Despite the success of the mega-online travel agencies, Jetsetz.com CEO Steve Barber feels the big OTAs are missing a key element – customer service.
What’s more, he says, online shoppers are willing to pay a little extra for customer service.
That’s the premise that drove Barber to create Jetsetz, an online booking site for travelers willing to pay a $9.95 fee for customer service.
“Our vision was – from the design of the website to setting up customer service to the fact that we charge a service fee – to provide a booking experience that blends the technology of your traditional OTA with the customer service and expertise of a smaller brick and mortar travel agent.”
And the numbers seem to back up his vision. Launched in mid-October 2011, the company did about $2.5 million in total sales in just two and a half months. For 2012, Barber said he expects Jetsetz to do some $26 million in business for the year.
Shift in focus
“People are starting to come back to the customer service side; they’re sick of waiting on hold,” Barber told Travel Market Report. “They’re sick of trying to speak with someone who doesn’t speak English well. They want a professional.”
A founding member of Travelation.com, an OTA for cheap flights, hotels and car bookings (with which he’s no longer associated), Barber said his original emphasis as an OTA operator was on volume and the efficiencies of technology.
He has since changed his mind. While seamless technology is still an important part of the process, the personal touch is the key differentiator between other OTAs and Jetsetz, Barber said.
“My mindset now is a lot different. Instead of focusing on volume, we want to focus a lot more on quality and customer service. We’re really trying to engage the customer to call us because we feel a travel agent will always be able to provide better service and find better prices that you could through booking online.”
Real agents available
Customer service is offered via tollfree numbers and online chats. Both are staffed by San Diego-based travel agents, all of whom have at least five years of agent experience, Barber said. His lead agent is an ex-American Express corporate agent with 12 years of experience.
“We only hire trained travel agents. We’re trying to build our name on service and a good booking experience. If we start outsourcing our customer service to call centers, that quality of service would drop.
“Everyone says they’re a dying breed, but I think travel agents are as valuable as they’ve ever been. To me the difference between success and failure is my travel agents.”
Customer retention a top priority
Providing better customer service ensures better customer retention, Barber added. Though his previous online booking sites saw high volume, their customer retention numbers were terrible.
“At our peak people were on hold for 10 to 12 minutes; they were very frustrated and our customer retention was terrible. People would come from a Google ad, they’d book travel but most likely we’d never see them again because they were just looking for the cheapest ticket. I didn’t want to go down that path again.”
With agents on hand, customers can call with technical questions or ask for help on complicated itineraries. Jetsetz’s customer service is also proactive, Barber added.
“We’re trying to look at every booking that comes through our system to see if there’s a problem. And if something is not correct we contact the customer within an hour.”
For instance, if someone accidentally books a connecting flight that requires a transfer to another airport, the technology will flag the booking and a travel agent will call the customer to let them know and re-book the flights as needed.
“That type of interaction where we intervene before the problem becomes a bigger problem has really helped our customers and helped us grow our business.”
Taking it upscale
Another key difference Barber said he’s concentrating on is offering mostly upscale business and first-class airfares, though he also offers some three-, four- and five-star properties. Jetsetz has contracts with wholesalers, as well as a few direct airline contracts, in order to be able to provide discounted prices.
“We’re trying to make Jetsetz an upscale booking experience and provide upscale customer service, which is unique in the online travel industry.”
An average sale for Jetsetz is about $730 per ticket, with two tickets per booking, Barber said.