Different agency site strategies highlight self-booking divide

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Two major agency groups epitomize the ongoing debate in leisure retail travel, taking opposite positions on the question of deploying self-booking tools on agency websites.

Travel Leaders Associates, in the midst of relaunching websites for its member agencies, does not offer self-booking. Travel Leaders did have self-booking tools for its members when it was part of Carlson Leisure Group but abandoned them several years ago.

Liberty Travel, on the other hand, is about to introduce self-booking on its website. It has offered fully shoppable content on its website for years, but it does not offer actual transactions. Instead it had customers submit a query for travel rather than having them start to book online.

Steve Loucks, chief communications officer for Travel Leaders Group, which finds self-booking tools essential on the corporate side, said, “Our tests on the leisure side were frankly disappointing.” The difference, he said, is that online leisure shoppers tend to be bargain hunters.

“Most online shoppers are more interested in getting the lowest price than they are in gaining the most value,” Loucks said.

Allen Silkin, Liberty’s vice president of digital distribution, said Liberty is moving to online booking software because consumer behavior is changing.

“Customers are telling us this is how they want to transact,” Silkin said, adding that Liberty, which is part of Flight Centre USA, has conducted focus groups and observed consumer shopping behaviors worldwide and in other industries.

Consumers can start and complete their booking online with Liberty or opt to complete the booking with an agent.

“Philosophically, Liberty is poised for the best of both worlds,” Silkin said.
Some agencies opt to offer self-booking tools because they want to capture as much of their customers’ business as possible. Others see it as conflicting with the very strengths that differentiate expert agents from online travel agencies.

“If somebody wants to book a flight and goes to my website and can’t book it on my website, they will turn around and go to Expedia,” said Andi McClure-Mysza, president of MTravel, the host agency arm of Montrose Travel (No. 54 on the Travel Weekly’s 2012 Power List). “I don’t want them to do that. I want them to do that with me.”

Montrose has business-to-consumer booking tools on its own retail website and offers them to MTravel members for their websites. McClure-Mysza said that most online travel bookings are simple transactions. Clients might have a simple two-day trip that they can easily book themselves and won’t bother calling their travel agent about.

“They are missing out on this additional volume,” she said of agents who shun online booking software. “They are missing an opportunity to manage the lion’s share or 100% of a traveler’s share of business, because, by definition, they’d be driving them somewhere else. To me, it is an absolute no-brainer.”
Some agencies opt for a hybrid model.

Signature Travel Group is a co-op whose members include agencies with a variety of models that can range from 100% online to those who do most of their marketing online but do most of their transactions one-on-one, by email or phone.

Some Signature members do online bookings for mass-market cruise lines because they take as much time to book as a luxury cruise but generate a smaller commission, said Karen Yeates, executive vice president of information technologies for Signature.

An agency that offers self-booking for less profitable cruises spends less money on management, she said. On the other hand, an agency that works directly with customers can upsell a customer by showing them that the contemporary cruise they first considered actually costs the same as a premium cruise.

They can upsell clients to a luxury cruise that charges for everything up front rather than charging passengers on the cruise for drinks and shore excursions. That way, the agency earns a commission on all of the clients’ cruise ship spending, Yeates said.

Ensemble Travel Group offers its agencies a consumer-facing website called Client Site, said Libbie Rice, co-president of Ensemble, but this does not include business-to-consumer booking engines.

However, Ensemble does partner with some vendors, such as Passport Online’s Tandem cruise booking engine, which can provide agencies with self-booking capabilities.

It also supports Revelex, which builds travel technology solutions for travel agencies. Members can also find outside vendors for self-booking tools, and Client Site will support that as well, Rice said. Ensemble members, too, have varied models and differing opinions on self-booking, Rice said.

Some want to be full service and want a site that is aspirational and supports searching and dreaming but not booking.

Others, particularly large producers, want to be able to capture customers’ sales when they want to book at midnight. One member does online booking but calls online customers to engage them, sometimes completing the transaction offline, Rice said.

American Express recognizes that sometimes travelers want a do-it-yourself solution, said Tony Gonchar, American Express Representative Network, which provides white-label self-booking for agencies.

“We also know that for those once-in-a-lifetime, special-interest trips or complex itineraries, travelers are looking for more in-depth support from agents who can provide expertise in their area of interest,” he said.

Travel Leaders’ new website features biographies of agents and describes their expertise. One Travel Leaders agency, in San Jose, Calif., booked a $32,000 Italy vacation within a month of the relaunch (Travel Leaders is rolling out individual websites gradually). A consumer contacted one of the agency’s agents after finding out through the agency website that the agent was an Italy specialist.

“A new client and a $5,000 commission in the first month of launching the new site,” Max Nelson, the agency’s COO, reported.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.

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