Fed suppliers may rethink using retailers

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ARLINGTON, Va. -- With the prospect of self-booking in the federal government market, car rental and hotel suppliers may question their traditional channels of marketing through travel agents, said Karen Nicola-Preston, director of government and association programs for Dollar Rent A Car.

Travel agents have been the vehicle through which suppliers help influence the government traveler's choice of hotel and car, Nicola-Preston said during a panel discussion at the Society of Travel Agents in Government's annual conference here.

"Having travel agents as our voice has been successful, and, for that, we have paid you a commission," she said. But now the Transportation Department is proposing to develop a Web-based self-booking site for federal travelers, and the Defense Department has set a goal of having the vast majority of its travelers plan their own trips through a common user interface.

In these scenarios, the federal traveler will select the car and hotel "before the travel agent knows about the trip," Nicola-Preston said. "The question then becomes, how do we get the client to select us, out of the range of choices? We don't have you, the travel agent, to drive that decision.

"We have to find a way to get our message out to the traveler and not exclude our travel agent partners," she said, acknowledging that she has no ready answers. Nicola-Preston also said the way suppliers are displayed to travelers in such systems will be "critical." For example, she said, "Can I display my whole fleet?"

Suppliers also must be aware of electronic features such as whether they can transmit electronic upgrades to travelers and whether the system will track usage "so we'll know whether we've spent our money wisely," she said. "We won't be doing business tomorrow the way we did business yesterday," she predicted.

During the STAG conference, a potential rivalry emerged between the DOT's and Defense Department's systems.

Ralph Brown, who runs the consulting firm of R. D. Brown Co. in South Elgin, Ill., and is a consultant to the DOT, gave a presentation in which he said the DOT's self-booking site would be aimed at civilian government travelers but would be open to defense/military travelers, as well.

Col. Al Arnold, head of the Defense Department's re-engineered travel program, immediately rose from the audience and announced that civilian travelers will be welcome to use the department's system. Arnold said the defense system was proposed long before the DOT's.

Brown retorted that the DOT's will be the first one available because it will be ready this year.

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