Hotels weave agent component into Web sites

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NEW YORK -- The Web is playing a growing role in Hawaii hotels' efforts to help agents fill their rooms.

And, because tour operators and wholesalers are the primary partners travel agencies work with in selling Hawaii, many hotel Web sites carry substantial information about their products and deals available through them.

"We find that the most effective means of communicating to travel agents is through our wholesale partners and their extensive sales network and preferred agency relationships," said William Koo, assistant vice president of eCommerce for Aston Hotels & Resorts Hawaii.

Aston's most recent agent focus group research found that travel agents rank wholesalers as their No. 1 and most reliable source of information. So when Aston has deals to offer, it offers them through their wholesalers first, the hotel said.

Generally speaking, Hawaii hotels have consumer Web sites that are full of information about their hotels and Hawaii.

Travel agents can educate themselves on the consumer side of a site -- and they also can use some aspects of these sites as sales tools. One example: sending electronic postcards from a site to clients in order to interest them in a Hawaii trip or to illustrate the resort at which an agent may have already booked a client.

Still, hotels are sensitive to the fact that some agents are wary of the Web and the fact that it can be a distribution channel that competes with them.

An example of this awareness is Marriott's care to make sure that its travel agency and tour operator partners always have the best price available.

"Our partners have to feel confident that they are not undercut by us or another third-party site," said Paul Toner, Marriott's area director of marketing, Pacific Islands.

Education

Many Hawaiian hotel sites have agent sections aimed at educating agents and helping them sell. Starwood Hotels and Resorts, for example, has an agent-only section to which agents log on using their IATA number.

It uses this site for agent promotions and to display its information about wholesale partners and discount rates for agents to use for personal travel.

The chain is rolling out its Starwood Travel Agent Educational Program this month. It includes an online educational component available through Travel Weekly and Travel Counselor magazine.

Through its Aloha Amenity program, Starwood provides an online form for getting special incentives on limited-window offers.

Hilton Hawaii integrated the Web into its agency communication plan. HiltonHawaii.com has a special agent section about packages, educational rates, information on its Hawaii Travel Agents HHonors incentive program, and a section in which agents can opt in for the Hilton Hawaii travel-trade newsletter.

The Outrigger Specialist program is on Outrigger's site. It includes a five-part curriculum and a 25-question exam.

Additionally, Outrigger gives amenities compliments of their Outrigger Specialist agent to the agents' clients when the guests arrive at any Outrigger property in the Pacific.

Graduates of the program get gift certificates for their own travel to Hawaii.

Outrigger also provides information on its network of sales agents around the world, destinations, planning, niche markets such as family travel and similar information on its Web site, according to Lisa Tojo, Outrigger's director of interactive commerce.

She added that it plans to redesign both the Outrigger site and the site of sister company Ohana Hotels (all former Outrigger Hotels) to be more interactive and engaging for

travel agencies and their customers.

For its part, Aston works to educate agencies not just on its own hotels but on Hawaii in general in several ways -- by participating in Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau agent workshops on the mainland and by teaming up with tour operators such as Pleasant Holidays to run family seminars.

Through its parent company, ResortQuest International, agents can take a certification program to become a ResortQuest Specialist.

Moving inventory

It's possible to apply for brochures and group RFPs on some hotel sites. Hawaii resorts also promote specials through third-party Web sites that target travel agencies, including Mailpound.

That's an indicator of how e-mail is becoming an important tool for resorts seeking to promote special prices and to sell distressed inventory.

Hawaii hoteliers know that agencies are often inundated with blast faxes. Opt-in e-mails to agencies that have expressed interest in selling Hawaii to their customers is a way to reduce communication with agencies but increase the effectiveness of those communications.

Outrigger sends weekly e-mails and quarterly mailed newsletters to its specialists.

Aston e-mail broadcasts information about its specials and deals through wholesalers.

Hilton provides agencies with turn-key e-mails that they can forward to their customers.

"We think this is a wonderful way to get information quickly to a targeted audience, with the agent retaining the 'call to action,' " said Roberta Rinker-Ludloff, regional vice president of marketing for Hilton Hawaii.

Offline promotion

Of course, these properties are not using the Web alone to communicate with agencies.

Marriott's Toner pointed out that travel agents like face-to-face contact.

Because of that, Marriott, acting on industry research, put together a team of salespeople in the U.S. whose job is making calls to Marriott's top-producing travel agencies to give them updates on Hawaii developments.

All of these hotels have ambitious offline promotions targeting travel agencies.

Hilton Hawaii, for one, plans to launch a travel agent educational program in 2003 that will focus on niche markets important in Hawaii -- honeymoons, families, sports and spas, for example.

And, as is increasingly the case when it comes to hotels, Hawaii and travel agencies, much of this information will be found on the company's Web site.

The Palmer method of online learning

NEW YORK -- Heidi Palmer, a travel consultant with CWT/Chippewa Valley in northern Wisconsin, believes that the Internet is one reason her customers come back to her for future trips and refer other clients to her.

She said she sees it as an invaluable educational tool that supplements information from her primary source: tour operators.

Palmer, a Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau Certified Hawaii Specialist, might get some information about a resort she's booking for a client through her tour operator, but then she goes to hotel and resort Web sites for additional information about both the resort and the destination.

That enables her to provide her clients with more information about what they can see and do.

She said because of this, her clients come home impressed by the amount of information she provided them and her expertise on Hawaii.

As a result, they come back to her and refer others to her, as well.

Palmer uses the Web as a marketing tool, too, showing those clients who still come into her office images of Hawaii and its properties on her computer screen.

Additionally, the Internet is a valuable communication tool for Palmer.

She e-mails information to her clients, who like having it in front of them quickly and with easy access, especially for a complex and relatively expensive vacation like Hawaii.

Palmer's Hawaii business is growing.

The agency pushes Hawaii in a variety of ways -- decorating the office with a Hawaiian theme, hyping it in the agency's annual fall travel show held in nearby Eau Claire and promoting it in newspaper ads. -- K.R.

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