Why Do So Few Agents Offer Consumer Booking Tools?

by Marilee Crocker

This is the first of two stories on consumer booking tools

In a development that might surprise casual onlookers, travel agents—in big numbers—have backed away from providing online booking tools for consumers.

The trend is pronounced. Last year just 34% of travel agencies offered online booking tools on their consumer websites, according to ASTA’s research. That’s down from 59% in 2005.

In other words, while OTAs are vying with increased fervor for travelers’ online dollars and as suppliers pour money into consumer-facing booking tools, most agents have determined that investing in online consumer booking is simply not the best use of their resources.

Not for everyone
Even vendors in the business of building and selling consumer-facing booking engines don’t necessarily recommend them for the majority of agents.

Take Passport Online, a leading provider of e-commerce and e-marketing solutions to the travel agency industry. The firm introduced a B2C booking engine to the agency market five years ago.

Passport still sells the consumer booking tool to agents, but the firm has since shifted its strategy, focusing instead on the B2B market for agent portals, according to vice president of business development Marilyn Macallair.

“We have a number of [travel agency] customers that have the consumer-facing site, but they’re not exactly getting a million bookings,” Macallair told Travel Market Report.

The modest returns are reflected in ASTA’s latest research, which found that for the 34% of travel agencies that provide online booking tools, the tools generated an average 10% of revenues in 2014.

Nary a booking
Travel agency owner Chuck Flagg has provided a booking engine on his website ever since his franchisor Cruise Holidays made one available.

Flagg described the current version of the Cruise Holidays booking engine as “very robust” and rich in information. “But I can tell you that I have yet to receive one booking from it,” said Flagg, who is from Canton, Ga.

For agencies like his that “promote the human touch,” the booking engine “is of very little value,” Flagg said.

Cruise Planners / American Express franchise owner Nancy Yoffe shares a similar tale. She’s had Cruise Planners’ B2C booking engine on her website since the franchisor launched it three years ago.

“There were a lot of agents that were really asking for it. But I have never gotten a booking from it,” said Yoffe, who is based in Spartanburg, S.C.

“I was going to opt out of it,” she added. “But I figured: What the heck? What do I have to lose?”

Generates interest
MSW Travel isn’t snagging online bookings either, said Don Raad, owner of the Hicksville, N.Y., TRAVELSAVERS agency.

Like most agencies that have booking tools on their websites, MSW Travel makes use of branded tools, including those from Sandals and Travel Impressions.

The tools have been on the agency’s website for the past three or four years, but for the most part customers don’t use them, said Raad. Instead he keeps the tools there for the branding and “to generate conversation, to generate people.”

Adds credibility
At Cruise Planners / American Express headquarters, Brian Shultz, executive vice president of technology and operations, said agents love it when unexpected bookings land in their inbox via the Cruise Planners B2C booking engine.

But landing online bookings isn’t the only, or even the primary, benefit of the B2C tools for Cruise Planners agents.

“Many [agents] have told us how just having the live booking capabilities adds to their credibility and presents them as an even bigger travel agency powerhouse,” Shultz said.

In fact, Cruise Planners introduced the B2C tool because “we saw a need to offer more services to help expedite the purchasing and servicing of bookings,” said Shultz.

“It was tedious for our travel agents to book elsewhere and then load it into the system. So, we wanted to give great functionality, but also add convenience.”

Convenience factor
One oft-cited advantage of online booking tools is that they give agency clients and prospective customers the ability to shop at their own pace.

“Some customers are more comfortable reviewing sailings or vacation itineraries and comparing prices on their own before talking to an agent. The live booking engine allows them do it in a way that suits their lifestyle,” Shultz said.

Moving things along
At Passport Online, Macallair pointed to another benefit for agents. “We’re finding with customers that have our B2C booking engine that it provides a better qualification for the customer; they get further along in the process before they call the agency.

“So they’re looking at cabins, they’re looking at live inventory, at the options available to them, and then they’re calling the agency,” he said.

Those agency customers “do see the value of it, even though they don’t see the concrete bookings coming through the engine,” Macallair said.

Next time: Deciding to go for it; questions to consider before adding online booking tools to a website. Plus: advice on making it work

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