating its own Web site, at www.hawaiivisitorcenter.com, that enables browsers to customize their island vacation and receive an instant price quote.

To assist users in the planning process, the site touts "the best available fares from all the major airlines, rates for more than 500 hotel/condo properties and the best car rental and transfer rates."

Once travelers make their choices, they're asked to call the firm's toll-free number to talk to an agent who can answer their questions and book the getaway.

The site was launched in 1996, when Internet use was just taking off.

"Back then," said Steve Nicol, the company's founder and president, "20% of our clients did their research on line, while 80% preferred to call us and have brochures mailed to them.

"Today, 90% of our clients use our Web site. Because of that, we no longer print and mail brochures. Our brochure is now available on line, and clients can print as much or as little of it as they want."

One woman visited the site and requested pricing for 300 different vacation scenarios, which turned out to be beneficial for the agency and the client, Nicol said.

"An agent wasn't tied up on the phone for a long period of time, and the customer was able to do all her research in the comfort of her own home."

Keep it current

Although Hawaii Visitor Center's site is attractive and easy to use, more attention needs to be paid to accuracy.

For example, click on Chinese in the Oahu restaurant section and you'll see two options: Kahala Mandarin Oriental, which actually is a luxury hotel, not a restaurant, and Little Hong Kong, which serves precooked food cafeteria-style. There are far better alternatives in Honolulu.

One of the Italian suggestions, Salerno, closed several years ago. And although it's a worthy recommendation, the listing for the lone restaurant in the French category, Le Guignol, contains an old address and phone number.

On the plus side, the site's hotel section provides details on properties statewide, right down to the year they were built, the number of elevators and distance from the airport.

Headquartered in Honolulu, Panda Travel also is tapping the Web's fullest potential.

"We know that the Internet is the way of the future for travel bookings, and, as a seller of discount travel, we want to be part of that future," said Anna Doell, Panda's senior executive manager.

The company has an Internet department with five full-time agents handling Web bookings, along with a graphics department that focuses on updating the site, Doell said.

By clicking an option on www.pandaonline.com called Hawaiian Hottrips, travelers can make prepaid air, hotel and car arrangements in the islands.

"Confirmation is immediate," said Doell, "and passengers don't need to contact our Internet department unless they have questions or are trying to do something out of the ordinary."

Besides the FIT site, Panda maintains www.pantours.net, designated solely for the use of travel agencies.

The password-controlled site pays agents 17% commission on Hawaiian Hottrips packages and 10% on inbound packages.

An air-only link spotlighting bulk rates soon will be added to the site. Agencies wishing to access www.pantours.net can obtain a password from Panda by providing a copy of their license or registration.

Doell said she believes today's traveler is definitely Web-savvy and "this will continue to be the case as the younger generation becomes of age and starts to make their own vacation plans."

Hawaii Visitor Center's Nicol concurs. "Sept. 11 had a devastating effect on the travel industry. That, coupled with the airline commission cuts, has forced a lot of agencies out of business.

"As more and more agencies close or merge, the number of people using the Web for travel is going to grow exponentially. People are accepting the fact that the Internet is the way travel is being booked now."

Meanwhile, the major wholesalers have installed booking engines that enable agencies to make online reservations as opposed to calling toll-free numbers and being placed on hold, he said.

"These wholesalers still rely on travel agents as their distribution channel," Nicol said. "However, they are turning to the Web to make their products more accessible. It is far more cost-effective for wholesalers to sell their products via the Web than to use the traditional GDSs or voice lines."

In his opinion, the writing is on the wall: "I believe that travel agencies that do not embrace the Web are doomed to failure."

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