San Francisco CVB's Res Service Will Not Pay Agent Commissions

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By Laura Del Rosso

SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau plans to launch a hotel reservations service on Sept. 1 that will not pay agency commissions. The CVB said it contracted a call center to operate the hot line, (888) STAY-N-SF, which will be promoted in bureau publications and in a national ad campaign starting Sept. 1.

"It's unfortunate that [those who] promote San Francisco choose to slap the wrists of those who send the most people there," said Stan Jones of Montrose Travel in Montrose, Calif., and an ASTA area director. "It's certainly not an incentive for travel agents to book San Francisco." Jones said he planned to bring up the matter at the Society's board meeting during the ASTA World Travel Congress, which is being held in Glasgow, Scotland, Sept. 7 to 13.

Deborah Reinow, vice president of tourism for the San Francisco bureau, said the program would have been too expensive to operate if it had incorporated commissions. "We know people are not going to like this, but we hope that they recognize that the bureau provides a high level of service to travel agents and always has," she said.

The toll-free number connects callers to a center operated by San Francisco-based Topaz Hotel Reservations. The firm also operates S.F. Reservations, one of the most frequently called hotel hot lines in the city. The hot line is designed as a service for consumers and a revenue source for the bureau, which, like most bureaus in the U.S., is suffering from declining levels of public financing, Reinow said.

Hotels that choose to participate -- and all the major chains in San Francisco have signed on -- pay Topaz Hotel Reservations $19 for each booking generated by the toll-free number. Of that amount, $5 goes to the bureau, which will use the funds for marketing, Reinow said. Travel agents calling the hot line are told that bookings are not commissionable and are given the bureau's tourism department number for help with bookings that are commissionable.

Consumers who call are led through a series of questions to narrow the choice of hotel. Topaz's computerized database of hotels will give them three choices, selected at random and based on the criteria the callers provided. Reinow said the bureau has no projections on the number of room nights that might be booked during the yearlong contract with Topaz.

ASTA's Jones said he is aware that many bureaus have moved into the reservations arena, but he said he is not bothered by those that have set up hotel room clearinghouses for large conventions, for example. The San Francisco program is disturbing, he said, because it is a year-round service designed for travelers who normally might use agents. "It's a big problem to me, because the bureau is now becoming a travel agent," he said.

In the past, initiatives by CVBs in Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta to launch consumer reservations services angered travel agent communities, which led to the scuttling or modifications of those bureaus' plans. But more and more bureaus are considering such services, both as a means to generate more room nights and to raise revenues for bureaus, said Karen Jordan, president of the International Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus. "Bureaus are looking at alternative revenue sources because their budgets have been cut and they are finding it difficult to compete with limited marketing dollars," she said.

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