prominent commentator on the e-travel scene was speaking in New York the other day about leisure travelers and what lures them on line -- and what keeps them on line. His answer? "It's not just a price game."

With those words, Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research may have stated the obvious, but the obvious bears repeating from time to time. After all, if price were the only thing that mattered, we'd all be driving Yugos to the airport to catch a flight on Southwest or AirTran, and nobody would be staying at the Four Seasons.


Recapping Forrester's recent research on the matter, Harteveldt said, "The site experience matters ... as much as the price," adding that successful Web sites must provide a satisfying customer experience, with easy on-line help, access to customer service and easy navigation and booking functions.

This is another way of saying that it's not enough for aspiring airlines to match Southwest's fares if the flight attendants are snarling at the passengers and the flights are never on time.

It's another way of saying that travel retailers, whether on line or off, have to do more than "distribute" the product.

It's another way of saying that you have to deliver value. Value was a big buzzword a few years ago. We haven't heard it much lately. The word didn't figure prominently in Harteveldt's presentation, but the concept was clear: It's not just a price game; the experience matters.

If it's true on the Web, it's true off line, and there's no marketplace where it can be more true than in the market for leisure travel, where the product itself is an experience.

A chip and a modem can say "Welcome, Terrence," and that may be enough for e-commerce. But in the real world, nothing beats a smile, a handshake and "Hi, Terry -- hey, have a seat."

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