Maryland tourism adds Travelocity booking engine to Web site

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Travelocity is operating a booking engine on the State of Maryland's tourism Web site and is paying a commission to the state for every sale.

"It isn't the traditional state office of tourism function," said Dennis Castleman, director of the Maryland Office of Tourism. "But I believe this is the future of what state tourism offices will do. It is another step in using technology that is available to provide more information and more service to our customer."

Castleman said the state earns commission on each Travelocity sale on the site.

The booking engine enables consumers seeking travel and vacation information about Maryland to book air tickets, car rentals, hotel accommodations and admission to attractions. The engine went live on Aug. 25 at www.visitmaryland.org.

"The idea behind it is that we make sure that we drive as many tourists and travelers to Maryland as possible," Castleman said.

Maryland is the third state to form a partnership with Travelocity. Travelocity said it has similar arrangements with the Kentucky and Louisiana tourism offices.

The Louisiana agreement also encompasses local tourism bureaus in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans and Shreveport.

Engine isn't the first for site

The Maryland site is no stranger to booking engines. "We have a booking engine from Ocean City [a beach resort on the state's Eastern Shore] and one [powered by Worldspan] through the Maryland Hotel Lodging Association. It has been on our site for years," Castleman said.

The Web site attracts nearly 90,000 unique visitors each month, according to the tourism office.

The decision to team up with Travelocity comes at time when more travelers are turning to the Internet to plan trips.

According to the Travel Industry Association, 78% of Americans researched and booked travel on the Internet in 2005, up from 65% the year before.

At the same time, the Maryland/Travelocity union also underscores how much the travel marketing environment has changed over the years.

In the 1990s, when many states launched tourism Web sites, a few toyed with developing consumer booking capabilities and often met with strong, negative reaction from travel agents and tour operators.

In 1998, for example, the California Travel & Tourism Commission launched a booking system accessible by its Web site and toll-free phone lines. It exasperated travel agents who said they were promised it would include an agent referral system.

Not looking to steal clients

But Castleman said Maryland wasn't attempting to compete with agents or tour operators. "I don't see it as a competitive problem," he said.

Neither, apparently, do agents and operators.

"With online business and everything else, it's a whole different ballgame than 10 years ago," said Judith Thomas, the chairman and CEO of the National Tourism Association and president of Unlimited Tours and Travel of St. Louis. "It's sort of like the nonprofits of 10 years ago that used to be a hot topic at NTA. You have to learn to work with them, not against them."

Thomas did not see the Travelocity partnership as a threat to tour operator business. "We are finding that people go online to get information, but then they want to talk to a real person," she said.

Indicative of the blurring of categories in the last 10 years, Travelocity is a member of the NTA.

"Other tour operators should try to get their links on the site," Thomas said. "I understand that they can."

The theory behind putting a booking engine on a tourist board site, said Bill Maloney, COO of ASTA, is that "when consumers go on the site and get the information and there is no way to make a reservation, the destination may lose the sale and people may go somewhere else."

But the fact that there is no way for travel agents to get in on the action could have "unintended consequences" if travel agents perceive the state as unfriendly to the distribution system, Maloney said.

"So when a client says, 'I want to go to Maryland,' an agent might say, 'Why go to Maryland? Why not go to New York?'"

Although the U.S. Tour Operators Association vigorously opposed a Web booking engine operated by the Irish Tourist Board a few years ago, USTOA President Bob Whitley had no objection to the Maryland site.

"The problem we had with the Ireland site was a government entity using taxpayer money to compete with the private sector and creating an unfair advantage," he said.

Whitley did have questions about the functionality of the Maryland engine, after clicking on the home page's most prominent link for "Best Deals" and finding himself in Travelocity's inventory of packages "to Cancun, Orlando and every other place in the world but only one to Maryland," he said. "It doesn't promote Maryland."

Collette Tours' CFO John Galvin likewise saw no threat in the Travelocity partnership.

"From where we are, it's not a big issue, because ultimately people are going on the site to learn about the destination. The site only offers air, hotel and cars, so it's not competing with escorted tours," he said.

On the other hand, offering commissionable booking on the site to travel agencies might also bring more business to the state, Galvin said.

"Partnering with multiple agencies would seem to be strategically wise," he said.

John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours, said he had little information on the Maryland site, but "I always get nervous when government enters the realm of private industry. Any government that does has to be careful that they have examined the ramifications of selecting one private enterprise over another to promote."

To contact the reporters who wrote this article, send e-mail to Michael Milligan at [email protected] or David Cogswell at [email protected].

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