NEWS - Agent Issues
By, Laura Del Rosso
In the uncertain world of e-commerce, one thing is clear: More people are
researching travel on the Web than buying. The latest Travel Industry
Association of America research shows that 25 million travelers booked on line
in 2000, but another 34 million looked but did not book.
Trend-watchers say most people prefer to talk to a live person for complex
travel plans, and many still fret over credit card security.
This sets the stage for a new kind of partnership -- one between travel
agents and a new breed of Web company offering referrals to those agents.
The lead-generation companies claim to have what agents want: clients who are
screened and proven ready to buy a trip. And agents have what the traveler wants
and what the Web companies would like to deliver: personal service and
The scramble to snare agent-experts as participants in the untested referral
plans started about a year ago.
Key players include the likes of eGulliver, Ez2plan.com and Webeenthere.com -- all looking to attract a coterie of
traditional retail agents, promote them as travel experts or specialists and
offer their services to consumers who are looking for travel on the Internet.
The thinking is that by giving consumers the option of e-mailing an agent who
specializes in the activity or destination they are looking for, Internet
lookers can be turned into bookers in an off-line environment that is more
personal and hence more comfortable to them. As the tipster, the referring Web
business would earn a fee of some kind from the agencies.
Another group of referral sites, among them Respond.com and Netgenshopper.com (which has an agreement with the Institute
of Certified Travel Agents), offers referrals for a number of professions, not
In addition, traditional agencies and consortia, such as American Express,
Carlson Wagonlit, Travelbyus, Vacation.com and Virtuoso, have Web site features, based on ZIP code, specialty
or both, that are meant to bring consumers to their members or affiliates.
While it is too soon to say who will come out the winners, some early
attempts at a clicks-and-bricks strategy have fallen short of expectations.
Last year, Travelocity
and Virtuoso, the luxury agency network, signed a deal in which the on-line
mega-agency offered its users the option of connecting to a high-end travel
Travelocity charged consumers a $25 fee to contact a Virtuoso agent; this was
meant to ensure that the consumers were serious about buying travel (the fee was
taken off the price of a trip, if booked).
But Virtuoso officials conceded the fee didn't work, and the program is in
Lisa Bertini, Virtuoso's director of Internet product marketing, said the fee
is no problem once the consumer has a relationship with the travel agent, "but
paying a fee without knowing that person is trickier."
She said Virtuoso is talking with Travelocity about a new referral system,
without the fee.
Meanwhile, the network entered into agreements with Altrec, an on-line seller of
outdoor gear, and other companies that feature on their Web sites a link via
Virtuoso to its travel specialists.
"We have 600 agents who have signed up," said Perry Lungmus, Virtuoso's
executive vice president of marketing. "That's encouraging to us because it's
still very early in the business model."
New York-based WeBeenThere.com, in business since January, has signed 220
agents. Under its business model; agents pay nothing to participate or receive
leads, which they receive by phone or e-mail.
The site was just launched and marketing has not begun, so it is too soon to
release any figures, said company president David Feit.
Unlike eGulliver and others, the core of the firm's revenue stream will be
from travel and nontravel-related Web sites seeking links to travel consultants,
He said he believes sites are willing to pay for the opportunity to provide
their users a link to travel experts because it creates more "stickiness" --
more of a reason to use and return to a site. No partner sites have yet been
"The ability to contact travel experts in a certain area adds greater content
to a site," he said. "For example, if [an agent] has a site about Greece, he can
integrate [a site link] to our Greek travel experts."
The firm also hopes to charge fees to wholesalers and travel vendors that
want to promote products to Webeenthere agents. Feit said he believes vendors
will be willing to pay to participate because they will reach high-quality
Suppliers also can buy space on the consumer side of Webeenthere's site to
promote a destination or product, but only with a link to Webeenthere's agents
who specialize in that destination or product.