If you work the supplier side, you definitely have one or two websites. If you are a travel seller, you likely have one website. These sites tend to define our corporate identity, but sadly, we all seem to look very much alike.
Hotel, tour operator and cruise line sites have all read the same manual. These are the assumptions underlying the vast majority of sites:
1) We are both a booking engine and an image dispenser.
2) Unlike your average travel seller, we have an actual marketing department staffed with pros, so we can load up our site with video and really cool photography. We can dazzle you in some very special ways so that you will not be tempted to go back to your travel agent's boring website again.
3) The latest deals are right here, and only here. Everyone else has incorrect pricing.
4) There is no need to consider your booking decision. One of our trained consultants will, if we are using the latest technology, pop up and ask you to chat. They can then close the sale and earn a commission.
5) We need you to register. We just can't be giving out our incredible deals to anyone. We will then be email pals for the rest of your days on Earth.
6) We have a special relationship with our suppliers that no one else has. There is no sense shopping; you have found the best place to book.
7) Look at our drop-down menus. See how easy we make things for you. You don't have to search the internet. It is all here for you. Click our "Book It" button quickly and realize all your travel dreams.
8) We accept all credit cards. Easy. Canceling or making changes to an online booking? Well, OK, not so easy.
9) We have lots of pretty pictures for you to look at. Click on some of them and fun things begin to happen. If you look carefully some of our water shots actually ripple. There's a widget for that.
10) We're not going to give you too many facts or too much to read, just enough to get you to click the "Purchase" button.
11) We'll offer some reviews and tell you some nice things about our products. We'll even share some favorable comments from people just like you who use this site. Sure, some of them are relatives of folks in our marketing department, but you won't know that.
12) One important thing we always want you to know: You can book our cruises, our tours or our hotels by calling us directly on our toll-free number.
Oh, and if you really feel like it, you can use a travel agent. But, seriously, call our toll-free number, and you will be connected to our call center. Here, you will speak to a commission-based worker who will do everything we've trained them to do to get you to book (and they are rewarded for upselling). Of course, although we give them names like "agent" or "consultant," it is highly unlikely they have actually experienced our product line.
They won't know who you are, they won't understand your specific needs, they won't know about your past travel history or your health. But you know what? We're going to charge you the travel agency commission on our website even though you're not going to be speaking to a real travel agent.
13) After you leave our site, you really haven't left it for good. We now know who you are, and we can get on your computer any time we care to with ads highlighting the kind of travel we think interests you. We'll be hard to forget.
• • •
Then there is the other side of the internet consumer coin. Travel agencies have their own sites and commissioned agents often have their own websites. It is likely the agency belongs to one of the major consortia, which provide their own websites that can be custom-designed for agency or agent use. The home-based agent now has access to a world supply of travel products neatly arranged for sale.
Most agency sites tend to mimic the marketing thrust of the large travel supplier sites with one major difference: The agency site has to promote the value of using a specific person to handle the consumer's travel. So the agency website has a dual function. Yes, it is selling product, but at the same time, it must sell the expertise of its agents. They must stand out from the pack.
So, in a nutshell, that is the internet playing field. The company, the airline, the hotel chain, the cruise line all want to keep it all in-house. The agency thinks the consumer ought to receive something they are actually paying for: the services of a competent professional who knows the industry and who will take a truly personal interest in the outcome of the booking. At least, the competent professionals see it that way. And, yes, I know they are in a minority.
So it has always been in this fast-changing digital life we lead. But one thing has changed, and the scales are now tilting in the direction of the supplier. They have learned how to control access and information. They can do things on their sites that the travel agent cannot do.
Visitors can list a profile with a tour operator or tell a hotel chain what kind of pillow they prefer. They can book shore excursions on a cruise line's website and make dinner reservations at specialty restaurants. They have to tell some tour operators whom to call in an emergency and some now require a health questionnaire.
The supplier has learned how to become the repository of further activity for the now-booked guest. Even those guests who have been working with agents for years are subjected to the latest supplier online experience. Like any lab rat, our clients learn what they can now do exclusively online.
They can now request that the refrigerator in their room at certain properties be stocked with favorite beverage brands. They can arrange to have their feet massaged just after a morning hike in the woods, which they have scheduled online.
They are in some subtle ways, and some not-so-subtle ways, being trained to "use the machine" to get some instant satisfaction in the form of an instant confirmation.
Teaching our travel lab rats to use the machine to get instant rewards is an ongoing process, but every consultant is aware of the inroads this approach is making.
No supplier will ever say publicly that its online booking system is increasingly designed for the purpose of increasing that percentage of guests who book online directly. Even so, it is true.
Wall Street encourages travel corporations to increase direct bookings whenever possible, because cultivating direct clients online has measurable bottom-line advantages.
So how is the agent with a single website to compete? How does David actually compete with Goliath?
"Shock and awe" is my response. Don't play on the same field. When they zig, you zag. Virtually all popular travel sites have one thing in common:
They insult the intelligence of the user, assuming that they will buy into all of the phony deals and ad hype. The lone agent can't match an entire marketing department whose aim is to bring online searchers in-house.
But there is one way that the lone agent can compete. There is one possible way to beat them at their own marketing game: Stop selling and start talking. Be the voice of reason and truthfulness. Take specific claims made online and show how they are exaggerated or untrue.
Here's a quick test. I would like you to find an unbiased, professionally written, ad-free review of the best hotel in Positano, Italy. Quick, see if you can find one. You can't. It doesn't exist. What you will find are dozens of websites claiming to have information. But after investigation, you will discover they are really just booking centers.
Think of the poor online consumer who knows less about it than you do. They may turn to TripAdvisor, which, by the way, does not require that one has actually stayed at a property in order to review it.
The internet is essentially run by large groups of marketing types, most with dozens of pseudo email addresses, whose primary job is to generate positive buzz.
But you can stand alone in the face of slick websites, and you can be the professional voice of truth and reason. I think that is the only way that David (or Denise) can beat these Goliaths.