On-line travel blasts off into cyberspace

Let a keyboard or mouse be your travel accessories

'. . . I feel more in control than going through an agent'

Rosemary MacCracken

CanWest News Service

Sunday, August 21, 2005


PHOTO ILLUSTRATION ó THE PROVINCE

From her home or office, computer-savvy people like Mandy Moore can check out the destination she would like to visit and book online.

The Internet is helping people like Mandy Moore realize their travel dreams. From the comfort of her home or office, she can check out the destinations she'd like to visit, find out what services and entertainment are available, and see what flights, hotels and car rentals cost.

Moore, 31, takes five or six trips a year and always shops for travel online, comparing two or three providers. "I sit at a desk all day, so it's easy to click around and see what's available," she says. "And I feel more in control than going through an agent. I can see range of prices and other options."

A 2004 study of online travel by TNS Canadian Facts says one in five travellers used agents to make their bookings, compared with 12 per cent who purchased from full-service travel websites. And those who use the Internet are not all enthusiastic about the experience. The study found 37 per cent were fully satisfied, 50 per cent were somewhat satisfied and 10 per cent were decidedly unimpressed.

Walid Salem, director of customer relationship management at the Canadian Tourism Commission's e-marketing group, cites a recent report published by PhoCusWright Inc., which surveys online travellers in the U.S. It found that four in 10 travel shoppers have browsed at online travel sites but ultimately purchased directly from suppliers.

"Online providers can clearly improve their footing with travellers," says Salem. The CTC is an Ottawa-based consortium of public- and private-sector tourism partners.

The key to doing so, he adds, "may be selling multiple travel components -- such as flight, hotels, car and tours -- in one online package." He notes a 400-per-cent jump in online U.S. travel package spending to $4 billion US in 2004 from $1.2 billion in 2002. "And that market is projecting spending of $10 billion in 2006."

The full-service travel websites have been delivering travel packages since the mid-1990s, adding features and refinements over the years and Salem predicts the online arms of mainstream travel outfits will be following this model.

Expedia.ca started serving the Canadian market in 1997, a year after Expedia.com, the mother company, was launched in the U.S., and its site has gone through about 18 revisions. Today, with a click of a mouse, visitors can search for flights, hotels or flight-hotel packages, and create their own unique holidays. Expedia partners about 20,000 hotels, and provides a wealth of visual and written information on each.

"We clearly indicate what hotels are child-friendly, and you can also search according to amenities," says Sean Shannon, Expedia.ca's Toronto-based managing director. "If you're going to Orlando and you've got to have a pool for the kids, the Wyndham Orlando Resort offers two children's pools, three outdoor splash pools, and shuttles to Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Wet 'n' Wild."

Travel insurance can be added to an Expedia.ca package, as can transportation to and from the hotel. Sightseeing tours and entertainment can also be booked at many travel destination locations.

Travellers to Dublin, Ireland, for instance, can book a 90-minute Dublin tour or day trips outside the city, while visitors to New York can purchase tickets to Broadway shows playing during their stay in the city.

"You can book all the components of your trip before you leave home," Shannon says, "and not waste precious travel time making decisions."

U.S.-based Travelocity operates in a similar way. Flight/hotel packages can be created by keying in the departure city and destination, and hotel searches can be narrowed by clicking on desired amenities such as swimming pools or fitness centres. Last-minute deals are also flagged. But keep in mind that Travelocity prices are in U.S. dollars and some of its flight routes are not as direct as those offered by Canadian providers.

Flights, hotels and insurance can be booked with Air Canada's online travel partner, Destina.ca, but there is less of an emphasis on the "package" than with Expedia.ca or Travelocity. Shoppers can check out what flights and hotels are offered, but book these separately. Hotels can be located near particular landmarks at travel destinations, or found according to the amenities they offer. And travellers earn Aeroplan Miles for all flights and hotel bookings.

The feature of shopping for flights on aircanada.com or destina.ca is that viewers see a grid listing the prices for a range of days around their departure and return dates.

Viewers may see, for instance, that they will pay a lower fare if they return the day after their planned return date and can adjust their times accordingly.

Canadian Tourism Commissionís Walid Salem says four in 10 travel shoppers have browsed online but ultimately purchased directly from suppliers.

You can book your flight directly with an airline such as Air Canada (shown taking off from Vancouver above) and book your stay with a resort in Orlando, Fla., that has a shuttle to Universal Studios (below).

"The web allows us to provide greater transparency to customers," says Laura Cook, Air Canada's Toronto-based communications manager. "The customer is in the driver's seat. He can choose the flight and fare that suits his need."

Air Canada customers can also check in for their flights online, determine the flight departure or arrival status and register to receive alerts of any flight changes via e-mail, pager or text-enabled telephone.

Packaging now includes extended families living across the continent.

Moore frequently vacations with relatives who live in the U.S. Two years ago, her family reunited around Christmas in Las Vegas. She arranged flights for her grandmother and brother in Baltimore, her sister in New York, her mother in Fairfax, Va., and cousins in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. This summer, she'll meet her mother and sister for a spa weekend in Massachusetts. "It's more fun getting together away from home," she says.

"Family vacation reunions, particularly to sun destinations, are a growing trend," notes Expedia.ca's Shannon. Visitors to Expedia can set up mock itineraries and e-mail them to others; when a group agrees on the details of a trip, flights and rooms can be booked individually or by one person.

Air Canada online customers can book for up to nine people on Air Canada or Air Canada Jazz flights and on flights operated by Star Alliance partner airlines.

Most online travel sites encourage customers to create user profiles -- with information such as destination preferences and meal requests voluntarily provided by the customer. This allows providers to send out customized e-mail about offers that might appeal to these individuals. There's a big rush in the travel industry to create customer loyalty in this way, Salem says.

"The technology is certainly there, but so far the industry hasn't gone as far with this as the online bookstores have."

Consumers can expect to see more of this customized marketing in the future. Shannon says Expedia is developing ways to offer its customers greater "personalization."

Map it out

Most online travel providers provide maps of the areas in which their properties are located. Call up any hotel offered by Expedia.ca or Destina.ca and you'll be offered a map of its sounding area; if it's in a city, a map of the surrounding neighbourhood will be shown.

Travelocity's properties also come with maps and directions from major airports.

Travellers who want to check out areas away from their hotels, however, will generally have to do their own research but there is online assistance.

Visitors to MultiMap ( www.multimap.com) can look at a continent, a country or a city, then zoom down to a specific intersection. The site also allows visitors to book hotels within blocks of a refined search, and provides door-to-door travel directions.

Need to find out what languages are spoken in Afghanistan? Another site, GeographyIQ (www.geographyiq.com), provides facts, figures, as well as maps, about a host of countries' geography, demographics, economy, government, political system, history and cultural background. A foreign currency converter offers conversion rates from everything from pounds to pesos, rupees and rubles.

WorldAtlas ( www.worldatlas.com) offers an archive of printable city maps from around the world.

Dot travel

As of Dec. 1, consumers will see changes in the web addresses of many businesses, organizations and professionals in the global travel industry. Many domain names will end with the ".travel" extension (as in xyztours.travel).

The Travel Partnership Corp. a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit international consortium of travel industry members, is the sponsor of dot.travel and its goal is to develop and enforce standards for .travel members worldwide.

Candidates for dot.travel domain names will have to display acceptable business practice standards. This will help ensure consumers that these are legitimate travel businesses and organizations, says Susan Wong, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada's communications manager in Ottawa.

"Right now, you don't really know what you're getting with an online travel company."

"It would provide branding and context to an URL," the CTC's Salem says. "Consumers will know from the dot.travel extension that a firm is a travel business. But will it assure the authenticity of a business? That depends on just how it is regulated."

Expedia.ca's Shannon says his company and its sister firms around the world will not be moving to a .travel domain name.

"It may have some relevance for the broader industry," he says, "but it doesn't suit our model. We are set up by country with the .ca extension in Canada -- which means all our content is relevant to Canadians -- .com in the U.S., .de in Germany, .fr in France and .co.uk in the United Kingdom."

SITES TO CHECK OUT

Canadians interested in exploring their own country can research Canadian destinations at user-friendly online visitor centres.

Links to provincial/territorial tourist associations and bureaus can be found at www.tiac-aitc.ca/english/usefullinks.asp. And the Tourism Industry Association of Canada's site at www.tiac-aitc.ca/english/CACVB_members.asp provides links to regional/city tourism bureaus.

For more on travel in Canada, www.shopincanada.com/

Travel_Leisure/Travel_Agencies_Services/

The Last Minute Club: www.lastminute.com

Club Med: www.clubmedvacations.ca

For hotel reservations: www.hotelscentral.com

For discount travel and more, www.canadaretail.ca/Travelguide2.html

© The Vancouver Province 2005