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Selling Travel Online: It's Not Just for the Big Guys

The Web has irrevocably changed how we shop — for electronics, clothing, office supplies, even big ticket items such as appliances, cars and houses. And one of the industries that has benefited the most from the Internet is travel.

"Travel is a category extremely suited to the Internet due to [its] ability to provide efficient access to an extremely wide range of comparable information. Whilst certain areas of the travel industry were initially slow to utilize the benefits of the Internet, it is now one of the undoubted success stories of online, playing an integral part in the arrangements and experience of today's traveler," stated Jonathan Carson, president, International, Nielsen Online.

And it's not just big travel aggregators and discounters like Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline that are benefiting from the trend. It's everyone from your local travel agent to specialty tour companies. Indeed, if you are in the travel business and are not on the Web, your business is probably going nowhere.

Optimizing Your Site to Attract the Right Customers

"The Web is a part of doing business now," said Jim Kackley, the general manager at Thomson Family Adventures, a 10-year-old tour operator which was recently named "Best Family Adventure Tour Operator" by National Geographic Adventure.

"When I first started in the industry, all your advertising and your lead generation would be done through newspapers and magazines — Travel & Leisure, Outside magazine, The New York Times," he recalled. "And you'd spend a lot of money to advertise in those magazines, to get a very low return." But now, thanks to the Web, "you can spend significantly less and get a whole lot more eyeballs looking at your Web site — and hopefully ones that are interested in doing your kinds of trips."

But just having a Web presence is not enough. To attract qualified leads, people who are likely to purchase a trip from you, you need to create a site that is not only visually attractive and easy to navigate but is properly optimized.

"When we first launched our site [in 1998], our net was rather wide," said Kackley. "And because of that we got a lot of fish in the net that really weren't qualified to do our trips. For example, we would get people getting married and planning a honeymoon… and older people without kids. So over the years what we've done is refine the site, through pictures and the wording. As a result, the number of visitors continues to go up, but the number of leads hasn't that substantially, but we're getting more qualified leads."

Bicycle Adventures, a 24-year-old bicycle/multi-sport tour operator out of Olympia, Washington, which launched its first Web site around 1997, has also worked hard to tailor its site to its audience, constantly improving the functionality, navigation, design and attractiveness of the site to prospective customers and the major search engines.

"We really wanted our Web site to be easy to navigate, and clean, so people who come to the site are able to quickly find what they're looking for," explained Martha Travis, Bicycle Adventure's marketing manager. Bicycle Adventures also prides itself on its pictures (many taken and submitted by customers) and descriptive, engaging copy, which is written in house. And to keep the site fresh, the marketing team updates the home page a couple times a month, to showcase new or upcoming trips and/or specials.

While Bicycle Adventures allows visitors to reserve a tour online, that's not how most people book trips or use the site.

"The Web site is a starting point," said Travis. "For a big-ticket item [like a bicycle trip], people really want to talk to a person [before they book]."

Kackley agreed. "You can fill out a [reservation or request] form online, but nobody that I know of is doing online bookings in high-end adventure travel," he said. Rather, they are using the company's Web site to gauge its offerings, comparison shop and determine the travel agent or tour operator's trustworthiness.

Wilton Center Travel, a high-end travel agency based in Wilton, Connecticut, which has been in business for 30 years and has clients in all 50 states, uses its Web site as "an educational tool for our clients," explained Judy White, the owner. "Clients go to our site because we direct them there."

For example, if someone called and said, "I want to go to a dude ranch in Arizona," White or one of her travel agents will typically direct the person to the Wilton Center Travel Web site and tell her to click on Adventure Travel and then Dude & Guest Ranches, where she will see a listing of around 20 dude ranches in Arizona. "That way you can get an idea of what the opportunities are," she said. "Then we'll call back and chat about the advantages of one ranch or trip versus another" and book the trip that fits that family the best.

While clients can (and do) request trips online, White feels it's important for clients to do the actual booking with a live person, or at least via e-mail, a sentiment and practice shared by Thomson Family Adventures and Bicycle Adventures, too.

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