California's travel industry is again debating the state's practice
of taking hotel bookings over the Web and toll-free phone lines,
under a contract with two private firms.
Travel agents support a bill in the legislature (SB 1606) to end
the practice. Groups representing travel suppliers, on the other
hand, say the bill is too broad and could jeopardize other
programs, such as the production of visitor guides. Besides, they
say, agents have bigger fish to fry.
We've seen this movie. This debate was played out in California,
and in these pages, two years ago when the idea was hatched. The
plan went ahead despite agency protests, but the Division of
Tourism, to its credit, agreed to put a link on its site so that
Web users could choose to hook up with a travel agent.
The site offers two choices: "Click Here to Make On-Line Lodging
Reservations" and "Click Here to Use a Travel Agent."
We chose the latter and found the promised links to ASTA and
ARTA. But ARTAOnline is still under development and offers no way
to locate a travel agent. ASTAnet has a search engine, but if you
select California from the list of destinations, which users would
be expected to do if they just hyperlinked from a California page,
then the ASTA search engine doesn't work, no matter what ZIP code
you're in (we tried a dozen).
California should not be running a hotel-booking service in
competition with travel agents, even if it outsourced the project
to private companies, and even if agents have bigger fish to fry,
which they do.
It is right for agents to fight this. But it's hard to suppress
the notion that they'd be more right if they had also managed to
make better use of the opportunities that the California Web site
presented to them. Nothing will make people book on line faster
than a dead link to the alternative.