Omega becomes industry's alpha in Web-based diversification

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FAIRFAX, Va. -- Omega World Travel, the country's 10th largest agency in the 1999 Travel Weekly Top 50 listings, put up a Web site called Top9.com that really has nothing to do with travel.

Created by an Omega division also called Top9.com, it ranks the top Internet sites in a variety of categories, including travel, according to their popularity with on-line consumers.

Popularity is determined by PC Data of Reston, Va., which uses meters on computers in some 85,000 households to monitor Internet viewing and shopping habits and has a five-year contract to provide its data to Top9.com.

Although Omega is a travel agency, its new site will be competing not against the Travelocities and Preview Travels of the world, but against other search engines and directories, including some of the biggest and most well-known ones like Yahoo!.

It's a David and Goliath situation, but that doesn't appear to intimidate Dan Bohan, chief operating officer of Omega and president of Top9.com.

Top9.com, which will make money from advertisers, plans to stand out from the crowd by making it easy for on-line consumers to find and link quickly to the best Web sites in whatever category interests them.

Top9.com is designed to minimize the length of each visit rather than keep visitors on line for as long as possible. By enabling consumers to get the job done quicker, "we think we can become as popular as the major search directories; they really don't want to make things simple," Bohan said.

Cruise.com was Omega's first consumer Web venture, and Bohan thinks it makes perfect sense now to venture outside of the travel industry. "It's part of our philosophy of dispersion, of using our talents in [other] areas. Diversification is the name of the game.

"Travel is complicated. If you can understand that, you can understand a lot of other areas," he said.

That's not to say that Omega will be avoiding the Web travel space. Omega has a cache of 3,000 Internet domain names that it purchased several years ago for about $100 apiece, including many that could be identified specifically with the hotel, tour and cruise businesses, he said.

Crowded as the Web travel field may be, Bohan believes there is plenty of room for more and better sites.

Overall, travel was only the 11th most popular category among 16 broad categories ranked on Top9.com, he noted.

Bohan said the Top9.com division will be a "Web incubator" that will build new sites, some that are travel specific and others that are not, and turn the most successful ones into publicly traded companies with employee stock ownership.

Bohan hopes as soon as possible to do an initial public offering of Top9.com, and he plans to take Cruise.com public as well.

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