Travel trade targets UK market through the Web

Website operators are hard at work, ensuring that British Web surfers don’t miss out on their holidays.

This week new media agency CHBi announced it has been appointed by the UK subsidiary of hotel chain Best Western to develop a UK site aimed at promoting its chain of 220 UK hotels. The site will complement the chain’s existing US and international online marketing activity and offer a direct booking facility to online customers.

Meanwhile, Britain’s leading Website, Yahoo! UK & Ireland, announced the official launch of its Yahoo! Accommodation service, offering travellers an automated selection service covering 31,000 UK hotels.

The service was launched informally at the end of last year and has attracted 140,000 visits, generating hundreds of bookings a week, according to Yahoo! UK’s producer Ralph Averbuch.

Yahoo!’s partner in this project is the InferNet Group, which is operating the online booking service and call centre. This forms the backbone of the “aggregator” site, bringing together information on hotels featured in the service.

Both of these sites will compete in an already crowded market sector. Six months ago, US company Travelocity launched its UK-specific site, allowing consumers to make reservations for scheduled flights, car hire and hotel accommodation.

Meanwhile, EMAP Online has been aggressive in building its presence in the sector.

In July last year, EMAP launched alongside database operator Comtec (Europe). Its site offers online booking for a range of package deals provided by major brand names including Thomson, Airtours, First Choice and Kuoni.

Then, in December, it launched, which gives access to 33,000 UK hotels and guest houses, online booking and price comparison for all airlines, and ferry information.

Roger Green, joint managing director of EMAP Online, says EMAP’s two mainstream travel sites, plus its niche skiing holiday service, are now achieving levels of turnover equivalent to a “very large and busy high street agency”.

And he sees no irony in sites which are competing for online custom making use of the same “back-end” suppliers., for example, uses the SAABRE service which is the backbone of the Travelocity site.

“We will see more sites sharing the same back-end systems, but presenting their booking services differently. Some sites will be successful, some won’t.”

So what lies behind this up-swing in UK-specific online travel services?

According to Mark Curtis, director of CHBi, the surge in travel sites is directly related to demonstrable demands from UK net surfers for online travel services.

“All research coming back shows a lot of people are anticipating using the Internet to make travel arrangements,” says Curtis.

“An NOP survey last year found users ranking travel second only to software as a product category they were likely to buy through the Net.”

Averbuch agrees. “It’s logical that such sites are being developed as one of the first big waves of electronic commerce outside the tech sector,” he says.

“Teletext has built up a very successful business based on the delivery of comprehensive information on flight and holiday availability. So we know that we are supplying something which people want and need. And the convenience and self-selecting element available online is popular with the Internet audience.”

In transactional terms, it is easy to see how online selection and booking can reduce costs and enhance the margins in travel-related transactions, says Averbuch. “The high unit price involved in travel-related transactions, and the potential boost to margins offered by online booking, is why we are seeing people piling into this area,” he says.

But as online operators race to create “aggregator sites” where does this leave the traditional brand – and traditional travel agents?

According to Curtis, the online travel arena is showing signs of “disintermediation” – whereby suppliers deal direct with consumers, cutting out the middleman.

However, he adds: “There’s some role for disintermediation, but these sites are becoming another intermediary. People are dashing to command market share and to establish a position in the Web,” he says.

In the meantime, well-known brands such as Best Western have everything to gain by marketing direct to consumers through the Web, while also remaining open to dealing with traditional travel agencies and new entrants aggregating travel offers on the Web.

“Best Western is a hotel business which people know and trust, so we want to establish the site as a ‘bookmark’ destination for those who want to go direct to the company, to make bookings, confirm hotel locations and room availability,” says Curtis.

Travel brands dealing direct with consumers may enjoy improved margins and the ability to develop further direct marketing activity with customers through the Web.

But established brands also want to ensure that they feature on aggregator sites, says Curtis. “It’s about trying to be everywhere, and maximising opportunities for consumers to book through as many online routes as possible.”

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