Richard TurenIn August, I attended our annual consortium bash, a weeklong travel industry immersion starring some of the industry's top agents and suppliers from every worldwide segment. The 3,700 attendees talked, listened and learned together, and then the serious stuff took place over evening cocktails and dinners.

One of the most interesting issues I heard raised at the meeting was actually brought up during a lull in the action, poolside, by Heinz Rufer and Jim Altenbaumer of Beale Travel in Chicago.

When I asked them what story we might be missing at Travel Weekly, they both stated, almost in unison, that the big story is how badly most suppliers have overestimated our clients' use of the Internet.

"About 40% of our clients don't even use the Internet," they said.

Of those who do, they added, many are not comfortable enough going, say, to a cruise line site to sign up for dinner reservations or shore excursions.

"So now we have a new job," Heinz said. "We have to go online and help them understand how to do all of the various registrations."

I spoke with a number of other agency owners and managers who felt that suppliers, particularly cruise lines, were grossly overestimating the number of their clients who were Internet-savvy.

Several agents mentioned their feeling that cruise line websites are "direct booking universities," but they see no way to keep their clients off of them other than, as one cruise-centric agency owner put it, "to devote still another hour on each file without any compensation for our efforts. Give the cruise lines credit, Richard: They are now getting us to be online clerks, doubling the amount of time we spend on each reservation without any additional payment for our efforts. Their only response is to increase the amount of their noncommissionables."

It is really difficult to pinpoint how many of our clients are Internet-savvy, and obviously it will vary agency by agency, based on the average age of the clientele.

From all I have observed, our clients seem younger and younger, but I have no reason to doubt Jim's and Heinz's observations. In fact, one survey I read several years ago indicated that the number of people who have Internet service and then cancel it exceeds 20 million annually.

It made me remember that an executive of a luxury hotel-package wholesaler called me awhile back to say that his company had just decided to eliminate all printed brochures. All information would henceforth be online.

"How did you reach this rather startling decision?" I asked.

"We did two major travel agent focus groups, and the responses were nearly identical," he replied. "They recommended that we get rid of our brochures. They felt that it would help us make an environmental statement, and they said that their clients were all researching on the Internet anyway. They felt that our brochures were just not being used anymore."

The focus group of agents, he said, had reported that clients were starting to complain about the number of trees that have given their lives in the name of deck plans and itinerary charts.

After pausing to think this over, I asked just where in California those focus groups had been held.

"How did you know they were held in California?" he wanted to know.

This had not required major detective work. In fact, I learned, they had been held in San Jose and Los Angeles, and it doesn't surprise me at all that the recommendation in the land of endless summer was to eliminate brochures.

But we need to have a Chicago-based focus group and a Brooklyn-based focus group, along with some Texans the next time a company decides to eliminate brochures. My theory is that during the colder months in the Northeast and Midwest, brochures are primarily read in bed or in the bathroom. People do not sit at a desk reading travel brochures, and it might be considered a tad rude to start reading one during dinner with the family.

The focus groups I have conducted in Chicago, using my own clientele, tell me that 68% of all cruise-buying decisions are made after careful perusal in the bathroom. That is why most cruise itinerary descriptions are about a three-minute read.

The conversation brought to mind the quote from former President Jimmy Carter, who said, "Whatever starts in California unfortunately has an inclination to spread."

Among agents, there is more than a little pent-up anger, I discovered, about cruise lines' less-than-subtle attempts to turn our clients into click-and-book consumers on their websites. It starts with information gathering, which leads to tempting offers, which lead to direct booking, often facilitated by a chance to "chat" with a live agent.

Just when a single-product, commission-based sales headset became an "agent" is another column for another time.

But now, travel agents are being asked to help guide our clients as they traverse the supplier's site, scanning a smiling stock photo of an attractive reservationist, with the toll-free number plastered on virtually every page.

Now I don't deny any corporation the right to snag direct fish on public property. But I get perturbed when they start fishing in my backyard pond.

The studies on Internet use and its relationship to bookings are all over the place. In the latest NFO Plog Research Group study, 54% of respondents said the Internet was a reliable way to make travel bookings. But that included business travelers, who are more likely than vacationers to trust the Internet.

The good news is that in the previous year's study, 67% of the respondents had said they thought the Internet was a reliable way to make bookings. That's quite a drop.

Despite our unwillingness to view this as a war in which true consultants who have the client's interests at heart directly take on the Internet juggernauts, it appears that we are making progress.

Still, I believe there is a major disconnect between supplier assumptions and the actual number of Internet-savvy clients who are willing and able to confirm the intricate details of their bookings online.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].

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