Interest in social media is so high among the 3,000 or so agencies that buy technology from Passport Online that the firm plans to roll out a social media turnkey starter kit for its agency customers before year's end.
Greg Kott, president and CEO, said that to meet that goal, the company retained a consultant who is conducting research with six agency pilot sites to determine the best ways for retailers to make use of the tools.
Passport Online's key products are VacationPort, a leisure content and shopping engine designed to be added to existing websites, and NexCite, a full-blown website package that includes VacationPort as a component.
The packages don't have booking engines but provide links to other sites for booking.
Passport Online also offers email design and delivery services that integrate with VacationPort and NexCite. It counts among its clients many consortia, franchise programs and host agency groups, along with individual agents and agencies.
Kott said that given the recession, the Beaverton, Ore.-based company had been uncertain what its 2009 business year would bring but had been pleasantly surprised.
This year's customer growth rate has been stronger than in 2008, and customers are requesting more services.
"We weren't certain what to expect," Kott said. "But our sales held up at the same pace, and September is trending even higher.
"Since June, we have seen strong existing-customer calls to upgrade or enhance sites," he said. "Agents are finally spending time actually looking at their sites."
Some agents are simply interested in making changes, maybe redesigning to add some flash or color, Kott said. But others want more.
"We are helping anywhere from three to five agencies a day add some social media component to their website," Kott said. "Many agents are interested in Facebook, Twitter and blogging."
He acknowledged that while social media is the "big recent trend" among Passport Online's clientele, many agencies aren't paying much attention to Web marketing.
The company's customers, most of whom use NexCite and are based in the U.S., are a minority of agency businesses. 'Marketers by nature'
Mary Pat Sullivan, a Passport Online spokeswoman, said the company's customers represent that portion of agencies "who are marketers by nature" and are comfortable with the technology.
Sullivan also said levels of involvement are about the same across all trade groups with Passport Online contracts; about a quarter participate regardless of affiliation, she said.
Passport Online's customers include AAA, the American Express representative network, Ensemble, Travelsavers, Travel Leaders, Uniglobe and Vacation.com.
As for social media, Sullivan said, the subscribers are discovering that they need to keep up with their clients.
Kott added that agents are beginning to recognize social networking tools "as opportunities to start and continue discussions with customers in various forms."
It's a natural fit, he said, because travel agents are social networkers by nature.